The 7 Biggest Mistakes People Make When Planning An Alternative Wedding

I was honored beyond words the first time I was asked to perform a wedding ceremony for a couple. I accepted the invitation and became a registered Wedding Celebrant. Since that first wedding back in 2010, I have had the honor of marrying several couples, all of whom wanted what I call an "alternative wedding," that is, a wedding which is sacred and spiritual, created through the unique expression of spirituality of the couple.

"Alternative weddings" are often desired when the couple feels that the traditional religions (of their families, or of society) do not speak to or resonate with their own unique desire for something sacred.  They want their wedding to be aligned with who they are and have a true spiritual dimension, something more than just the very business-like City Hall wedding or a kitsch Las Vegas drive-though.

All weddings are stressful and intense. This is true for mainstream, conventional weddings and it may be doubly true for weddings that are off the beaten path of people's exceptions.

In my work, I started to notice patterns, the main one being that, more often than not, these alternative ceremonies do not go smoothly and are an emotional roller coaster for all parties involved! Perhaps the simplest example of this is how one's parents and grandparents often want more traditional ceremonies; when you and your partner do not conform to the ideals and expectations of your families, the tension can mount very quickly.

Ordinary tensions that emerge when planning a wedding can turn horribly magnified when planning an alternative wedding. After witnessing this phenomenon several times, I gained a whole new insight into Romeo and Juliet. I felt like saying to one set of future in-laws, “Hey, the Capulets and the Montagues called. They want their storyline back.”  Oh the drama this family was spinning out! Initially, I was so shocked that I found I had to sit quietly on the sidelines, not really knowing what to say in the heat of the moment.

You would be surprised how even simple things like the choice of a song, or not wanting to wear the mother's wedding dress, or not serving a traditional food, can be sources of stress.  If such minor disagreements can turn nasty, imagine the hostility that can surface if a wedding couple goes against someone's moral or religious beliefs. Let me tell you, it can get unexpectedly ugly and the tension can mount as the days get closer and closer.

In some cases, there were family members and friends that were downright abusive, leaving brides and grooms to be, at best, distracted from their own special day, at worst, deeply hurt. After seeing these unfortunate patterns in my first few weddings, I decided to start running interference to avoid wedding day disasters. Being that my primary role is a healer, I felt it was my duty to protect the well-being of my clients. 

In writing this, therefore, I hope to give would-be couples some tips for emotional preparedness so that they can avoid unnecessary drama on the day of their wedding. I want to encourage the to-be-betrothed to use this opportunity, in preparation for their alternative wedding, to voice their wishes to their friends and families, and to do the necessary prep work to make sure their day is truly sacred.

Rule # 1

Don’t let anyone or anything divide and conquer you and your partner.

This is not just advice for the wedding but advice for the whole marriage. You are a team and your primary concern and loyalty is to one another. Don’t let anyone split the energy of your team - not your parents, your siblings, your kids (if you have them), your work, your fantasy-football or Pinterest addiction, your bad habits. If you have meddling influences from outside sources and they split you as a couple, you can expect a lot of stress and unpleasant wedding experiences. 

Don’t agree to anything (except maybe the dress) without consulting your partner. Don't make assumptions as to what your partner wants if you are not sure. Don't let anyone else hijack your special day. And don’t be afraid to tell other people that might be crossing the line, “Look, this is not personal. It’s just that our wedding is about us and I need to consult with my partner before we take your advice.”

What helps is to have a clear idea and vision of what you want the wedding to be about.  What energy (feelings, atmosphere) do you and your partner want to convey to family and friends? How do you want people to feel at your wedding? Make sure you have each other's back in sharing your collective vision for your special day. While it is natural that one partner be more involved in the planning than the other, try to make decisions together and stay in-tune with what your partner is going through.

Rule # 2

People that are on the fence about your wedding… get them off the fence.

Weddings can cause difficult religious or emotional conflicts for some people that don't surface until it is time for the actual ceremony. A friend or family member may love the couple yet discover that the marriage is in conflict with their personal morals or beliefs. Such a person may feel confused and surprised at their own conflict because they believed they only wanted to support the couple. This conflicted energy is the worst kind of energy to have, especially if they show up to your day and haven't worked that internal conflict out. They are what I call "sitting on the fence" about your wedding. You have to get them off the fence.

In one wedding I officiated, a couple invited an “on the fence” friend to speak at the wedding. This person began a 7-minute long sermon quoting from their personal doctrine (and from their religion's sacred scripture). It was awkward not only because the person's ambivalence came through and it disputed the tone of the wedding but because they were literally preaching to people and rambling on and on and losing everyone's sympathy. 

A wedding is a celebration of the couple's love. It is not a time to have a speaker lead people to take a moral inventory. In this particular case, I don't believe it was the person's intent to undermine her friends; she really felt she was doing the right thing to introduce some moral teachings into that celebratory day. However, it was inappropriate, awkward and made certain people visibly uncomfortable.

It is important to speak to people you suspect may have a conflict with your matrimony, before you invite them to your wedding. You can explain, "I know this marriage is in conflict with your personal beliefs, but if you can’t come with your whole heart and be supportive, we would rather you not come. It won’t be fun for you and it won't be fun for us.” 

If you are going to let them speak at your wedding, give them a time limit: 3 minutes is a good time frame, but not more than 5. Give them a theme to keep them on topic with your wedding.You would be surprised how disruptive and distracting that conflict can be on your special day. Get clear about what you want and don't be afraid to ask for what you need.  If they choose not to support the wedding one hundred percent than bless them and let them go.  Yes, even if it's your parents or grandparents.

I have held the hand of a groom in tears whose parents had made the decision the night before not to attend. The groom was sure they would see how in love he was and “do the right thing and show up,” so he let them wait to decide until the 11th hour. I kept insisting that he give his parents a decision date so he could be prepared but he didn't want to do it. He was crushed on the eve of his wedding when it was just his brother that got off that plane at the airport. The rehearsal dinner was dampened by this sudden jolt of bad news. 

So, no matter how hard it is to confront people, even your own parents and other family members, you owe it to yourself and your partner to have these conversations well in advance of your wedding. Give them a deadline to decide if they are coming so that you can have time to process your own feelings and thoughts - whether positive or negative - and so that you are not having to handle upsets or surprises on your big day. Keep in mind rule #1: You are having this ceremony in honor of you and your partner's well being, happiness, and lives together.

Rule # 3

Sacred takes more than 5 minutes!

I often see in alternative weddings that couples plan an extremely short service and have no real vision for the ceremony. Given that the overwhelming amount of wedding advice out there is geared toward making your wedding visually stunning and, let's face it, more about the after party, it's easy to understand how couples lose sight of the preparation that is needed for the ceremony itself.

Remember that the ceremony is the reason it’s called a wedding. It is a sacred contract you are making to tie your lives together. Sacred contracts require the couple's intentions, sentiments and values to be voiced and the participants' attention to what is voiced and all of this takes time. Plus, you want to give yourselves enough time to savor the joy of the ritual.

While there is never any official time that it takes to have a ritual, in general you can safely bet that it should take more than just a few minutes. Playing/singing songs, lighting candles, sharing poems and readings from sacred texts: these are not just nice things to do, they actually build up the necessary tension (and heart-felt attention!) so that the moment when you do make the exchange of vows you can feel the shift in energy.

Don’t rush through your ceremony and don’t let your celebrant rush either. Take your time and set a clear intention to make your space sacred. By doing so, you not only extend the blessing to one another, you also extend that blessing to the whole community in attendance at your wedding. Allow yourselves to savor the moment and allow your guests to savor it too, since they have likely travelled from afar and gotten dressed up to bear witness to you and your vows on your special day. As a general rule give your ceremony a good 30-45 minutes but not longer than an hour.

Rule #4

People are there to Toast
You not Roast You.

Ah, to be in the age of disclosure where we live out loud and on-line and let it all hang out. However, would-be brides and grooms, heed my advice: don’t let your wedding be open mic night! Make sure you remind your speakers that, while you have invited them to share from their hearts, they are NOT to use their time at the podium to do any of the following:

        > Vent
        > Humiliate
        > Insult
        > Bring up embarrassing things you did together in college
        > Talk about previous relationships. 

Yes, I have seen all that and more. Most of the time, the guests and the wedding party find certain anecdotes funny, but sometimes it can be so awkward you can cut the tension in the air with the wedding cake knife. This goes not only for the ceremony but for the reception. So, brides and grooms, print this out and highlight it in yellow and hand this part to your best men and maids of honor:

Dear Best Man and Maid of Honor,
We love you and we know you have a hard job…but please do not use the sacred and special honor of being asked to make a toast to: spring a surprise, practice your stand-up comedy routine, give us a grocery list of the bride's/groom's many faults, tell inappropriate stories, drone on for 7 minutes about your every childhood experience you had together, and more than anything, do not use the toast to talk about yourself!

The toast is for us and therefore it is not about you. Let us repeat: the toast is not about you! No one attending the wedding needs your backstory as to why you are the wing-man or BFF and what your experience has been so far to date of our wedding. No one cares. Standing up for either of us also means standing back so don't try to upstage our moment. 

Keep your toast short, and to the point, a little humor is fine but keep in mind the ritual is actually to get everyone to take a drink and wish us well and good luck. Keep focused and don’t forget to ask everyone at the end to raise their glass and toast us, the happy couple, and then say the actual toast which is usually one sentence: "To Chris and Casey" or "To the Happy Couple."

Rule # 5

Don’t be driven by YouTube & Instagram

We have all seen those magical youtube wedding processions and reception dance videos that have gone viral. It’s a thing of awe when people can take a moment like that and make it look like a Broadway musical meets an episode of Glee. However, you know you are in trouble if you are taking too much of your time and energy to wow people with a routine just so you can have it get a bunch of likes or shares by people you don't know and don't care about. If something like that organically happens great, but if you have two left feet and were not a theater major in college, which helps a lot, don't fret about it. 

On a similar note, it's always a nice thing to ask guests to NOT take pictures or videos with their cell phones. It’s a huge distraction to everyone, especially the person taking the videos. In the age of a million and one "selfies" streaming across Facebook and Instagram, you might want to consider making an announcement before the wedding for people to please not use any of their electronic devices during the ceremony, because you want them to actually experience the ceremony and not worry about getting reportage! You can leave that to the photographer and videographer. What you should be focused on is what's going on internally.

Rule # 6

Modern Families can be Tricky. Get a Life Coach.

Traditionally, the purpose of pre-wedding events (such as the rehearsal dinner) is to get all parties involved working together. The tricky thing with these events, of course, is that any kind of group gathering will always kick up your stuff. In my healing practice, when I facilitate group work, I know that the process of bringing a group of people together will oftentimes cause them to act out the role they played in their families growing up. The same thing happens at weddings: people can get unexpectedly triggered and bad behavior can ensue. 

Therefore, don’t be surprised when "triggers" happens, be prepared. Who do you know that's a great mentor that everyone seems to like and listen to? Empower that person as the "go to" to help hold the space and keep things going smoothly.

This is especially important if you have someone in your party that is going through a difficult time in their lives. Perhaps they just got a divorce or haven’t been able to find a partner and they are feeling down. The energy of the wedding can really bring up strong emotions. Combine that with the stress and lots of alcohol and you have a recipe for a whole lot of acting out. So make sure there are some well-grounded people on your special day that can help hold everything in check. 


Recently I was at a wedding where the person that was assigned to be the Master of Ceremonies showed up to the wedding 20 mins late and drunk. To compound the issue, this person went on drinking heavily at cocktail hour to the point that the bartender had to cut them off. All before dinner! The couple were more than a little upset by this behavior and at a loss for what to do. Finally, one of the parents had to gracefully intervene, pulling the mic out of this person's hands and asking them to leave. It could have been a disaster - and thankfully few people noticed - however, it was extremely stressful to the couple and a needless distraction. This kind of behavior is woefully common at weddings so be prepared by having a "go to" person to keep watch over the flock and make sure everything runs smoothly.

Rule # 7

Audio.. audio.. audio!

Having an alternative wedding often involves places that are off the beaten path, such as in a park, at the beach, or in a garden. Keep this in mind: you will need excellent audio or no one will hear anything you or anyone else is saying. No matter how many times I point his out, people often cut corners on the audio or don't take into consideration airplanes that may be flying over head, or motorcycles or busses that are rumbling by, or the sound of the ocean waves. Make sure you have a set up where there is adequate audio for all. It may be necessary for the couple to each wear a wireless mic, as well as the wedding celebrant. 

It is frustrating when you invite people to your ceremony and no once can hear. I once had a groom fight me on this for his garden wedding. He finally gave in but was not happy. Sure enough one of the speakers didn't want to use the mic and looked out at the wedding party and said “You can all hear me can’t you?” They all responded in unison, “No!”  So he was forced to use the mic. In as much as it is your day and your special vows, it is very frustrating for people to come out to your day and feel like they are invisible. Make sure everyone can participate in the wedding and give it their full attention by securing good audio!

I hope following these principles will help ensure that you have a truly harmonious and joyful celebration on your special day.

*to protect anonymity of some of the details have been altered or omitted.

katherine dougherty

Kay has been a full-time shamanic energy healer since 2005. Her training in Peruvian Shamanism began in 2004 first as a client and then as a student.