Learning Something From the Bolting Bride

Now that the whole world has vented at Jennifer Wilbanks, perhaps we can step back and build something constructive out of her bizarre and woeful tale.

For those who don’t know who she is, please recall last week’s national hullabaloo over the woman (identified by various media as a nurse or as a medical assistant) who fled her hometown of Duluth, Ga., rather than admit she was having second thoughts about her pending nuptials.

Instead of being honest with her fiance, family and the hundreds or thousands of rescue workers who searched for her, she feigned abduction and hopped on a bus to New Mexico.

Her wedding was planned as the “ne plus ultra” social event of the year in Duluth (where presumably, there aren’t too many large weddings.) It wouldn’t even have passed as the event of the week in Phoenix or New York or Paris. She had invited 600 guests to her local church, planned for 14 bridesmaids and 14 groomsmen, and according to media reports, gave her approval to lavish spending on entertainment.

Nonetheless, it was stressful enough for Ms. Wilbanks that she did what one observer calls the “manly” thing (in this case, the “womanly” thing) and split town. Lip-waggers across the United States are speculating on her possible motivation. I have one of my own, which falls squarely outside the conventional mold.

In my humble opinion, the larger, more garish and ostentatious the wedding, the less likely the marriage is going to work out. It’s the “Erbe” theory of marriage success and failure.

As a scowling cynic when it comes to “show and blow” events, I rate the likelihood of long-term success in a marriage in inverse proportion to the family’s ability to subsidize the “wedding parade.” Some wealthy families have always had and will always continue to have excessive weddings. But in recent decades our hyper-commercialized culture has persuaded upper-middle, middle- and even low-income families that less should be more and even more is not enough.

Couples who truly love each other are comfortable presenting their commitment to the world through a three-day saga that doesn’t force their families into Chapter 7. When confronted with buffets including abundant portions of pate de fois gras and waterfall bouquets of Epipactis Gigantea, I do not walk around drooling like other guests.

I don my skeptic’s hat and ask first, Why the gaudy display? Then I tell myself I would have been much more impressed by a small, meaningful gathering and the announcement of a large donation to a worthy charity by the couple (or by the couple’s family.) The latter, to me, would denote confidence by the couple, supported by a healthy side helping of class, style and surety of purpose.

The greater the emphasis on ticky-tacky consumerism, on approval by organized religion (as if that added to marriage stability) and on consumption for consumption’s sake, the more I start thinking someone close by is trying to talk him or herself into something that’s not going to work.

Is this said in the guise of excusing Jennifer Wilbanks from her ruse of last week? No, not at all. She should apologize to her fiance, to her family and to her community. She should repay rescue workers for the cost of the nationwide search. Or, if she can’t afford that, she should volunteer a mountain of time to other search missions for people who are truly abducted, to repay her debt.

But we consumers should not take this media opportunity to stare inside the sad cage of Ms. Wilbanks’ world without looking, too, at our own flawed culture and values. We should ponder those societal pressures that caused her to act so selfishly and carelessly. Lastly, we should consider how we may have contributed to those pressures on her and on other similarly situated men and women about to wed. And we should use her story as a chance to prompt more serious marital commitments from here on out.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)