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.

Beyond Valentine’s Day

Well, it’s the day after Valentine’s Day. The balloons are deflating, the chocolates are eaten, the flowers are wilting and now the real love begins. Valentine’s Day is a sugar rush of fun but it’s only one day, and now, on February 15, it’s time for the rest of the story, the other 364 days of the year!

I’ve been officiating weddings with Austin Weddings Unlimited for 20 years now and what I’ve learned throughout this time is that just like Valentine’s Day, a wedding day is full of the promise of love, not the life of love: the actual union, the commitment, the ups and downs of living life together as a couple.

For this reason, I think it’s important to spend time in reflection about how you and your spouse relate to each other beyond the sugar-soaked frenzy of February 14 or the dream-come-true experience of your wedding day. What are some ways that you can take the euphoria of your special days together and move that into the life of your marriage? Spending some time on February 15 thinking about this question will sweeten the life of your love beyond one day a year.

Because as we all know, life is like a box of chocolates. You just never know what you’re going to get.



The Gift of Connection

The views at Mo-Ranch.

Every marriage experiences moments of stress. What holds couples together during times of intense pressure is the strength of their shared story, or organizing principle, that binds them together. In the upcoming couples retreat that I’m facilitating at Mo-Ranch in a few weeks, one of our sessions will be devoted to helping couples identify this unifying concept that supports the health of their relationship.

In my own marriage, Connection is our watchword. I’ve seen this concept of Connection help my husband and me weather difficult experiences together instead of pulling us apart.

A few years ago, my daughter ended up in the hospital with a bone infection. In the end (which was several months later), all was well. But the first few hours and days, were critical, and we were in crisis-mode.

In hindsight, I learned some things about myself. One big a-ha moment was understanding how I function in crisis. For me, managing crisis is a matter of putting my head down, focusing, and getting through it step by step. In crisis mode, I do not see the big picture. I exist moment to moment. The upside is that I am relatively calm and centered in a crisis. The downside is that my world becomes teeny tiny and my memory short-term. Example: at one point during my daughter’s stay, I literally walked past the parent of a friend of hers and did not even acknowledge their presence. Thankfully, they were the understanding type, as I truly did not process their presence.

After it was all said and done, I did, of course, look up and around me. My world expanded again, and I was overwhelmed by the amazing community of friends and family surrounding us. Lucky! I also looked up and found my husband. For over ten weeks our sole interactions had been coordinating shifts at the hospital, intravenous infusions, doctor meetings and appointments, and rehabilitation. It was all we had discussed. Seeing him once life calmed down again was like walking out of a dark movie theater into the sun. We were strangers in some ways, our marriage had wilted in some ways, and we needed to reconnect.

What does this have to do with why you should come to a couples’ weekend away? Good question! Connection and reconnection are the guiding themes of my marriage. It is the DNA of our particular relationship. We know this about ourselves and our marriage. As we re-emerged from crisis, we knew what we needed, and how to do it. We have a little cabin that is our sanctuary, so we planned a weekend away. Once there, we were able to process all that had happened, to rest, laugh, eat, and reset. In short, we resurrected our marriage over our watchword: Connect.

Some of you may already know what makes your relationship tick. Some of you know exactly how and why you are a couple. Some of you may have no clue what that core DNA is just yet. But, whatever that core of your relationship is, it is worth discovering and rediscovering. Marriage requires nurture. It requires attention. That is hard in our busy world. And it is the reason why I invite you to a couples’ weekend away. Sure, a weekend away is a luxury. It is a gift. Maybe this year is the time, and maybe it’s something you plan for in the future. But, a chance to discover or rediscover why you are a couple is imperative to the life and health of your relationship. It’s a chance to just be the two of you; to play, to rest, to dream, to relax, and to reset.

To sign up for this couples retreat weekend on February 15-17, visit the Mo-Ranch website. I look forward to seeing you there!

Mo-Ranch Couples’ Weekend Retreat

Mo-Ranch in Hunt, Texas

Every married couple has been there. Life goes from the exciting questions like,”What great new restaurant should we try?” to “What’s for dinner?”  and “Did you figure out where you’d like to go on vacation this weekend?” to “Did you pick up the dry cleaning this week?”
Probably not exactly what you were thinking life would be like during those first moments of your relationship. So now, a few years or a few decades into your marriage, as you stare down the day-to-day, or even if you are wanting to get your marriage off on the right tempo, it’s time. It’s time for a weekend to dream, plan, and reconnect.  It’s time to get back to those fun questions, belly laughs, and simple pleasures (if you call zip lining a simple pleasure!) with your loved one.
Any of this resonate with you and your partner? I am about to make your life easy:  how about spending a weekend away in the beautiful Hill Country west of Austin to discover or rediscover the DNA of your relationship at the Mo-Ranch Couples Retreat. I am honored to be serving as the retreat’s facilitator and am looking so forward to getting to know each couple that attends and helping them craft the story of their marriage.
Wait – what?  What is the DNA of my relationship? Good question and thanks for asking! I cannot tell you what that is, but after years of marrying couples, and living in the world of marriage, I can help you discover that DNA.  Simply stated, though, I think of the DNA of a relationship as that core element, watch word, experience, or agreement that will help you get through all of the good and the tough times in life.  It’s the bones of your relationship.  It is, perhaps, the very spark that lit between the two of you.
For my husband and me, it’s connection.  Given our personalities and backgrounds, we could easily lean into being highly independent people, but long ago – in the beginning as they might say – we found a comfortable connection that honored who we were as individuals, where we came from, and what we visualized for our family unit in the future.  So, this watch word – connection – guides our decisions and lives.  We vacation together, we are often up in each other’s business and faces.  We have inside jokes, play board games together, value brutal honesty, and show up for each other.  We already anticipate big shifts in our family connections as we anticipate our oldest flying from the nest next year. So, we are already explicitly talking about about connection and reconnection next year.
Are you already thinking, “Hmmmm, maybe our DNA is about [insert some words]?”  Good.  I hope so!  That means I am doing my job. As a long-time wedding officiant in the Central Texas area, I help couples marry every weekend, and use the concept of Marriage DNA to craft beautiful and authentic wedding ceremonies. Through pre-marital coaching and pastoral work, I help couples that are just getting started or are decades into their couplehood figure out their marriage’s DNA, or redefine it, or even bury it and start again as a way to live into this strange and beautiful story of marriage.
I hope you will join me for this adventure at Mo-Ranch! We will be zip-lining, hiking, canoeing, having a nice dinner, painting wine glasses, sleeping in, bird-watching, and reading books at MoRanch’s Couples’ Weekend.  We will be discovering and rediscovering your couple-hood along the way, too.  Come kick back, have some fun, and raise a toast to you. The cleaning can be picked up another day, after all!  Cheers!

To sign up to attend, visit the Mo-Ranch Couples Retreat website or send me an email with any questions.

Let’s get married!

Joe’s proposal to Sarah. New Orleans, September, 1993.

I’ve heard some pretty amazing engagement stories through the years: on top of Hawaiian volcanoes, at family events, over a quiet cup of coffee, London, Paris, a bench in Germany, after years together, on a third date. They are all such good stories. I could listen to them all day long; not just for the story, but also to just watch my couples as they share their stories with me.  The bright eyes, choice of words, the laughter, and the depth of emotion shared in a gentle touching of hands?  Well, it’s magical.

I was engaged over 25 years ago in New Orleans.  My now-husband and I had been discussing marriage, but he actually did catch me off-guard.  While milling around  Jackson Square in the heat in early September, he convinced me (after some cajoling) to sit to have my picture sketched.  When he turned the picture around it was not me, but my ring and his proposal.  My husband, as you might guess, is a romantic.  My answer, as you might guess, was yes.

What I love about my story – and every story I hear – is how each story is at once unique and universal. Of course, each story is a unique chapter in a specific couple’s story.  It is a glimpse into a couple’s relationship, their language, and their love.  At the same time it is a universal story of human love.  It’s the story of how we are all somehow drawn to each other by a force that is bigger than us, a force that creates all that is grand and beautiful in this human saga, and frankly, makes it all worthwhile.

At Austin Weddings Unlimited, we’ve made telling each of our couples’ stories the hallmark of our business. And not just because we love to hear the stories ourselves, or our couples and their family and friends long to hear those stories, but because it is important to weave those stories into the bigger tapestry of love and humanity. We feel it is a huge privilege to share time with our couples not just because we love to tell the unique story, but because we love being a part of what we truly believe makes the world a better place.

So, in this season of engagements, we’d love to engage with you and hear your love story.  Let’s get married!