'Shadow Weddings': The Ultimate Test for Any Engaged Couple

Marielle Karim wedding photo by Paige Green

Weddings are not only expensive and labor-intensive, but they also have a way of bringing out the most raw and intense emotion in almost everyone involved. For that reason, most brides-to-be go into damage control mode from the minute they're engaged, trying to keep the peace with everyone leading up to the Big Day -- most of all, their fiance!

But stressful situations are bound to arise and can occasionally bring out the ugly in both partners. No sane bride would ever fan the flames when that happens, right? Well, believe it or not, some couples are doing exactly that -- on purpose -- by having a shadow wedding.


Sex and relationship coach Jim Benson and his wife, a marriage therapist herself, Jessica Benson, are behind these alternative wedding ceremonies hosted a week or so before a couple's traditional (or "light") wedding. The gist: Couples recite vows that reveal their most unappealing flaws to one another in an effort to acknowledge and accept your partner's "dark side." That way, you can forge into the serious commitment of marriage with "eyes wide open."

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While the concept may sound stressful, unnecessary, or too "woo-woo" to many, it really is, at its core, a brave new form of premarital counseling. Jim and Jessica work with their shadow wedding couples for about four to six months before the couple gets married -- helping them come to grips with all of the "ugly" that both partners bring to the table.

Marielle Amrhein, 33, and her husband Karim Bishay from Oakland, California, are one such couple the Bensons "shadow-wed."

"It was something that really spoke to the approach we're taking in our marriage," Amrhein tells The Stir. "One of the priorities of our relationship is being very open, authentic, radically honest in relating to one another, and our personal and spiritual growth is very much a part of how we're choosing to be in a partnership together. For us, that includes not just all the beauty and the light, but all the places of conflict, trauma, hurt, and pain. And instead of pushing those aside, [we believe] really naming them is a way to grow from them."

In practice, that meant that on their shadow wedding day, the couple stood in front of Jim, Jessica, and a group of about a dozen friends and colleagues -- and proceeded to "air as much of their 'ick' as they could," as Amrhein put it. (Although Amrhein says her mom was curious to hear about it, she and the couple's other relatives were perfectly content to keep their RSVP limited to the couple's "light" wedding.)

Marielle Karim wedding photo by Paige Green

The couple then took turns speaking to their shadows through vows they had written on various topics -- from personal autonomy to subconscious hang-ups from childhood. Among Amrhein's vows: "I vow to criticize, nitpick, and subtly try to manage whenever I'm in my own state of distress" and "I vow to always feel like I need to be thinner and then be mad at you for objectifying me." Meanwhile, Bishay shared how he grew up with an inherent mistrust of women.

At one point, the pair actually broke from speaking vows aloud to wrestle with one another. "We had planned it, specifically because I have this whole thing about feeling like I need to fight for my freedom in the relationship," Amrhein says. "It's not actually true, but that's the feeling I have. ... We had decided that he would really hold me as tight as he could, and I would have to use real force to break free. It was a physical vow."

Then, after the ceremony, Amrhein says everyone in attendance gathered around to debrief what had just happened. While some guests voiced concerns, and Amrhein had her own insecurities about having just exposed her inner demons so publicly, she says it was ultimately a healing, supportive experience for everyone involved. So much so that she credits the shadow wedding with bolstering their legally binding vows.

"The process of the shadow wedding really helped us look at the places where we might get stuck as a couple," Amrhein explains. "We didn't necessarily work through them all, but we got a chance to really look at them and know the terrain we're walking together. That felt like a way to more solidly enter the marriage."

Most of us are perfectly happy to do one session of premarital counseling with our officiant and be done with it, and there's nothing wrong with that. Ultimately, spending a significant amount of time in the "dark" with your partner before saying "I do" definitely isn't for everyone. But, for others, it's the perfect way to swallow that hard pill that marriage isn't at all about gifts and garter belts. It can be really painful, rough work. But, hey, if you're in love, it's worth the fight, right?

How do you feel about the concept of a shadow wedding? Would you have had one if you got married all over again?


Images via Paige Green

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