My wife and I just got a big delivery of pictures from our wedding photographer. She asked us to look them over and mark any shots that we didn’t want in the final albums that she’ll print for us and our parents. She did an excellent job capturing the day—many artfully lit shots of people dancing, cramming high-fat foods into their face-holes, and slamming beers, as we wanted—so we didn’t have many notes for her. Only one, actually: Please remove as many shots as possible of the two of us kissing. Our own pictures had creeped us out.
It wasn’t that our photographer had an unusual fixation on PDA. Compared with the other engagement and wedding pictures that show up in my mailbox, our photos were fairly discreet. Many couples apparently consider it normal to have themselves photographed kissing, gazing deeply into each other’s eyes, spooning in the standing position favored by high school kids who figured out that it allows them to press their areas together under the guise of “hugging,” and otherwise posing like people who are 15 minutes away from having, as they say, marital relations. And then they send these pictures to their grandparents.
I seem to be an outlier for finding the practice unusual. In an informal survey of the six couples I know who remembered posing for wedding or engagement smooches, five said it hadn’t made them uncomfortable—including one woman whose uncle was her photographer. (Another said she was largely fine with everything asked of her until the photographer suggested her dad kiss her on the cheek.) Two of my male friends smugly told me they complied with kissing requests because they enjoyed kissing their wives, as though they were going to earn extra marriage points for sending me an adorable answer. I refused to convey this pandering to their spouses.
Only one friend wrote back that he’d been somewhat skeeved by his own wedding pictures, and he made a perceptive point. “It was uncomfortable,” he wrote, “because of the sheer volume of kisses required in addition to them being extremely passion-less.” He identifies exactly what I find unnerving about posed PDA photographs: They’re performances. They’re not candid moments that tell you something about a couple’s affection for each other. (Let it never be said that I object to capturing a spontaneous smoocheroo.) Nor do they document the wedding—what people were wearing, who was in attendance, what the venue looked like—for posterity. Posed PDA exists to formally insist on the physical connection shared by two people whose physical connection I never questioned in the first place.
Stephanie Coontz put my unease in historical context. Coontz is a professor at Evergreen State College who specializes in the history of the family. She says that wedding ceremonies started becoming more important to Americans in the 1950s, and that the idea of a marriage as the union of two people who love each other (rather than just a union of two families) has been around since the 19th century. But according to Coontz, it wasn’t until relatively recently that ceremonies and related wedding paraphernalia began emphasizing the compatibility, the made-for-each-other-ness, of the couple involved. A prototypical wedding in the 1950s was between two people in their early 20s who had been dating for maybe six months. They were presumed to like each other, but the ceremony was less about their personalities and more about celebrating their mutual decision to launch a new family. A wedding was “the beginning of a woman’s life and the way a man settles down,” Coontz says—a sendoff for a breadwinner and a homemaker.
This is still true to some extent, of course, as it’s the rare reception that doesn’t include a joke about the bride and/or groom’s parents looking forward to grandkids. But as gender roles loosen up and individuals wait longer in their lives to wed, Coontz says, weddings have become culminations—the celebration of two mature adults who have found their match. A marriage is the payoff for years of perfecting oneself and searching for just the right partner. Says Coontz: “It’s the highest step you can take. It’s absolute confirmation that this relationship has reached the point where it’s just where you want it to be.” This form of modern marriage is the outcome of maturity, not the beginning of it.
In this environment, documenting your own PDA might make sense, Coontz observes, though she notes that she’s never formally studied wedding photographs. We now think of wedded couples as having found an ideal match, and physical compatibility is part of that match. Looking at it this way, sending your grandparents a borderline-sexytime photo of you and your fiancé is not much different than giving those same grandparents an optimistic take on that fiancé’s job prospects. Both have the same message: “I know I waited a while to do this, and I know a lot of money is being spent on this ceremony, and I know I’m still in grad school, but don’t worry: I made the right choice. We are so perfect together.”
I bet most couples who’ve been engaged could do without this kind of perfection anxiety. There is too much pressure to come across as blissfully relaxed and confident—happy, successful, well-adjusted—during the culmination of a very unrelaxed engagement and wedding-planning process. Our weddings could stand to be less performative, less like a job interview in front of hundreds of relatives and friends. You don’t have to have life—or relationships—completely figured out to know that you love someone. If weddings tilted back some toward what Coontz describes (sans gender stereotypes)—a celebration of two promising rookies starting their marriage career—we might feel less stressed about them. And, more importantly, I’d open fewer envelopes to find pictures of two of my friends humping each other. Gross, guys.