Frazzled by time and money needed to plan a big wedding, Christine and Michael Bradley turned to an increasingly attractive option: they decided to elope.
"We kind of wanted a traditional wedding, but we also liked the idea of eloping," Christine said Monday, just a few hours after tying the knot at the Little Chapel of the Flowers in Las Vegas, Nev. The couple flew in from Waco, Texas, with a few friends, and plan to stay just a day or two before heading home.
"Elopement" may conjure images of teenage lovers sneaking out of windows by moonlight, but experts say more and more couples are embracing the once-covert form of nuptial, turning it into a more public affair and boosting an industry along with them, albeit one that's much less expensive than the full-blown modern American wedding.
People are using the term to describe many different kinds of small weddings — both spontaneous and pre-planned.
"Now it's not so much about whom you marry, as how you get married," says Lynn Beahan and Scott Shaw, in their book Let's Elope: The Definitive Guide to Eloping, Destination Weddings, and Other Creative Wedding Options. But they describe a whole class of "hybrid elopements" — distinguished typically by a simple service and small guest list.
Often they are "destination weddings," held anywhere from a resort island to Las Vegas to the town just down the road.
Interactive: Click to learn about famous eloping couples.
While there are no firm statistics on different types of marriages in America, experts such as Linda Waite, a University of Chicago sociologist, say eloping is becoming an increasingly attractive option for many.
"The significant trend [in marriages in America] is that people are doing it less," she says. "A lot more people are living together and living together longer and having families."
When those people do decide to marry, elopement can be easier and cheaper, she says.
"By any indication — anecdotal or otherwise — people are pursuing more alternative forms of weddings," says Let's Elope's Shaw.
Carolyn Gerin, co-author of the Anti-Bride Guide: Tying the Knot Outside of the Box, agrees. "People are questioning things because that's what you do when the money's tight."
Why Elope? Money, Time, Stress, and Shifting Attitudes
Elopement advocates point to a host of benefits from smaller, less formal weddings.
First is the money involved in a traditional wedding.
The average cost of a wedding in America has grown steadily, and now stands at almost $20,000, according to many estimates. As the cost goes up, a sizeable minority of couples are looking to less expensive alternatives.
The end of the 1990s economic boom has intensified the financial pressures on couples.
"They're sort of thinking it's either $25,000 on a wedding or $25,000 on a down payment," says Pamela Paul, author of The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony.
Beyond the money, social changes are spurring couples to consider more-clandestine weddings.
More families are more complicated today, some with multiple sets of in-laws, step-siblings, and other extended family. A small elopement wedding reduces or eliminates the wrangling over whom to invite, where to seat them, and so on.
"If you come from a divorced family, it removes a whole level of negotiations," says Waite, the University of Chicago sociologist.