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‘We called the mums about an hour after the ceremony’: the rise of secret weddings

Wedding season is upon us and – after two years of Covid chaos that saw nuptials scaled back, postponed or cancelled – you may think the temptation would be to go all out. But instead of expanding the guest list and adding an extra tier to the cake, many couples are opting to have not just small but almost entirely secret ceremonies.

With Covid case numbers remaining high and the UK’s cost of living crisis meaning that many couples are feeling the pinch, it’s no wonder that some are less than eager to send out save-the-dates. Plus, it can’t hurt that in celebrity circles – where sizeable weddings documented by glossy magazine shoots were once the norm – getting married in secret is all the rage.

Earlier this month, Jennifer Lopez surprised fans by unexpectedly sharing photos of her wedding to Ben Affleck at the Little White Chapel in Las Vegas, with reportedly no guests in attendance other than their respective children. Just days later, the Queen’s Gambit actor Anya Taylor-Joy was also reported to have had a secret ceremony, marrying the musician Malcolm McRae in an “intimate courthouse wedding”, hot on the tails of the actor Lindsay Lohan’s secret wedding to the financier Bader Shammas.

So what is the appeal of keeping stumm when it comes to tying the knot? “For us, it was just a really relaxed and enjoyable day,” says Jess Rudwick, 29, a skills development coach who married her partner Gerald Davies, 37, a logistics coordinator, on their 10-year anniversary in Brighton last March. They told just four people – which didn’t include their parents – and headed to the beach for ice-cream and champagne after the ceremony.

“I’ve been to friends’ weddings where they’ve been mega-stressed and everything cost a fortune,” she says. “We didn’t have to worry about who would get on with who or if people liked the food. Plus, I got really nervous standing up in front of just four people – I don’t think I could have handled any more!”

Easing the anxiety and pressure of having a “big day” is part of the appeal for many couples who marry in secret. “I would definitely say that secret weddings are becoming more common,” says Landis Bejar, the founder of the boutique therapy practice AisleTalk, which specialises in helping brides and grooms manage wedding stress. “People are looking for ways to get out of the spotlight and avoid the pomp and circumstance of weddings. They just want to get to the part where they are married.”

Mursh and Tash on their wedding day in San Francisco.
Mursh and Tash on their wedding day in San Francisco. Photograph: Angie Silvy Photography

For Ian Walker, 55, who married Ceri Nunn, 48, in 2016, a secret wedding also felt more genuine. “We got married for practical reasons and so asking people to travel to a wedding felt deceptive,” he says, “but it ended up being a lovely, romantic thing.”

The couple had been together for about 20 years when they decided to get hitched (prompted, in part, by a job offer that meant Ceri would be working in Munich post-Brexit), and only told their children in the car on the way to the ceremony at Brancepeth Castle near Durham. “Another reason we didn’t tell anyone was that we didn’t want them to think that either of us was ill, or that we were fishing for presents. We did have a photographer, but my favourite photos are just the ones we took on our phones.”

Although money might be no object for some A-listers, the often astronomical cost of a formal wedding – which averaged £17,300 last year – can be an added source of stress. Even J-Lo opted not to have ​​an Elvis officiate at her nuptials because “that cost extra”. In 2018, when Mursh Haque travelled from Sheffield to San Francisco to marry Tash (both 34 and teachers) without telling any of their friends, they followed it with a month-long honeymoon touring the US – and still spent less than they might have done on a more traditional ceremony. “I’ve got a really big family and Bengali people invite hundreds of guests to their weddings,” he says. “It would have cost each side £30-35k and it seemed like a lot of stress, hassle and appeasing people.”

Tash agrees: “Any money that I would have had for it, I’d already spent on a house. Also, I get bored by having the same conversations over and over and I felt that I would get that all the time: ‘Have you got the flowers? Have you done this and that?’ Having a secret wedding meant I didn’t have to have that conversation at all.”

Forty-three-year-old Kerry Thompson’s 2014 secret wedding to Nicky, 38, in Norfolk took less than three months to plan, and cost them less than £600. “I got my dress from Tesco – it was a wedding dress, but it was reduced from £79 to £45,” says the support officer. “I didn’t wear any shoes, because it was 32 degrees and my feet were swollen. Neither of us are showboaty people; it was very relaxed and it was perfect for us.”

Another big contributor to the stress of wedding planning – especially while trying to keep the costs down – is the guest list. “People struggle with the invite list for a small wedding, and when you factor in people with complex family relationships, sometimes it can feel easier to get married in secret and tell people later, and not rock the boat,” says Bejar.

Davies agrees that “you can end up inviting a lot of people who you don’t actually ever speak to”. For Mursh, getting married in secret offered an easy solution: “Instead of leaving anyone out, we were leaving everyone out.”

There has already long been a move away from religious ceremonies, with civil marriages outnumbering religious marriages every year since 1992. This turning away from tradition could soon be further aided by recommendations from the Law Commission that restrictions on where weddings can be held should be scrapped, meaning couples would not need to find a licensed venue. Could clandestine ceremonies be another way in which couples seek to make their wedding stand out – and can having a secret between you actually be quite fun?

Kerry and Nicky Thompson on their big day.
‘I got my dress from Tesco’: Kerry and Nicky Thompson on their big day. Photograph: Supplied image

“A secret wedding is different from a small wedding: having secrets for (not within) your relationship can feel exciting,” says Bejar. “It has to do with novelty and intimacy – if you’re working on a project, just the two of you, and no one else knows about it, there’s something really enticing, even sexy, about that.”

Of course, even if the couple in question enjoy keeping their plans under wraps, there’s no guarantee that those who might have expected a wedding invitation will be quite so thrilled about it. “It did upset some people,” says Thompson. “We had booked a space for 146 people and there were only five of us, so, the night before, I said [to Nicky]: ‘We’ve still got time; if you don’t want it to be just us, we’ll just phone everyone and tell them it’s short notice but we’re getting married tomorrow.’ But he said no, let’s leave it as it is.” Like all the couples I spoke to, she has no regrets.

“It’s worth remembering that, if you have a secret wedding, some people will be hurt,” says Bejar. “They will have had expectations that they would be there, and they will feel left out. It’s good to consider ways to navigate that reaction. Think about how to say, ‘This was right for us,’ and owning your position.”

For most, however, the reaction from friends and family was positive – if sometimes a little surprised. “We called the mums about an hour after the ceremony – Gerald’s mum thought he was joking!” says Rudwick. “But everyone was happy and supportive.”

“The only people who were shocked or taken aback were people we don’t know very well,” says Tash. “Although keeping it secret did mean that I forgot the date. On the day we were due to get married, I accidentally booked to go to a baseball game!”

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