Behind the bride’s smile: a psychoanalytic understanding

When we observe the bride emerging, having just been married, inevitably we see on her face a radiant smile. It seems as if the event has gone perfectly, just as she had imagined it when she dreamt about it as a little girl. I wish to argue, however, in this paper, that there is more behind the bride’s broad smile than at first meets the eye.

Often this event has been longed for, and idealised, because perhaps the bride has seen her own mother’s wedding photographs, images of royal weddings on the television, and images of her contemporaries’ weddings.

One can only speculate as to how our bride interpreted these images. Speculation, as contemporary history in the Western Economy indicates, our bride may well dream of wearing a white wedding dress. As white visually attracts the maximum amount of attention and our bride-in-white may well consider being the ‘centre of attention’ a particularly rewarding experience.

We first witness our bride as she emerges from having undergone the marriage ceremony, where vows and rings are exchanged as auditory and visual symbolic tokens, as part of a rite of human passage. Part of the ceremony is a visual symbolic enactment of the bride turning her back on her parents, as she faces the bridegroom, and swearing an oath of fealty to her intended husband, in front of witnesses often composed of family and friends. Thus loyalty and authority are in transition.

As our bride emerges from her wedding ceremony, she has been transformed from daughter to bride and to wife. But there comes a time when our bride has to remove her wedding dress and is no longer ‘the bride’, but a wife; the transformation is complete. Evidence indicates that some brides keep their wedding dress, not only as a keepsake, but as evidence and proof that the event really took place. Arguably, the wedding dress, often purchased by mother, enables her daughter to leave the parents and form her own relationship. The wedding dress has acted as a transitional object, like the teddy or cloth of infancy, provided by the mother but chosen by the infant, allows the bride to leave the mother.

The bride’s smile may indicate that she has made the correct choice of partner, but behind the bride’s smile there can be fears associated with the new attachment, separation anxieties about parents and loss of the familiar.

Counselling and psychotherapy, I believe, with a therapist who can be objective can offer the individual the opportunity to explore issues of concern to them. Topics such as attachment, separation and loss affect each one of us, as well as featuring in the above observation.

Due to the universal incest prohibition (see The Book of Leviticus Chapter 21), society has deemed it imperative that we must leave our mother and father and form a non-incestuous sexual relationship.

I suggest that there are different types of attachment, the prototype for later intimate relationships often being formed when we are infants with our caregiver. Through a process of identification, parents can often become our role models for the type of attachment we choose.

Some people are able to establish and maintain an attachment with another as they may have experienced a stable, holding environment that felt containing and secure. These individuals may therefore have the ability to compromise. This type of attachment can be where mutual sharing, empathy and caring occur. Not all attachments are without problems.

Some individuals may need to ‘control the other’, where one partner seems to dominate, while the other tends to be submissive.

Some may feel fearful of trusting another in case they become hurt again, so they avoid forming an attachment. This may reinforce an anxiety of abandonment.

Some women may form an attachment with a man and become pregnant, but don’t seem to be able to sustain the relationship, so become single mothers.

Some people may not feel able to form an attachment; they may wish to live alone. This can stem from narcissism.

Early childhood experience of the loss of the mother and or father through death or divorce can adversely affect the adult’s form of attachment.

Some individuals have formed, in infancy, a secure attachment, so as adults they can separate from their family, but not without some degree of distress.

Behind the bride’s smile she may feel distraught at the reality of separation from the mother so may return to the safe haven of home and the attachment figure for comfort and support after leaving home.

Some individuals seem to cling to their significant others in a type of dance of co-dependency where the child has not been given gradual trusting independence. Equally, some may find that the mother clings to their child in a dependent manner. So ‘co-dependency’ is not a one-sided responsibility.

Now as an adult, enacted during the marriage ceremony, the child turns their back on the parents, thus enacting the separation of the parent’s authority over them. This enactment is a step towards forming a new secure non-incestuous relationship.

Behind the bride’s smile there may be a sense of loss of their familial home, and loss of independence, as there begins sharing, compromise and ‘giving way’.

The infant manages loss, at weaning, with the mother’s help, by choosing a comfort blanket. For the bride her ‘comfort’ becomes her white wedding dress, which, as mentioned above, is often bought by the mother, but chosen by the bride-to-be. After the ceremony the wedding dress will be wrapped and retained as a reality-check.

There may be some things that are not lost. For example, the mother and fathers’ internalised voice, family values, habits, addictions or obsessions.

Another loss that the bride may feel is the loss of her father’s role in providing a sense of security. This task has been handed over, during the wedding ceremony, to the husband as he like her, vows to love and cherish forever.

Sometimes, when ‘reality’ sets in, the bride’s smile changes and arguments and anger become intolerable, the couple may seek counselling or psychotherapy.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SE6 & N2
Written by Gavin Williams, M.A., M.Phil., Psychodynamic Psychotherapist, BACP Sr Accred
London SE6 & N2

I am now in my 30th year following counselling and psychotherapy qualification.

I have studied psychoanalysis to PhD level.

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