April 23, 2002 -- 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.
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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.
Also, the average age of people getting married is creeping up. In 1958, the average first-time bride and groom were 20 and 23, respectively. In 1998, they were 25 and 27.
Older couples are more likely to be independent-minded, and resist having a big wedding just to please the parents or conform with tradition, experts suggest. With the divorce rate at roughly 50 percent for couples younger than 45, there is a steady increase in second marriages, which lend themselves to smaller ceremonies.
Experts also point to the ongoing relaxation of social mores about marriage, and the decreasing stigma against having non-traditional nuptials.
Elopement — The Package Deal
The wedding industry in recent years has begun creating and marketing elopement packages, in response to the demand for nice, small, relatively inexpensive ceremonies.
Las Vegas has seen a steady growth in the number of marriages. Last year 123,143 tied the knot in the desert gambling mecca. The city's wedding chapels noted a sharp slowdown after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, but say that business these days is booming.
Some in the wedding industry there say the trend is toward more traditional style weddings, and away from extremely kitschy or casual events.
In California's Napa Valley, the Rev. Blaine Ellsworth helped start a wedding planning service catering to couples who want small, affordable weddings in the region's picturesque wine country.
"We started this a year ago," he says, of the company, Enchanting Elopements.
The company offers "elopement packages," with a weekday wedding in a Napa vineyard, along with a photographer, minister, and flowers, for less than $2,000. He estimates the average cost for a large, traditional, weekend wedding in Napa at $36,000.
"We get a lot of calls from people saying, 'We're looking for something different from Tahoe or Vegas,'" he says.
He cites the economic slowdown, as well as a shift toward weddings that combine traditional and non-traditional elements.
"They want that sense of frivolity along with that sense of spirituality," he says.
Different Elopements for Different Folks
At the Wedding Chapel in West Des Moines, Iowa, about 40 percent of the marriages are elopements of one form or other. The small, traditional chapel accommodates people looking for more than a civil ceremony by a justice of the peace.
Most decisions to elope are economically motivated, says the Rev. James Love, who performs the chapel's wedding services.
Some 20 miles away in Dallas Center, Iowa, the Candle Lit Way Wedding Chapel recently started offering elopement packages along with traditional larger weddings.
"A lot of people had come looking for a small place to get married," says Mary Ellen Oberender, who owns the chapel with her husband Dan. A basic elopement marriage with a minister there costs $233.75, including a half-hour rental of the chapel.
"I think there are a lot of people who really don't have any money — they really don't," she says. "They want to be married and they want to do it in the eyes of God."
But many of her clients make a virtue of necessity, she says.
"I think elopements can be much more intimate and much more meaningful to people."
At the Little Chapel of the Flowers in Las Vegas — which performs 7,200 weddings a year — only one quarter of the couples were there spontaneously. The rest planned their weddings months ahead of time.
"Now we're getting people who booked their weddings a year plus in advance," says Dave Foote, a director at the chapel. "It's really planned out," he says, "It's not just 'Let's hop in the car and get married.'"
In Columbia, N.C., The River House has been offering elopement getaway packages for several years. Elopements make up about half the weddings at the bed and breakfast, owner Karen Este says. As with other elopement packages, Este says it's the combination of traditional wedding elements with a low-stress, low-price tag that brings couples to her.
"I want to make it as stress free as possible," she says. "I just tell them, 'Oh come elope and then tell [your friends and family] to throw you a big party when you get back.'"
Stephanie Rosenbaum, who co-wrote the Anti-Bride Guide, says she expects interest in elopements and smaller, less-traditional weddings to grow.
"A lot of people are saying, 'My partner and I have lived together for six years, who are we kidding?'" she says.
"I think people are saying if we just elope we don't have to have any of this stress."
Christine Bradley, the Las Vegas bride, said she wasn't sure what to expect at her wedding ceremony. Both she and her new husband were previously married, in large, traditional weddings. This time they were looking for an economical service that would be fun and still somewhat traditional. Bradley said she was pleasantly surprised with the Las Vegas wedding experience.
"I was really expecting something like I'd seen on TV, like a drive-through wedding," she admitted.
"It really turned out beautiful."