The Theory of Social Obligation

Friends keep wanting to invite us to showers, bachelor parties, rehearsal dinners, weddings. Where does this sense of obligation come from? When did it become socially unacceptable to say no? I find that girls are terrible at discriminating on weddings to go to. Obviously they should go to their brother’s wedding, but that does not mean they should go to the weddings of all their friends. Moreover, I wonder if they actually get any real utility out of going to the event or if it’s a sense of obligation that takes them there. Worse, somehow it’s not acceptable for them to go alone; so you are dragged to these boring events where you know no one. Frankly I would rather be doing something very important like playing tennis or video games 🙂

One theory could be that the inviters are using whether you accept to go or not as a proxy for how much you value them or your relationship. It follows that the less inviting their event is (distance, length, cost), and the more hurdles you have to navigate, the greater the strength of the relationship. If a set of bath towels didn’t fulfill my obligation, then hopefully travelling to Ohio did.

Separately, I can reluctantly accept that people want weddings, but why is there a need to celebrate over and over again with engagement parties, bachelor parties, etc. It’s all the more interesting that the probability of having a bachelor party is much higher than the probability of having a 10 year anniversary party, which arguably is more of a cause for celebration – potentially because you don’t want to spend that much if you have children to take care of – proving that this is an exercise in narcissism.

The cost of this narcissistic trip averages out to $27,000. In the present day, with individuals marrying older, there is a greater inclination for couples to pay for their own wedding. For most people this will mean they are starting their lives together in debt or with little savings. Since financial issues can cause some of the greatest strain on a marriage, is it possible that the wedding itself leads to divorce? (Where’s Freakonomics when you need it?) By boycotting the wedding one may be increasing the success of the marriage.

If you want to get out of any obligation here is my favorite excuse: “I have a family obligation” – no one will challenge you on that. Note that this only works when you are single, your girlfriend will challenge that one 🙂

This article was written with Nicole Blank.

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  • Nicole,
    AMEN. i couldn’t agree with you more on this. Having watched 8mos of preparation for my brother’s wedding and the level of stress that existed right through to the day itself, I’ve vowed to not ever have a big wedding if and when I get married.

    I actually wrote up a post a little ago proposing that weddings themselves should have a brief “business plan” to ensure that expenditures support the goals of the day (which they most frequently do not). Nobody remembers the flowers or the cake afterwards- they remember the moments they shared with the people that were there. All energy should be directed around making it a magical and stress-free experience for those involved.

    http://www.scrollinondubs.com/2007/03/30/why-weddings-should-have-a-business-plan/

    sean

  • Fab, i do not know how social preasure works in usa, but in Latam girls are shown and taught that marrige is almost the reason of iheir existance. Therefore the entire ritual arround it becomes an end in it self. The dress, the church, the party, etc. Girls start dreaming about that day almosi on a daly basis since they understand their meaning. Any way we”ll need to work on an excuse book, many weadings to come.
    Ale.
    Ps: from the wedding costs you should deduct the value of the presents. Some times, depending on guests it could turn out to be a good business.

  • Ale: People don’t get married to make money out of it 🙂

    Besides, the average wedding costs $27,000 and has 100 guests who buy gifts which cost on average $85, so the average wedding is a money loser.

    I have heard the argument that if the investment is so large in a wedding the couple will be compelled to stay together. I don’t buy it, that’s sunk cost, what matters is net present value…

  • To be sure, wedding expenses are the irrecoverable cost. I am also the same idea as you fundamentally. In Japan, there is also an region on which wedding expenses of $100,000 are spent. I think that the reason is vanity which is old custom. If a marriage ceremony is considered from an economical viewpoint, thinking in discounted cash flow viewpoint may also be interesting. All human beings progress and are alive with future. Therefore, I think that it should not invest in the thing which sees from future value and is valueless.

  • My father – a divorce attorney – once wisely advised me, “For the wedding, think small – for the 5th anniversary, we throw you the biggest party you want.”

    From his 30+ years of legal experience for clients who find themselves in the rapid collapse of marriage after the lavish event.

  • Hi Fabrice —

    Good thing that we didn’t invite you to our recent wedding.

    Our reason for holding it in Barbados was that it provided us the prefect excuse to keep it very small, which in my book, was the secret to it being relaxing and fun.

    Veronique would quite agree with you, and was all for eloping. So why did we bother? For me, it was out of a sense of obligation to my parents, who place great value in such affairs. It also provides fountain of fond memories and funny stories.

    Until soon,

    T.

  • Ha ha. Great post and very appropriate given the upcoming August nuptials of my sister Cristina and Jason. They would agree with you absolutely. First of all they took about 8 years to get to the marriage. As you mentioned, they are paying for the wedding themselves. Their motto is to keep it simple and not create a fake extravaganza with 300 of their “closest” friends. They are holding the wedding in a castle in the Thousand Islands, simply because that’s where we spend summers and it holds a special place in their lives. The distance of the place secures that only people who matter will travel to the border with Canada for the event. Given the conflicting faiths, (Cristina is a recovering Catholic and Jason is a Christmas-celebrating Jew), has produced a plethora of comical situations (almost exclusively from Jason’s mother’s side of the family). The wedding will be attended by 30 people tops. I love it.

  • Dear Fabrice,

    I thank you so much for this particularly insightful and timely bit iof social criticism. I am *marrying* my daughter Camille in August (your dad is invited.
    Of course the event is leading to all sorts of stress and disputes on subects both forseeable (who pays for what) and unimagined (the US side says that we CANNOT separate couples, the French side wants nothing more).

    I just think everyons should open a really good bottle of wine wherever thay are, toast the newlyweds, and let everyone get on with their lives…

    a bientot,

    Robert de Rolle

  • For someone who “reluctantly accept that people want weddings” you have a blog profile that looks like a giant billboard ad from “Match.com”.

  • I think people often lose site of when their wedding ‘invitation’ passes into the arena of coercion. Guests are assigned roles and duties, aka work. I doubt most members of a bridal party are even aware of the required level of commitment when they are presented their formal title. I have heard many complaints from both the couples and the enlisted which stem from misunderstandings in scope. If a couple is going to request assistance in the execution of their wedding, they need to provide task and time line information to the potential assistants. These individuals should then be invited to decline if they cannot commit to the workload.
    By the way, if you are invited to participate in the bridal party… don’t setup an online, shared project plan such that the bride can appropriately assign tasks and provide due-dates. Apparently not everyone thinks a wedding should be approached from a business perspective…

  • Fabrice, sorry this is off topic, but I have a question while being interviewed on Venture Voice and talking about Zingy you said something that had us all here wondering and debating , after missing payroll for so long, you said “ironically, your number 1 and 2 both left Zingy the same day a $500,000 check from AT&T arrived” , just out of curiosity did you hire them back? It would but an end to the debate here. Thanks

  • Jerome: I told them not to leave, that we were saved and were going to make it, but they did not buy it. I actually understand why they left, they were older, had mortgages, kids in college and thought we were still a risky startup…

  • Maybe the bachelor party is a ceremony of reinforcement helping to convince the guy he’s doing the right thing. Maybe your girl wanting you to be at the wedding is her way of saying its more fun with you than without you. Being single right now I’d crap myself for the chance to acompany someone ( I’m pretty particular so when I’m single I’m usually single a WHILE ugg ) In any event you had better go to the wedding rather than stay home playing the vid game otherwise you’re going to find yourself playing the reality game called pickle pull.