The most popular engagement month is December, and the most popular wedding month is June, according to the 2010 Real Weddings Survey. So even though not a lot of people may be tying the knot right now, more wedding planning takes place this time of year than at any other.
But as engaged couples get to know their future in-laws, pick reception colors, select their wedding wardrobes and sample cake, more is going on — at least there should be, according to some who know wedding planning best.
Planning for a wedding is often the first major project that a couple takes on together, and the patterns established throughout the process will continue into the marriage.
"There are so many things that you have to address when you're planning a wedding that are similar to things that you're going to address throughout your marriage," said Ann Peterson, author of "Your LDS Wedding Planner." "If you can find a way of dealing with them in your wedding planning, how much better off will your marriage be?"
The wedding planning process gives participants the "first opportunity of seeing how you brainstorm, how you compromise, how you listen, how you negotiate, how you keep a sense of humor and sense of respect and love," psychologist Liz Hale said.
Learning to communicate effectively, navigate family relationships, budget finances and adapt to constantly changing circumstances are all areas that an engaged couple may experience that, with a little extra attention, could help strengthen the marriage before it even happens.
"I think marriage has become a sort of an amorphous concept for people," said Meg Keene, author of "A Practical Wedding" and creator of apracticalwedding.com. People may know they want to get married, she said, but they could be unsure of what marriage means to them or their partner, and it's important for them to discuss it.
She recommended that for every hour a couple spends going over wedding plans, they spend an hour talking about how they want to set up their marriage, including areas such as finances, family and faith.
"Make sure that you ask questions even when you think you know the answer," Keene said. "You think that you know exactly how your future spouse feels about finance or prayer or whatever, and then when you really sit down and start to have that conversation, you often find out surprising things, and those are the really interesting things that are important to know."
Even if the answers don't reveal anything new, just the experience and the time spent communicating is still valuable, Peterson said.
"Have you ever gone into a party and felt awkward, and then you just feel awkward the whole rest of the night? But if you went in feeling great, you'll make friends," she said. "If you go into a marriage already with poor communication skills, it's a lot harder to dig yourself out of that hole."
Practicing open, honest communication is good for resolving conflicts during wedding planning.
"Talk to each other. Talk to everyone face to face, not around the back door," Peterson said. "You'll get things resolved quicker, and it'll be less of a problem. And it'll strengthen your marriage, because if you're able to maintain good relationships with everybody, then you'll be able to maintain a better relationship with your spouse as well."
Conflicts can happen no matter how good the communication is and how agreeable each partner is being. But some conflict can actually be a good thing.
"There are a lot of tensions and sometimes fights that take place around wedding planning that I think our instinct is to ignore or to make it easier to make them go away, and I think that it's actually very important that you go through them," Keene said.
Even when the disagreements are over things like invitations, Peterson said, it's not bad to disagree if it's over something important to you.
But it's important to choose your battles carefully.
"Stand up for what you want! You should!" Peterson said. "It is a big deal; weddings are a big deal. You're supposed to only have one in your life and you want it to be perfect, right? So, yeah, you should talk about what you want and be willing to disagree. But should you fight to the death? Well, I don't know, is that the hill you want to die on?"
Keene agreed that it's important to know when to let go.
"Keep in mind that it's just a party, and it's just once," she said. "You're going to spend the rest of your life with this person, and you're going to spend the rest of your life with these new family members, and you're with your own family, and so is it worth really damaging the relationship over napkin colors? No, it's probably not."
However, she added, it's easier and may be preferable to have a "practice" fight between the bride and mother or mother-in-law about the dress code or the invitations rather than to have the first fight between them be over something bigger later on, like a baby.
Arguments over minor wedding plan details can do a lot to help the newly forming family separate from the main families and become a new entity, according to author and bridal counselor Allison Moir-Smith.
"Fighting with the families is not necessarily bad," Moir-Smith said. "It's a way for the couple to establish their 'coupleness' — their independence from their families. It's just very difficult to do, because … if the parents are paying, (it's an) incredible act of generosity. For people to complain about what's being offered looks, on the surface, ungrateful. If you can take it to that other level, what's going on emotionally, it's a healthy, developmental stage to move out of being primarily identified as being a daughter or a son and becoming a spouse. And that's the emotional work of the engagement … to change your family identity roles."
It's not just the new family being formed, but also the existing families that the couples are adopted into that may require some navigating. Wedding planning can make this difficult, especially when many people feel invested and want things to be done a certain way.
"So many times brides and grooms will say, "You know what? It's our day, it should be our way.' Well, yes, it is your day, but it's not just your day," Hale said.
As you plan your wedding, she said, "you really start to get to know yourself as well as what your partner wants. Talk to your parents about what their expectations are. You know, we're not the only ones that have been dreaming about our wedding. Sometimes our parents have been dreaming as much, if not more, than we have."
That doesn't mean that the families should have control of everything, though, and the planning can help define everyone's new roles and expectations.
"To withdraw a bit and to form a bond with someone else outside of your family, who's going to become your family, is a huge task, so patience with each other as you are starting to create new boundaries with your family is really, really important," Moir-Smith said. "Because you're all re-negotiating relationships."
"You start to learn to set boundaries with your family, and you're starting to learn to say no to people," Keene said. "You're forming your own family, so I think that it's a balance between learning to say no to family members, sometimes for the first time, and also learning to accept their help and sort of let them love you the way they want to love you."
While not the most romantic topic, money is often cited as a leading cause of divorce.
"It's really important that you have forthright talks about things like your wedding budget, and you really talk about why you're making the decisions that you're making, because they're setting up sort of the value system for you as a couple going forward … how you're going to approach financial decisions in the future," Keene said.
Because a lot of people have been eagerly waiting all their lives to get married, Peterson said, they may want everything to be a certain way, which is oftentimes more costly than anticipated or what the couple or their families have the means for.
"I've seen bride after bride just really run her family and her groom through the wringer because she had to have exactly what she wanted," Keene said. "And as times are changing and grooms are becoming more and more involved, I've seen grooms do the same thing to their brides. 'It has to be this way, it has to be that way,' and is it going to be that way always in your marriage?"
The same principle applies to finances in a marriage, she said. "There's always a reason to spend more money; there's always a reason the budget is going to be something that you're going to butt heads over. So if you can find a way to work that out in wedding planning, you're going to be so far ahead of the game in your marriage."
Learning to balance time is as important as learning to balance the checkbook. During the engagement period, Keene said, couples are trying to plan a wedding, strengthen their relationship and spend more time with the family they'll soon be leaving.
"I think it's important to use the engagement period to practice splitting your time between things that matter to you, and not letting one thing take over," Keene said. "Your wedding planning has the ability to sort of take over the time you would otherwise spend on your relationship, and I think that can happen later … so remembering to take time and focus on each other is really important during wedding planning and really sets the stage for the rest of your lives together."
Chances are, the process of planning the wedding — and the wedding itself — will not be perfect.
"Wedding planning is practice … you're probably going to make mistakes," Keene said. "Your partner is going to not check with you about a financial decision, or you're going to make a big decision that you think they don't care about and you don't check with them."
But then, once something like that has happened, she said, "you have the opportunity to come back to the table and sort of say, 'What mistake did we make that we don't want to make in the future?' (It's) not the end of the world as long as you're able to communicate about it after it happens."
And often, the problems and difficulties that need to be faced won't be anybody's fault. The best response to this, which will strengthen any marriage, Peterson said, is to learn to be adaptable.
"Things are going to go wrong, no matter how well-planned they are; they're going to go wrong. Something will. Your brother-in-law will show up in shorts instead of a tux, or somebody will bring their child who wasn't invited, or you'll run out of napkins or whatever. Something will happen. It will rain. Be adaptable. And that will strengthen your marriage."2 comments on this story
Even when the wedding is over, the lessons learned will follow a couple into their marriage. Memories of the day can also be important in sustaining the marriage.
"Marriage isn't always easy, and life isn't easy, so having this moment to look back to where, you know, everyone you love was there and you made really important promises, can really be sort of helpful in sustaining the marriage," Keene said. "How you decorate or what it looks like isn't the most important thing. … The most important thing is creating a day that you can look back to in happiness, and that it was a day of support and love."