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COMMITMENTS : I Do . . . but Not Tonight : Few brides and grooms anticipate the wedding night nowadays. In fact, many choose a good snooze over, well, you know.

June 12, 1995|BRIAN ALCORN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Normally at that time of year, Puget Sound would reflect only slate-gray clouds, a perpetual drizzle obscuring the Seattle skyline.

But today was John and Jill's wedding day.

The sky was a perfect blue. No one could look out over the sun-dappled deck of the ferry at the champagne sea and the sparkling city beyond without reflecting on the mysterious benevolence nature accords to lovers on their special day.

The groom was charming. The bride was radiant. They held each other close around the dance floor as the band played "Can't Help Falling in Love." When the ferry docked, the wedding guests cheered as a sleek limo whisked the young couple into their future. And, as wedding guests everywhere are wont to do, they winked and nudged and told sly jokes about The Big Night ahead.

But later, in the honeymoon suite, The Big Night went like this:

"We ordered a sausage and pepperoni pizza," John says. "Then we watched 'My Blue Heaven' on cable and went to sleep."

What? No wedding-night jitters? No fumbling groom? No blushing bride? No, um, ah . . .

"Sex?" Jill says, laughing. "Are you kidding? All day I was wearing this dress that weighed more than me and John put together. I didn't get anything to eat at the reception. All I wanted was to take that dress off and eat. Sex was the last thing on my mind."

If this keeps up, wedding guests are going to have to find some new jokes. Overworked, underpaid and ever-practical, newlyweds in their 20s and early 30s are finding that, after a full day of hugging relatives, smiling at cameras and ringing up that credit card debt, consummation can wait.

*

Last year's "Sex in America" survey of our sexual mores concluded that married couples have more and better sex than single people. But according to one author of that study, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that newlyweds aren't in any hurry to get started.

"The wedding night doesn't have the same initiation aspect that it had only a generation ago," says University of Chicago professor Edward Laumann.

The biggest reason for this change, of course, is the increased acceptance of premarital sex, he says. "Consequently, sex loses its importance in the whole wedding ritual."

The common progression for couples today, Laumann says, is to have sex first, then move in together, then--if all goes well--get married. This may make perfect sense to post-baby boomers, but it represents a complete reversal of the progression their mothers and fathers grew up with.

Generation X is also waiting longer to tie the knot. The average ages for brides and grooms are 24.5 and 26.5 respectively, up three or four years each since the end of World War II, Laumann says.

"Before the war, people finished high school, got a job and got married," he says. "Now they are waiting until after college or longer."

So, what we have here are a bunch of older, more sexually experienced honeymooners, ones who had already established a comfortable domestic routine long before the invitations went out.

No wonder when it comes to wedding nights, they'd rather watch "The Newlywed Game" than play it.

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Wedding-night whoopee, agrees Santa Monica psychologist Joshua Golden, has become a hit-or-miss proposition.

"Mostly miss," he says.

Golden, who teaches psychology at UCLA, says older newlyweds are more likely to make love on their wedding night than their younger, presumably friskier, counterparts.

"Regardless of what age people get married at, people tend to hold on to the values of the time they grew up in," Golden says. "People are having sex earlier and getting married later. The sense with which virginity was prized when I was a youngster is not that important anymore."

You don't have to look too hard to find people bothered by this separation of sex and marriage.

Sexual intercourse has a particular meaning (the joining of two bodies into one), which cannot be divorced from the ritual of marriage (the joining of two spirits into one), says the Rev. George Coiro, director of public affairs for the Los Angeles Diocese of the Catholic Church.

"A new reality comes into existence by virtue of the marriage ceremony," he says. "The difference is the commitment."

Millie Bratten, editor of Bride's magazine, says the idea of consummating a marriage on the wedding night is a European custom dating from the Middle Ages, when the groom and best man would abduct the bride from her family. They would then hide in seclusion for one full cycle of the moon, drinking a honeyed wine called mead (hence honeymoon ). By the time the bride's family gave up the search and the happy couple returned to the groom's village, the bride was often pregnant.

"Obviously," Bratten says, "times have changed."

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Since couples are waiting until they are older to get married, a growing number are planning their own nuptials. And nothing is less likely to stoke the libido than arguing with florists, buying and returning various gowns, shuttling relatives from the airport and posing for endless photographs.

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