It was July of 2016, when Marie F.* finally reached her bridesmaid breaking point. It happened on the drive to the airport for yet another destination hen party. Her mum had graciously agreed to give her a lift, this was nice and all (and saved Marie taxi fare), but mum spent the bulk of the ride bugging Marie about visiting her cousin when she got back. Marie’s mind was elsewhere, fretting over the trip to Nashville ahead of her: mandatory champagne pong, staged group photos, and painfully unfunny hashtags. Also: A lot of drinking and little sleep. She’d been to a destination hen party in New Orleans, and had trips to Atlantic City and Miami on the horizon, so she knew the drill. “After Nashville I had to go to Philadelphia for work, so the stress was all heightened,” Marie says. “I said I wouldn’t be going, because after two weeks of travelling, I’d be totally beat.”
But then her mum spilled the beans that she had to go see her cousin because said cousin was going to ask her to be a bridesmaid. That’s when Marie completely lost it. She burst into tears. All she wanted to do was get out of the car; she was having an actual panic attack.
The mere idea of serving in yet another wedding — with all the ancillary events she'd need to attend, and the gifts and dresses she'd need to buy — felt like climbing Everest or more accurately, just forking over her next three paycheques.
“I just couldn't wrap my head around having to do this another time,” Marie says. “I just wanted a break.”
No matter how overwhelmed Marie, or any of us feel, it seems millennials increasingly can't say no to the big wide world of celebration culture — and it's starting to take a toll. Let's call it Chronic Wedding Exhaustion Syndrome — it’s a new epidemic thanks to the distinctly millennial instinct to celebrate every major (and minor) milestone, and a need to create amped up experiences to remember. For a generation reared on My Super Sweet 16, getting engaged is a spectator sport, weddings are no longer single-day events, and birthdays can require a weekend getaway — if they don’t last all month. Which is why in a recent survey of Refinery29 readers, 1 in 5 participants told us they’re stressed enough by their social calendars to talk to their therapists about it.
The stress is real, according to Marni Amsellem, PhD, licensed psychologist in Connecticut and New York. And while, feeling pulled in different directions, grappling with the financial burden of events, or dealing with difficult friends and family, are age-old sources of conflict, Amsellem says there are new pressures for this generation.
Part of this is why we party in the first place — the need to throw epic parties is rooted in our millennial upbringing. “It’s related to the whole idea that the self should be nurtured and celebrated,” Amsellem says. Broadly speaking, millennials tend to value individualism and self-expression more than previous generations, so it’s easier for us to justify what many might see as an exorbitant adult birthday party or over-the-top wedding, she says.
“I lose sleep over it,” says Catherine K.*, a 26-year-old teacher in Philadelphia who has eight weddings (one of which is for her twin sister) to go to between now and November. Per her calculations, she’ll probably spend $3,000 (£2,360) on wedding attendance alone this year. “I’m so excited that all these things are happening, but I just can’t stop seeing the numbers add up.”
Social media is also a contributing factor that wasn’t really there before, Amsellem says. The way it gives us a glimpse into the whims of celebrities’ and influencers’ lives creates a certain standard, whether we realise it or not. (Just think about the live flower wall that Kim Kardashian West had at her wedding, then peep the countless “wedding flower wall” pins tagged on Pinterest).
It also means that photos are an increasingly important part of having the perfect wedding, hen party, or birthday. For guests, this means added pressure: a feeling that you have to not only be supportive and show up, but also perform in the pics of your friend’s Pinterest-perfect party.
Ashley Ross, 30, explains that this aspect is particularly hard to navigate because of her struggles with body image. “I’m about to go on this beach trip. It’s not even because of being in a bathing suit with my friends, that’s fine,” she says. “It’s because I know the photos will be plastered all over social media, so it’s not just about the people who will be there, it’s who won’t be.”
Catherine has anticipatory anxiety about the cringe-worthy group photos she’s going to have to partake in for her friend’s hen party, given how extravagant their bridesmaid proposals were. “I know she’s going to make us do all the Instagram posts, and it makes me wanna cry a little bit,” she says. “But there’s also that guilt of, I don’t want to be a party pooper, but where do I draw the line where I’m just like, enough is enough?”
Ironically, all the emphasis on perfection can turn the actual occasion into something less special for guests, Marie says. “When it’s all at once with no breaks, it’s overwhelming and defeating, and it definitely affects your excitement,” she says. “Especially because you're doing the exact same thing for each person, no matter how much that person thinks they're being unique.”
This can cause simmering resentments between friends and within groups, which only adds another layer of stress. Remember the scene in Bridesmaids when Annie (Kristen Wiig) finally explodes at Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) absurdly lavish Paris-themed bridal shower? Or the way that Danielle Staub’s bridesmaids on Real Housewives of New Jersey all dragged her in the confessional interviews. Like that.
“Feeling like you’re shelling out a lot of time and money when you yourself aren’t being celebrated in those ways can breed some sort of resentment too, especially when you're not feeling appreciated,” Dr. Amsellem says.
This unspoken, collective resentment actually perpetuates the problem: when one friend asks their friend group to do a lot for their day, the rest use that as permission to go overboard on their own celebrations, almost like payback, Marie says. “It’s very much this ‘tit for tat,’ ‘I’ve paid my dues, now I deserve this’ mentality,” she says.
And so we say enough. Nobody wants a party to get in the way of friendship, and if you're starting to feel that way, take a pause. “If you start judging yourself for having the emotion, then you have two problems: you're now stressed, envious, and feeling shame that you're having those thoughts,” says Lata K. McGinn, PhD, director of the CBT Training Program for Anxiety and Depressive Disorders at Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology.
It can often feel like you have no choice but to go to a party, because everyone is going to hate you if you bail. (Wanting to lazily cancel plans is a tired millennial stereotype.) This is a phenomenon that Dr. McGinn calls “fragilising.” Even though deep down you know your friend probably won’t care if you skip, many people who struggle with anxiety have a tendency to jump to the most catastrophic conclusion, she says. In this case, the “catastrophe” would be everyone turning on you. “It could be simply a matter of being assertive and thinking, I won’t wound them so badly that they can’t recover,” she says. Chances are, they’ll get over it.
As a single person, Marie, who says she enjoys celebrating with her friends, still wonders if they will be there for her when it’s her turn to be celebrated. “I had to come to a point where I just accept that I am spending all this money, time, and energy, and I will not get it back,” she says. “I have to, because if I don’t accept and compartmentalise that, I will constantly resent every person around me — and I don’t want that.”
She’s found a way to some zen amid the chaos by reminding herself that this is all temporary, and by learning to say no. “Now I feel a lot more comfortable saying, Actually, I can’t do that,” Marie says.
She’s also found time to indulge herself: In the autumn of 2018, after dutifully serving as a bridesmaid five times, attending 11 other weddings, nine bridal showers as a guest, traveling to six destination hen parties, and assisting with three elaborate marriage proposals, she took her first personal holiday, to Berlin, in years. “It was great to be on a trip where I had a say in what we were doing, and I felt like I was paying to do things that I actually enjoyed,” she says. “It was extremely refreshing.”
* Names have been changed to protect identities.