At Shadow Weddings, Extra Baggage Is Encouraged

Jul 10, 2014 at 8:50 AM ET

One week before their wedding, Jim and Jessica Benson stood beneath the redwood trees in their backyard in front of a group of their closest friends and admitted to all their vices and shortcomings. Afterward, they exchanged rings made from a twist tie and aluminum foil, and wrestled on a foam pad as guests showered them with mulch and dead leaves. They called the primal ceremony their “shadow wedding,” and for the past three years, they’ve been offering the service to other nearly weds who feel the need to air out all their proverbial dirty laundry prior to saying “I do.”

“I knew I wanted to give myself the luxury of a ritual that would honor the not-so-pretty aspects of both of us,” Jim Benson writes on their website. “Enough with all the white and lace and flowery love-language, I wanted a chance for us to get dirty together!”

If you’re thinking this sounds hokey and nauseatingly New Age, be advised that the Bensons live in San Francisco, where Jim Benson works as a sex and relationship coach and Jessica Benson as a marriage counselor. (No word on whether or not the two are really into crystals.) As they see it, shadow weddings are a way for each partner to take responsibility for the baggage they’re bringing into the union, whether it’s a tendency to check out other women or a digestive system predisposed to nightly Dutch ovens. “As a stand for healthy, conscious relationships, we believe that by speaking the unspeakable, accepting the unacceptable, and loving the unlovable, couples can create a stable base for their life together,” their website says.

The cathartic cleansing session (which tacks an extra $2,500 to $7,500 to your normal wedding expenses) begins by having a two-on-two counseling with the Bensons in which you begin exploring personal deficiencies and “invite your shadows to come out and play.” This may seem completely tortuous, which is why the service comes with a warning: “This process is not for the faint of heart.”

The second step is creating “shadow vows,” based on all you’ve laid bare during the preceding counseling sessions. In other words, you’re supposed to rehash all of the terrible things your partner has been nagging you about for years and consecrate them verbally. Common examples: “I vow to never pick up my socks and wash the dishes only after you’ve asked me 10 times,” and “I vow to focus on my career more than you.” The point, the Bensons explain, is not to make neurotic promises to one another, but to “[orient] couples to take full responsibility for their part in the relationship.”

Next up is planning the ritual itself, with the Bensons’ guidance. They recommend holding it at night in “a private and safe location where you can feel totally free to express yourself” and to wear your least cute, least flattering clothing. (When figuring out what to wear for her own ceremony, Jessica Benson asked her husband-to-be, “Which sweatpants make my butt look worse?”)

The final, and probably least sane, part of the shadow wedding process is deciding which friends you’d like to witness your self-bashing fete, and how you want them to participate. In the Bensons’ case, they asked their friends not to speak during the ritual, but to “instead respond in any non-verbal way that felt appropriate,” including “hissing, grunting and moaning.”

At last, on your “wedding day,” it’s time to exchange shameful vows and then “formally” choose each other for worse by gifting makeshift rings. “I felt very strong in my loving of him and in my ability to see the truth of him in that moment,” writes Jessica Benson of her big (dark) day. “And to be chosen by him with all my ugliness revealed was just incredible—another kind of a dream come true!”

Of course, you could also just save yourself the cash, the pain and the judgment of your friends and deal with your marital issues as they arise. After all, that’s what makeup sex is for.