At a recent party, a guy was talking about how disappointing his honeymoon had been.

It rained. The rain went on for six of the seven days he and his bride were in their tropical paradise. They didn’t get to go snorkeling or on the hike they’d planned. They were quickly bored by the attractions of their resort hotel.

Thumbing through old National Geographic magazines they found in the lobby just wasn’t what they had had in mind. They were disappointed and cranky because they had saved for a year to get there and they felt trapped indoors. More to the point, they were disappointed because their preconceived ideas of what would make their honeymoon memorable kept getting in the way of just being and living and loving — the stuff that a honeymoon is really about.

Not that they were alone in their expectations. Honeymoons are now a $12 billion a year industry. 99% of newly married couples do take a honeymoon with an average honeymoon cost of $4,500. “Luxury” honeymoons, taken by about 15% of couples, cost an average of almost $10,000! Often these after-the-wedding vacations take months of planning. Both the wedding and the honeymoon have become goals in themselves, not a means to become a married couple. Yeah, married. You know: A lifetime commitment to love, trust and partner with your beloved.

Back to basics

Although the term “honeymoon” only goes back to the mid 16th century, most cultures over much of historical time have had something like it. Usually, there has been a period of time after the joining (marriage) of a couple, when the couple withdraws and spends time with only each other. Sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists have been fascinated by the tradition. What does it mean?

In cultures with arranged marriages, this is a time when the couple finally gets to know each other. In other cultures, it’s the time that the couple first becomes sexually intimate. In still others, it’s a private time to adjust to the married state without the pressures of daily responsibilities. Often, the days or month of couple alone-time is some combination of all three.

Since most American couples know each other very well, including sexually, before they get married, the honeymoon has become more like a vacation. It’s generally seen as a time to relax after the wedding. But the expectation for it to be spectacular, or at least memorable, can undermine its real purpose.

What a honeymoon should be

A marker: Whether already been living together or not, getting married has changed a couple’s status. They are now a married couple. Like the wedding, the honeymoon — whether it is 24 hours in a local motel or an eight-day cruise — is a statement that things are different now. No other vacation will be their “honeymoon;” their celebration of their new identity as a married couple.

A time to calm down and relax: If the wedding has been a stressful event, the honeymoon is a time to take a deep breath and to help each other calm down and relax. It’s an old joke that often enough the newly married sleep through their wedding night but there is truth to it. There is no requirement that a couple have the best sex ever after a full day of wedding events and celebration. Sometimes collapsing together is the best way to take care of themselves and each other.

A time to reflect: Getting away from normal routines and other people gives the couple an opportunity to reflect on how being married does and doesn’t change things. Often, people are quite surprised to find that they feel somehow different after the wedding. The honeymoon gives a couple time to feel the feelings and to explore what they mean. It’s a time to look at each other and absorb their new reality that they have made a (usually) very public statement that they are in it for the long run.

Private and intimate: The time leading up to a wedding and the wedding itself are usually full of other people celebrating a marriage. There are bachelor and bachelorette parties, showers, and a reception. A honeymoon is when, finally, a couple can have some private, intimate time to bond in a new way.

A time to create a positive set: It’s simply true. We do get what we expect much of the time. If we expect the worst, we can even create it. Fortunately, the same is true of expecting the best. When the honeymoon time is used to start married life in a positive way, it creates a “positive set,” a standard for positive interactions and positive feelings.

Not something to put off: Because it is a marker and the launching of married life, a honeymoon should happen within days of getting married. Yes. Some couples spend the first year after the wedding saving up for a more extravagant holiday they call a honeymoon. But the reality is that their honeymoon, their time for redefining themselves, already happened in the first days and weeks after the wedding. If they went right back to work and didn’t take the time to explore and embrace what being married means, they missed out on the immediate reflection and bonding a honeymoon makes possible. A vacation a year later is simply that — a vacation.

A meaningful honeymoon requires time, not cash

A meaningful honeymoon doesn’t require thousands of dollars. In fact, I suspect that unless a couple has money to burn, spending the equivalent of a month’s rent or the down payment for a house puts pressure on the honeymoon to be about fun, fun, fun; an expectation that can lead to crushing disappointment.

Yes, a cruise or dream vacation to exotic places can be lovely but it’s not necessary for marking and embracing what it means to be married and for setting the marriage on a positive and happy course. A few days with the phones and devices unplugged, sending out for food, and putting a “no visitors” sign on the door is really all that is really needed.

Related article: After the Wedding Comes the Marriage