SHORTLY AFTER her engagement last year, Letechia Shevik was overwhelmed by a feeling familiar to many brides-to-be.
"I just couldn't handle it," said Shevik, who is 29, lives near Chicago in Buffalo Grove, Ill., and works as an administrative assistant at Clairol Inc. "All that stress, the planning, the walking up the aisle, turning around and seeing everyone looking at me.
"People I know who got married usually say that if they could do it over again, they would have eloped. So, that's what we did."
To many Americans, the notion of eloping may sound anachronistic if not mythical, a vestige of a romantic time when impetuous Romeos climbed ladders to bedroom windows and stealthily swept away their beloveds for impromptu private weddings, sometimes in another state.
Never mind that the deed was probably inspired by a premature pregnancy, parental disapproval or an under-age bride.
Nowadays, thanks to a rising number of older brides and grooms, a spate of second marriages, a steady stream of immigration-related "green card" weddings and the new 1990s cheap-is-chic ethos, elopements of one sort or another are almost as common as the traditional ceremonies in churches and banquet halls.
Indeed, for many contemporary couples, one of the first lines they might hear at their wedding service would come not from a minister ("Dearly beloved, we are gathered here . . . ") but from a city clerk ("Next in line, please. Hablas Ingles?")
Even Martha Stewart, the high priestess of home entertaining whose many lifestyle bibles include "Weddings," has noticed the trend away from giving a $50,000 celebration, which is how much an average ceremony and reception for 200 costs in Manhattan.
"Instead of paying runaway prices," she said, "people are running away."
Of course nuptial purists may quibble about the word "elopement," which is derived from the word "lope," as in loping away. They would never use the word for small civil ceremonies or jaunts to exotic locales that are designed merely to merge the wedding into the honeymoon. To elope, they argue, the service must be shrouded in secrecy and scandal. "I can't recall the last time I heard someone say 'elope,' " said Cele Lalli, the editor in chief of Modern Bride magazine.
Statistics on the subject are as elusive as the perfect spouse. Figures from the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsviile, however, suggest that a growing number of couples are abandoning formal weddings in favor of what, loosely speaking, would be considered an elopement.
For example, from 1973 to 1988, the number of weddings held in states where neither the bride nor the groom resided increased by 4 percent in the 41 states from which the center obtains such records.
Moreover, in the same period the mean age of bridegrooms has risen to 31.3 years from 28.8 years, and for brides to 28.2 years from 25.5.
This, in all likelihood, raises the chances that the parents of the bride will decline to pick up the wedding tab.
For couples still struggling with their finances, the specter of paying for their own wedding can be an amazing incentive for an elopement.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, anyone remarrying is much more likely to have a civil rather than a religious ceremony. Indeed, the percentage of civil ceremonies rose to 31 percent in 1988 from 26 percent in 1973.
Sociologists like Andrew Cherlin at Johns Hopkins University believe that a decline in religious ceremonies among people who are remarrying might be attributed to the bride and groom having less in common with each other than they would if marrying for the first time.
"A lower percentage have the same religion, education or are the same ages," he said.
Lalli said that the growing diversity in American culture probably increased the pressure to elope, especially when people from different ethnic groups or economic classes were marrying.
"When you try to put a symbolic rite of passage together and you can't because the backgrounds are so dissimilar, one of the solutions is to have a private, simple ceremony," she said.
A no-wait, no-witness, one-minute wonder performed by a civil servant seldom matches the extravaganzas of the blessed affairs depicted in newspaper society pages or in bridal magazines.
Sometimes the brides approach the altar in business suits, blouses or blue jeans instead of gowns, and sometimes the grooms wear ancient blue blazers, leather jackets or sweat shirts instead of morning coats.
Sometimes, the couple doesn't even verbalize a vow of love and commitment. In some quickie states, like Maine, saying "I do" or "I will" isn't required, making the ceremony even less interactive than registering to vote, which at least demands that one hand be raised.