Halloween and the masks of marriage

By Jean Fitzpatrick

The bride in a black cocktail dress with a black veil, carrying a flower bouquet adorned with miniature skulls. The groom in dark slacks, a pirate shirt and a top hat. Theme music from The Addams Family and The Munsters. Guests in costume. That’s what Lisa Panensky and Jim Nieves had in mind when they booked their Halloween 2009 wedding at Westchester County’s Old Dutch Church, built in 1697 and cited by Washington Irving in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” “Sleepy Hollow is the Halloween capital of the world,” Nieves told the local Journal News explaining the couple’s eagerness to be married there. “It’s a landmark.”

But the Rev. Jeff Gargano, pastor of the Old Dutch Church, nixed the plan. Gargano did offer to perform the ceremony outside in the church’s historic “Burying Ground” (where, it is said, Irving’s Headless Horseman tethers his horse nightly among the graves) but Nieves and Panensky declined. The wedding will reportedly take place — Munsters music and all — at their home in nearby Elmsford.

But the couple remained disappointed and puzzled by the minister’s objections. (This is, after all, a church where Irving’s ghoulish story is read aloud every year in the sanctuary.) “I don’t know where he [Gargano] got this idea of burning crosses and killing babies,” said the bride-to-be. I guess the pastor worried that darker forces might be involved in the Halloween wedding, he perhaps not subscribing fully to the engraving on the 1685 Old Dutch Church bell: “If God Be For Us Who Can Be Against Us?”

I’ll admit that I’m partial to the long white wedding dress. But let me tell you what really upset me about this story, and it had nothing to do with the Addams Family. According to local news reports, the church had decided to waive its requirement that the couple participate in premarital counseling.

Now, that’s scary.

You’ve heard the statistics. And with or without a pirate shirt and skulls, today’s couples — so often lacking role models for how to sustain a marriage through crises and everyday conflicts — benefit enormously from the opportunity to reflect on their union and learn practical relationship skills. Sadly, many are so busy with work and wedding plans that they are hard pressed to find time to lay the groundwork for their relationship without encouragement. Even if they’ve had some previous therapy, as a couple prepares to walk down the aisle, it is essential that they talk together about the meaning of marriage, their own experiences of relationship, their struggles and hopes and dreams.

As for the Old Dutch Church couple, what a missed opportunity that was to make a real connection with them. I can’t think of anything more telling than to ask an engaged couple about their masks and disguises. The costumes we choose, like Venetian carnival masks, conceal our identities…but they also reveal our deepest yearnings and fantasies. What do those skulls mean to Lisa, anyway? And why did Jim the groom decide to don a pirate hat? How do their two “characters” relate to each other? Sounds like the start of a rich and interesting conversation.

Through the years, those identities and yearnings often evolve. With each new life stage we deepen certain aspects of ourselves, discard others, discover new ones. I can’t count how many times a husband or wife has sat in my office and told a partner, “I don’t know you anymore,” or “This is not the person I married.” At times like these we feel as gloomy and bedraggled as trick-or-treaters on a rainy night. The beauty is that if you’re willing to keep on stumbling along in the dark, sooner or later a door opens, you wind up at a house that’s all lit up and warm, and a friendly face is inviting you in.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child’s Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.

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