Five Things Every Wedding Ceremony Needs

You are engaged. Now the work begins, right? The dress, the colors, the music, the food, the venue, the photographer. Then there is transportation, makeup and hair, guest lists, save-the-dates, invitations, seating arrangements. Oh! And a marriage license! And hey – probably someone to sign that license, too.

We get it. The actual ceremony, the officiant, and that pesky license to make it all legitimate aren’t at the top of your list. It’s ok. We aren’t insulted. But we are glad you found this blog because this is your reminder that while it may not be top of the list, your ceremony can’t be last on the list either.

Here are five things your ceremony should include:

1.The Legalities

This varies from place to place, but generally speaking, you will need a marriage license to make your marriage legal in the eyes of the government. (Why you may want to do this is a different blog!)

The marriage license is most often issued by a county within the state you are marrying. These days most county offices have websites, and as marriage licenses are among one of the most common documents they handle, you can easily locate details on how to obtain the license, the fee for the license, any waiting or “cooling off” periods, and filing deadlines. If not, pick up the phone and ask. It’s worth the few minutes it may take you to puzzle this out. Otherwise, all that planning may not yield an immediately legal marriage.

2.The Consent

Most licensed and ordained ministers and officiants will agree: consent and vows are a necessary piece of a wedding ceremony. In fact, I will suggest the consent and vows are at the very soul, the very core and root of the marriage. What exactly are the consent and vows? Well, you probably think of them as the “I do/I do” part followed by the “for better/for worse/for richer/for poorer” (and all its versions) section.

Why is this necessary? Well, first and foremost, the consent is exactly what it sounds like. You consent to the marriage contract, understand what you are doing, and are entering it with a sense of acceptance and agreement. The vows that follow are the promises you make around your consent to marriage. The vows are what you promise to do for yourself, for your spouse, and for the marriage.

3. A Spirit Animal/Intention

A spirit animal? You bet! As in, what is the intention you are setting for your ceremony? It should be present and articulated. Why? Because while marriage is a universal covenant, each marriage is also unique. Some people marry with the intention to always be kind to each other. Others marry because of connection. Others make their spirit animal the wandering wildebeest, always traveling and seeking adventure. Others couples have tenacity as their marriage’s DNA. More than any theme you might choose for décor, understanding your marriage and articulating your relationship for yourselves and your community makes for a meaningful wedding ceremony and sets you off on your marriage path with a compass.

4. A Joyfulness

People, this is a wedding, not a dirge. Have fun! Celebrate! Sure, this is a momentous and weighty moment, but it does not need to be solemn. In fact, please don’t let it be solemn!

5. Boundaries

I mean several things here. First of all, logistically create boundaries within the ceremony. The ceremony should be long enough to honor this joyous (see #4) occasion, but not so long everyone has checked out or is falling asleep. Secondly, create boundaries around your relationship. This is not your mother’s, nor your best friend’s, nor your in-laws’s marriage. This marriage is yours.  There are wonderful ways to honor where you come from, your traditions, and your culture without compromising your relationship. Finally, and building on that thought, learning to set boundaries around your marriage ceremony is a great skill for your marriage. There will be many moments in your marriage where boundaries will be important for your health, your well-being, and the life of your marriage and family. Learning how to do that at your wedding ceremony, even in the smallest way, is a great way to develop that skill set.

Cheers to both of you as you embark on this marriage adventure. And don’t forget . . . we are here to help you both now, and throughout this journey!

A Love Note to my Uncle on Mother’s Day

Uncle Tracy in the kitchen. He took up cooking as a hobby in his retirement.

When my Mom died suddenly in 2012, many other things died too. That is the nature of death. It is a compounding energy: death reveals other deaths, or (ironically) births other deaths, or plows up former deaths. In a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, death begets death.

Long before my mother’s death, I had developed a deep, meaningful kinship and love for my uncle (my Mom’s brother) and aunt, and my cousins. There was a time when I would have said this relationship was merely the result of proximity. In 1988, I’d arrived in Austin to attend my mother and uncle’s alma mater, The University of Texas. My aunt and uncle lived in and loved Austin. So, naturally, they were my parents-in-a-pinch. I house-sat for them, took care of their (awesome) dogs, shared UT sporting events with them, called on them if I was ill or had a question about a particular local need or issue. They were present in my life, but never intrusive.

Over time, they met my boyfriend who became my fiancé who became my husband. They were there for our wedding, when we had our first child, and again for our second child. Somewhere in the midst of sharing our lives, we began to spend summers together in Laguna Beach, California where my aunt had grown up. My cousins became like siblings to me, and my children grew up with “Matcy and Doc” as grandparent-type elders, and my cousin’s children became their cousins. Even now, our time in California is sacred space; an annual touchstone greatly anticipated, rich with memories, and something far deeper, and far more difficult to articulate.

It’s that “something far more difficult to articulate” that has become so glaringly obvious in these past months. For on February 20th this year, my uncle died. The chasm, the gaping space, the silence has been staggering. You see, as my cousin pointed out, he defied death so often that when he did finally yield, we found ourselves in a state of disbelief. Perhaps that is why I’ve struggled to speak about him, or his death. And yet, after silence there is the whisper of sound. After dark, there is light. After disbelief there is dawning recognition.

Any dog who got to hang out with Uncle Tracy was one lucky dog.

My uncle was an amazing man. He was truly many things: an accomplished and respected psychiatrist with a long, illustrious career, a pilot, a sailor, a photographer, a gardener, a vintage car collector, a traveler, a runner. He had a wry sense of humor, and could pull off some pretty awesome pranks. He was a son, a brother, a husband, father, grandfather, uncle, nephew, cousin. He was a native Texan but loved Washington State. He was an excellent listener, never the first to talk in a group conversation. When he did speak, we all listened. He loved his dogs something fierce. He was patient. Endlessly, faithfully, purposefully patient.

Only in hindsight have I seen this. As you can tell from the list, my uncle was a lifelong learner. And his gift to us? The greatest lesson I believe he learned, he taught us. And he taught us not just in life, but in his death: the love of family. For in his absence I see now my relationship was not proximity at all. The trips to California were not casually created. They were seeds he planted in each of us. Seeds that now have fully born fruit, as we find ourselves woven tightly together in the journey through grief. We are heirs of his great love of us, bound now to each other even as we are bound to him across time, space, and even death. “Whatever you do, stay in touch,” he would say. “Whatever you do, stay in touch,” he says now.

Uncle Tracy, I love you and I miss you. And most of all, I understand. We understand. Thank you.

My beloved cousins and me.

Why I Do What I Do

“What questions do you have for me?” I try to remember to ask each couple this question at the end of our first conversation. Most of the time, couples don’t have any questions at the time (they always have questions later!) But sometimes, they come with questions, and I am always excited to hear what they ask. One of my very favorite questions addresses why I do what I do.  It typically goes something like this:

How did you find your way into this business? How did you get into this work?

I love this question. For me, it is an opportunity to share a little bit about myself. And for me, as well as my business partners, this is what I believe makes us a little different from our colleagues. You see, for me, this is far more than a way to make money, entertain folks, or make me a star. It isn’t a side hustle or a secondary gig.  It’s what I was meant to do.

I actually never saw myself in this line of work. In some ways, it was serendipitous.

Following in the path of my mother who was also a wedding coordinator, I was a wedding coordinator for quite a few years. It was a really fun job, and I loved my clients as well as my colleagues. However, I became restless with the work even as I began to face the balancing act of marriage, family, and career. I wrestled with work-life balance (it’s a myth), selfhood, marriage balance, and motherhood.  Not that I didn’t like any or all of these things, but they sure didn’t match what I’d imagined them to be, nor what society deemed them to be.  Almost at the very moment, my colleague, Veronica*, who originally owned this business, asked me to join her in marrying couples.

Agreeing to marry a few couples here and there for Veronica ended up changing my life. As I began to engage with couples, I found my own marriage enriched, and my own life’s trajectory altered. A lifelong learner, I began to dig more deeply and intentionally into intimate relationships, marriage, and theology. In “Seminary-speak” we refer to this as finding our call in life.

So, truly, this is why I do what I do.  Because I believe it is what I was meant to do.  It makes me a better person, makes my marriage better, and I hope better equips each of my couples for the journey of marriage.


*Stay tuned, friends. Veronica, my long-time friend and colleague, will be sharing some of her story, as well as re-joining us in this adventure of marriage, weddings, and business!

The Secret

Remember that best-selling book, “The Secret?” I was actually gifted the book, but have yet to read it years later. It’s in my pile, but it never seems to make it to the top.   I am likely doing myself a great disservice. Maybe all the people around me who live seemingly blissful and uncomplicated lives have read it and know the secret. Maybe that’s my problem: I don’t know the secret.

My husband and I were hanging out with one of our favorite couple-friends recently. Matt, while sipping on his beer, shared with us a recent interaction he’d had: “What is the secret to staying married?” a young couple asked him. “Don’t get divorced,” he replied without hesitation. The question-asker laughed at him and said, “No. But really, what’s the secret? What advice do you have?” He replied, “That’s it. That’s the secret. Don’t get divorced.” After we’d all had our good laugh, I remarked, “It’s true, though, isn’t it?”

It is true. This is not to say that divorce cannot be the clear, correct, and safe path for people, because it can be for many different and valid reasons. But, to Matt’s point, staying married is often just a matter of staying the course. It’s a culture of microwaves and insta-pots. A culture of comfort and privilege. A culture of sexual appetites and grand romance novels. So, we often don’t know how to weather the sad times, or the lonely spaces, the boredom, or the huge growing curves of marriage. It’s not always comfortable or easy. But it’s also not impossible: just stay. Stick with it.  It’s just that easy, and it’s just that hard.  Hey . . . maybe I do know the secret, after all.

Religious, Spiritual, or Non Spiritual?

Do you want a wedding that is spiritual or non-spiritual?

Do you want your wedding service to be religious or non-religious?

These terms are confusing for brides and grooms, for officiants, and planners, too.

Austin Weddings Unlimited officiants have personal conversations every week of the year with couples who are struggling to create a ceremony that is inclusive of their families of origin, while at the same time honoring their own personal, and spiritual or religious lifestyles. It is not an easy or simple task in most cases, and so we take those conversations with our couples seriously. The conversations continue—he is a Roman Catholic and she was raised Southern Baptist; she is Jewish and he is from a family that never attended or belonged to a church; they are both living in Austin and were educated in the United States but their families of origin are from India and still living there, she a Muslim and he a Hindu. Clearly there is careful planning to be done, and hopefully the person you choose to conduct your service is sensitive to your own unique situation.

The following are a few comments about the complexities of honoring tradition and religious upbringing or lack thereof while at the same time creating a wedding that appropriately mirrors a couple’s ethics, hopes, values, sense of family unity and, most importantly, their love.

First, spiritual weddings are not necessarily religious. Wonderfully expressive language and high ideals can be used in a ceremony without the use of typically religious jargon. For example couples can select prayers that are gender inclusive and interfaith (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Native American, etc.). In addition to prayers a wide variety of secular and sacred readings or poetry can be selected as a part of your ceremony.

Second, religious weddings do not have to be filled with heavy or dogmatic language that excludes people or uses the wedding to be preachy or judgmental. A wide variety of Biblical verses and historical “church-language” can be used in ways that honor a couple’s family-of-origin expectations without giving up on more contemporary, post-modern ways of believing or thinking.

Third, Austin Weddings Unlimited officiants are willing to work with you to find common ground, adding elements such as the unity candle, wine ritual, jumping the broom, remembrances of loved ones not able to attend or who have died, and participation by friends who read poetry, play music, offer solos. Rather than belittling, or giving one religion power over another we feel this kind of dynamic interplay of religious values creates a memory and an opportunity for your wedding to emphasize unity within the diversity of your personal histories.

Seriously considering your personal differences, and ours, is an honest and honorable opportunity for us to work together to create something our world sorely needs; families, and thus communities, built on mutual respect, trust and love, and not divided or alienated by or for the sake of religion.

Our goals are not about imposition of our own religious traditions on you at this special time in your lives but rather to use our time together to explore all the wild possibilities presented by our diversities.

Have I raised questions yet unanswered for you? Let’s chat.


Rev. Sam Riccobene

The Power of Pause in Marriage

My wedding rehearsals are full of little bits of instruction, trivia, announcements, and well – rehearsing. It’s not a science, but it does make life easier. One announcement I make is, of course, to not lock your knees.   Fainting isn’t fun, and dramatic moments are mostly overrated. I always tell the wedding party that I do have smelling salts on me should anyone faint. And I do. And yes, it’s happened.

At one hot and still wedding, I almost lost a member of the wedding party. I did catch her before she hit the ground, and she participated from a chair we procured for the remainder of the ceremony. But during those moments, my couple was left standing. Stuck. Motionless. Breathe held. It was as if the pause button had been hit, or they’d decided to participate in the (in)famous Mannequin Challenge.

As much as I talk about marriage being a series of moments, and marriage is a verb, there are also spaces, pauses, silences in marriage. Some of them are good, some are challenging, some are sad, and some just are. As vividly as I remember this couple stuck in pause in the middle of their marriage, I remember a certain pause in my own marriage. The loss of my mother was among the top three significant moments in my life, and not necessarily in a good way. I had no energy, no focus, no drive. I had nothing to give my husband in those dark days. Grief was all I knew. So, our marriage waited. It went quiet.

Space and silence are underrated in our society. But as any yoga teacher will tell you, the pause at the top of the breath and the release of breath must be noticed as much as the breath itself. And a musician understands that the rest is just as significant as any note in music. A farmer knows ground must sit fallow at times. It doesn’t mean it’s dead. Nor does it mean you can stay there. For my couple, we resumed wedding vows as soon as we knew the attendant was seated and steady. For my marriage, grief turned into mourning, and my husband was waiting for me as I re-entered the land of the living. Neither required the jolt of smelling salts, but for the record, I do still keep them around.


Special Challenges and Joys in a Marriage Touched by Autism

April is Autism Awareness Month. This is a guest post by Austin Weddings Unlimited’s PR Director, Rene Craft.

There are a few things on your wedding day that are most likely a blur. For me, it was the vows. (I know the irony). I was both laughing and crying during my husband and my wedding ceremony. One of my cousins in attendance said I deserved an award for best performance in both comedy and dramatic role for the way I behaved during what is normally a solemn setting. During the actual ceremony, I was cracking jokes about how tight my wedding dress was and also crying at the beauty of the moment. But one thing I do NOT remember was the part where you run through the vows basics like, “In sickness and in health.” And this was really something I should have paid attention to more carefully…

On that October day 20 years ago, when my husband and I stood there before our friends and family members and said “I do,” little did we realize that those words would actually apply within the first few years of our marriage.

Our first child, a son, was born in year three of our marriage, and from the very beginning, we knew something was amiss with his development. He cried and was inconsolable for hour upon hour as a child. He had a number of chronic health conditions in the first year. Our pediatric gastroenterologist said to both of us, “How sad you all didn’t get to have a good first year of life,” because we were constantly in distress and at the doctor’s office with GI problems that first year.

We sought answers and therapies to help him, knowing something was going on, but not believing that it was too serious. After a few years of medical dead-ends and confusing doctors’ appointments, our son was finally diagnosed with autism at age 4. It was quite a shock to our system and to our marriage. These were years of worry, concern, therapy appointments, school meetings, and the constant search for resources to help our son learn to speak and function at school and in public. This one paragraph doesn’t begin to describe the years of effort and work from our son, our family, his therapists, his teachers, and his physicians to support his progress. Now, 14 years after this initial diagnosis, our son reports that having autism helps him be a good artist. He is able to attend general education classes with support and loves his high school art classes—all major victories for our son and our family.

When you’re married, you realize how strong your bond is when it’s tested. It’s cliche, but unfortunately true. And ours frayed from time to time under the stress of the loss of sleep, the concern, the fighting for services for our son, and the daily therapies. It was a lot for a young marriage. And in our exhaustion, we leaned on our bond, our commitment of marriage. Our marriage bond became a source of strength for both of us during this time but mainly our deep core values kicked in and we relied on our personal values of determination and supporting each other no matter what. My husband and I literally shook hands on being kind when we first got married, but we also shook hands on “I have your back” in recent years. If your partner doesn’t have your back in life, who does?

So, when you stand there at the ceremony, be careful of the words you use and the promises you make on the happiest day of your life. They just might come back to mean something real for the rest of your life together. In sickness and in health.

If you would like to learn more about autism, visit the Autism Society’s website.

The Guaranteed Marriage

Marriage Guarantee Sticker“How do we guarantee that our marriage will be ok?”

It’s a question often asked of Austin Weddings Unlimited, and the answer isn’t exactly what you want to hear.  There isn’t a guarantee. There is no such thing. In fact, there are no perfect marriages either.

We hear a lot about guarantees in this culture; on TV, for our big purchases, for our technology, finances, and so forth. People marketing these products want us to feel that our purchases have real, long-lasting value. The idea that what we buy is going to last indefinitely. So with the high cost of a wedding, and all the many fabulous trimmings we buy – including the ceremony itself –  it is, in fact, quite easy to start thinking we have bought ourselves a guaranteed, life-long, loving relationship.

But think about that for a moment. Shoes wear out, as do cars, computers, and TVs. So what are we to think of this idea of a guaranteed marriage? First, don’t trust it. Don’t make the fatal assumption about marriage that now the wedding is over, the good life stretches out decades ahead with nothing left for us to do to make things work but enjoy the love.

Take a wise, forgiving, and introspective look at your current relationship. What habits and choices are different between you and your partner? Does he keep neat and tidy dresser drawers? Does she pay the bills regularly and on time and know the balance in the bank account? Which one of you seems to always make the best choices, and why? Is one of you right, and the other wrong about things? If you’ve taken a wise look at your marriage you have seen that each of you brings certain strengths, habits and choices to your relationship that are essential, respectable and of value.  Not necessarily right or wrong . . . just different.

Forgiveness is essential. Look into yourself and see where you have consciously forgiven your partner for whatever fault or failure might have occurred. If forgiveness is operative, effective, and real you will see that you feel better for having forgiven them; that your marriage is stronger because of that act of forgiveness you made.

There are certainly some circumstances and behaviors that happen in marriage, as in life, that demand you seek outside help. Physical abuse and self-destructive or life-threatening addictions are two.

Life is difficult. No doubt about that. But there is hope. Marriage isn’t perfect. But there are good marriages. Really good marriages have been built over time and people recover from all manner of difficulties, thereby allowing for nuptial joy to survive well beyond the excitement of the wedding day. So take the time to take a wise, forgiving and introspective look at your relationship. Enjoy the love, but don’t be naive about it.

Konking and the Secret Language of Marriage

“In token of my love and devotion/I place this ring on your finger/I konk you.”

I choked on the water in my mouth. The beautiful customized vows my younger sister and her now-husband had written had been going so well. And then . . . “I konk you.” Say what?

Customizing vows is not an uncommon thing. In fact, I assist in customizing vows or guide personal statements for couples more often than not. It’s a fantastic way to truly articulate what “for better/for worse ” looks like and sounds like for a couple. Some of my couples insert humor. Other couples insert deeply meaningful references. And some send me cryptic lines . . . like my sister. In all my years, I must admit – it was my own sister who’d left me speechless.

I believe every couple has their own language. And a couple’s language definitely develops over years of their relationship. It’s the funny turn of phrase which references a private joke. Or an anecdote that belies a level of comfort and intimacy. Or a coded way to say something to the other. For my sister and her husband, “I konk you” was just that – a code. But as it sat in the first draft of their wedding ceremony text, it did not translate.

I emailed my sister: “You cannot say that in a wedding!” She replied, “Oh, but we have to, Sarah. It’s non-negotiable.” She began to unpack “konking” for me. You see, my sister and brother-in-law aren’t prone to public displays of affection, so touching their foreheads was their way of connecting in public spaces. It was a way to connect deeply without overt affection — an action they came to dub “konking.” Once explained, I found it deeply touching and beautiful. Of course they should incorporate it in their wedding. After all, they even engraved the phrase into their wedding bands. But while marriage has its deeply private and intimate spaces and secret languages, weddings are a public affair. This phrase, I explained, would require translation.

Let me repeat myself: Marriage has its deeply private and intimate spaces, but weddings are a public affair. This is to say that we do not live our marriages out solely in our own space. Our marriages live in communities; of friends, of families, of neighborhoods and cities. So, the marriage story is told not just by the two people in a marriage, but by the community. Marriage is not just a give and take between two people, a nurturing of their shared space, but also a nurture of the space they occupy within their broader world. Sometimes translation is required. Sometimes checks and balances are necessary. Marriage – not just the wedding – is a public affair even with its private spaces.

My sister, her husband, and I crafted an explanation of konking. Instead of making it a mere line in the vows, the first action they took after their consent and vows was to konk. That is to say, the first act of their marriage was this beautiful private language in a public space. And I deciphered.  I translated their konk for our community, and we, their lucky witnesses, were able to honor their space and language, as well as their love through our understanding.

So, I am curious: What is the private language you and your partner speak? And does your community know how to honor it?

P.S. The parents of three beautiful girls, konking now belongs not just to my sister and brother-in-law, but is a shared family ritual. The story of their marriage is now the story of their family.

Canada, Oh Canada!

One my favorite things about my husband is his ability to make me laugh.  He is really funny and goofy.  (This actually may surprise some people who know him professionally.)  One of our best-loved memories goes back to our pre-children years (those special pre-children memories are their own blog) when we took a trip to Disney World.

Disney World exit signWhile visiting Canada in Epcot’s World Showcase area, we watched a beautiful film exhibiting the sweeping landscapes, beautiful people, and world cities that make their country so special.  The song includes one line that says “Planet Earth.” But what we heard rhymed with Canada with a make-up word, “planet-a.”  We exploded in fits of laughter.

Now this may not seem particularly funny, but even as I sit here and type it, I am laughing all over again. I actually found the clip on the internet, and sent the link to my husband at work.

At the time we first heard it, we barely made it out of the theater before we were doubled over in hysterics. You know . . . the sort of laughter where you cannot breath, tears are streaming down your face, and people are staring at you like you have three heads? I recall park guards walking by – I am sure they were about to haul us off as drunk or disruptive or a general nuisance.  But it’s just the best kind of laughter. And now, it’s a shared joke and a family phrase.

There is something about this sort of laughter that fuels companionship. It feeds a relationship. Lucky for me, this is not a rare moment for us, nor for our family. We can be pretty silly, and we laugh often. The jokes don’t always translate well, as they are in some ways the private language of our marriage and our family. And frankly, that’s ok, if not wildly appropriate. It speaks to an intimacy that we have both birthed and then nurtured.

And while the jokes may not be the same from marriage to marriage or family to family, laughter is, indeed, a medicine. It’s a balm for the sticky parts of life. It’s a release for the stress we all manage. It cuts anxiety off at its knees. Laughter is a way to renegotiate or reposition us when we are stuck in certain habits or perspectives.  It can literally rework breath and thus, inject oxygen into stagnant space.

Now, I don’t think laughter has to be at the center of every marriage. There are other elements and dimensions to marriage that can certainly be strong anchors:  companionship, study, safe space, kindness, shared dreams, and even sex all come to mind. But oh, what a good thing laughter can be for any marriage.  What have you laughed about lately?

And Canada?  Well, I do love you and I thank you . . . even with your silly lyrics, you unknowingly made us better.