Friday, February 12, 2016

How to Throw a Surprise Wedding, Part 1

As everybody reading this already knows, my wife Makenzie and I got married by way of a surprise wedding in early 2016. We threw an engagement party that was actually a wedding. I thought I’d write down my thoughts while they’re still fresh, so you can understand just how difficult this non-traditional plan can be.

For the record, I started writing this blog in early December 2015, so some of my memories are already a little faded, since we began this journey around August 2015.

I first met Makenzie at my best friend’s wedding in March of 2015. We didn’t date until May, but after only a few days of dating, we knew we had found something special. We started casually talking about wedding plans probably two weeks in, and seriously discussing it after the first month.

Because of her line of work as a wedding photographer, Makenzie has been to more weddings than I will ever be in my life. Between her long list of wedding industry professionals, and the supposed expectation that she (a prestigious wedding photographer) would have a huge wedding of her own, we determined that we were actually quite sick of traditional weddings. Like a song that has been overplayed on the radio, we were sick of the same old thing. We wanted to do something special, and more importantly, we wanted it to happen quickly.

We talked about eloping quite a bit. Fortunately, over the summer we had a completely unrelated conversation with our pastor and the effect that eloping had had on his family when his brother did it. He explained that his family would have loved to show their support of his brother’s marriage, but they never got the chance; they were left out. That one conversation was the primary reason we didn’t end up saying “I do” alone on a beach in Santa Barbara.

A few weeks after that conversation, Jennifer Anniston had a surprise wedding. From what I understand, this is becoming a common practice for celebrities: They don’t want the paparazzi stalking them and photographing their wedding. The trick is that they throw lots of fancy parties, and one of them turns out to be the wedding. It’s a good technique if you’re famous, I guess.

However, I am not Jennifer Anniston. A family friend told Makenzie one day that a surprise wedding would be a fun idea. Everything clicked together, and the idea was born. This was around August, so we had been dating for a solid three months, and frankly we almost just went to the courthouse and got married during that time, because when you know, you know. You know?

The very first thing we did was pick a date.

Originally, Makenzie wanted to get married in November (!) which gave me a great deal of anxiety. We had this idea in August, so I freaked out about getting married in three months. For one thing, neither of us would have the money we needed. It would mean cutting the honeymoon or most of the wedding. I was able to talk her into pushing it back to January.

Makenzie is very successfully self-employed; she runs her own photography business. The only time during the year that she’s not working six or seven days a week is December and January. We figured that December was already stressful enough without planning a wedding, so the date had to be January. We worked out everything so that we could have a 10-day-long honeymoon before coming back and working like crazy in early February. This was really the start of a months-long planning process that was really exhausting and exciting at the same time, especially once we figured out what we wanted to do with the honeymoon, but that’s for later (Hint: Disney World).

The next thing we did was figure out exactly where we could have such a wedding party that wouldn’t be immediately suspicious. We determined that we could do it at her parent’s house, because they had a big backyard and they were planning on doing renovations anyway. It was a perfect cover.

Next was the timeline. We knew that in order for the timing to work out, we needed to be engaged by a certain date (the second week of December) so that the timing of the “party” in January would seem natural. That made it hard for me because it became much harder to plan, but, again, I’ll get to that later..

Perhaps the worst part is that very few people could help us. Normally (I’m just guessing here), when people get married, they have all kinds of friends and relatives who can help out with various wedding duties. You might have a friend who does flower arrangements, and another who knows a guy who rents table settings, and so on. I think that for most people, the kind of wedding we pulled off would be virtually impossible, or certainly about a hundred times more difficult.

Fortunately for us, Makenzie knows almost every wedding vendor in Southern California, or knows someone who knows them. It was only by leveraging these connections she was able to get everything we needed, on time and for cheap. I wouldn’t have even known where to start.

Once the big strokes were in place, everything else was just details, details. Eventually my brother and his wife got involved, which was cool because the situation effectively mended a bridge between us. It was a completely unexpected bonus to all of this, and getting my relationship back with my brother and his family was something I didn’t know I wanted, but it turned out to be one of the best wedding gifts I could have received.

There were also quite a few changes in my own family’s life that really brought Makenzie and I closer at the time and really motivated us to get this wedding stuff done.

We started marriage counseling the same month we decided to go through with the plan, which I believe was late August. We explained the situation to our pastor, and he graciously agreed to meet with us in secret. Normally marriage counseling is a class offered by individuals from our church, but took it all upon himself to help us. He really stepped up when we needed him, and we’re extremely grateful.

The whole situation was very odd; we weren’t even engaged and yet we were being counseled! We had a meeting about twice a month right up until late December. Just in time to put a ring on and call it good.

I really recommend that couples do marriage counseling together. It really opened up some interesting conversations for Makenzie and I. It helped us understand each other, and set our expectations accordingly. People and relationships can be really messy. In the words of one of our marriage councilors, Brent Van Elswyk, “marriage is the hardest thing you’ll ever do in your life. But it’s worth it.” Marriage already has enough stress. Why wouldn't you give yourself and your spouse a head start?

In fact, I think that people who aren’t getting married could benefit from this kind of counseling. It’s not like therapy to resolve a problem; it’s just a way of changing your thinking and understanding the other person. I’ve been able to bring a lot of the information and wisdom I gleaned from those sessions into my normal life and relationships.

So there’s the genesis of this whole idea. Check back on Monday and I’ll tell you how hard it is to plan a proposal for someone who knows it's coming. It's one of my favorite stories


  1. I am glad you wrote it down, because you will forget everything over time. As you said, it is already starting to fade. I look forward to your next installment.

  2. Oh boy, I've been looking forward to this! I still don't know how you guys managed to keep it a secret. :-)