A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents with Kids Getting Married
Find this information and more on the May 30, 2021 episode of Bite Your Tongue: The Podcast called Whose Wedding Is it Anyway?
So, your child is engaged. A wedding is on the horizon. WHAT NOW?!
The first step here is to give the engagement space to breathe -- and to encourage that in your child. Often after an engagement, couples and families rush into wedding planning, which effectively means rushing into stress. This quickly replaces the idea and importance of the marriage with the idea of the wedding, which, as you can imagine, isn’t the best start for lifetime partnership.
Your first job as the parent is to celebrate alongside your kids and help them to focus their attention on this beautiful (and massive) decision that they’ve made.
The mental and emotional transition for our family from my child dating to my child being engaged is a huge one. How do I handle that?
As a family, you have a new family member to welcome in. Simply put, I would talk with your child about how it feels to them--and how it feels to you--to be bringing a new family member in. How you all, as a team, want to transition this person into the family. For some families, the person is already completely ingrained in family life and already feels like another child. For others, it will take more effort.
But how do I welcome them properly into the family? What’s my role as a parent?
This is unique to each parent-child relationship. What’s important to you as a parent? Is it important to you to be close to your child’s fiancé's family? If so, talk with your child about your desire to reach out. Is it important to you to have a party to celebrate bringing in a new family member? Talk with your child about your desire to throw that party! Your role here is to be true to yourself, while (and here’s the tough part) negotiating what feels true to who you are and what your child and their fiancé are comfortable with. That part requires open, honest communication.
What if my child shuts down when I try to talk to them about these things?
A tried and true construct that we often use as therapists is to start a difficult conversation with, “I feel (emotion) when you do (behavior.” Simple, but effective. For example, you might say to your child, “I feel confused, dismissed and a bit lost when I don’t understand how you’re feeling or what you want during this extremely special time. I want to be involved but I’m not sure that you want me to.” Try to express the deeper, more vulnerable feelings that you have, rather than the ones at the surface - which are often anger or frustration. Instead of saying, “You never talk to me about anything - it’s so frustrating!”, try to dig a layer deeper. This helps to center your conversation on your genuine experience rather than starting a difficult conversation with what feels like blame or a critique or aggression, which rarely goes well. You may be surprised what kind of response you get.
What are some things that my child might be going through but not have the words to share with me?
Engagements are sold by society as all sex and champagne. Which they are, in part! In an ideal world, they are lots of sex and lots of champagne. However, under the surface of these parts, there is an entire identity shift happening that is virtually never acknowledged. With engagements, we are talking big, bold, massive, lifetime change here. Yet engaged couples are expected to feel exclusively blissful all of the time. It’s not realistic. There may be grief associated with the loss of singlehood, fear of a commitment, or disappointment that their experiences don’t match what they envisioned.
Expectations are a huge point of pressure when it comes to engagements and weddings; they are, in essence, a pressure cooker for expectations. Pressure from family, from friends, from traditional media and certainly from social media, from society, from culture at large, exist for what this time should look like.
We’re told that the engagement should be the happiest time of your relationship...and if it’s not, maybe you’re in the wrong relationship. We’re told that the wedding should be the absolute best day of your life....and if it’s not, it’s a failure. We’re told that your bachelor party should look like the movie The Hangover, that your bridal shower should look like an Instagram influencer’s social media page, that your wedding should look like a fairytale -- I could go on for a while here. Engaged couples carry these expectations with them like they’re carrying a boulder and that pressure often brings out a whole host of emotions.
How can I help them with all of this pressure?
Following an engagement, the reality of what this commitment means may sink in for your child in a way that they didn’t anticipate. They may feel some darker emotions that are completely natural after making a giant decision like this. It may look like fear, sadness, sensitivity, irritability or even anger. Helping your child to process these emotions and understand that it doesn’t mean that they’re in the wrong relationship, or that there’s something wrong with them, is incredibly powerful.
How about finances? Who pays these days? How do I navigate that?
The answer to this question is unique to every family. For some families, tradition is incredibly important and they want to stick to the idea that, for straight couples, the bride’s family pays for the wedding and the groom’s family pays for the rehearsal dinner. But there are many other options out there. Many couples, who are getting married later in life than previous generations, pay for the wedding entirely themselves.
How do the two families work together on finances?
Let your kids lead here. They are the connective tissue between the two families and can hold responsibility for gathering each family’s willingness or ability to contribute.
What kind of financial issues can I expect might show up during wedding planning?
For weddings, the biggest issue we see is that for many people, finances indicate control. Many parents believe that if they’re financing the wedding, they should get a say in decisions that the couple is making. My best advice is to set expectations on this front at the very start. Share with your child what you expect to influence (added guests, venue, creative vision) if you’re doling out cash, and find out what they are and aren’t comfortable with. Here your goal is to allow some room for an empathic dialogue between you and your kids.
Beyond finances, what issues can I anticipate that might come in between my child and I during the planning process?
Weddings often reignite or intensify pre-existing family dynamics; this is simply because they mean so much to families. Every wedding planning decision holds a lot of weight and meaning, which creates endless scenarios ripe for hurt feelings and conflict. With weddings, tough family dynamics have ample opportunity to play out on a bigger stage, whether that’s reigniting dynamics that haven’t been felt in years or just increasing the intensity of dynamics that are ever-present in the family.
For example, if a couple wants to buck tradition and go for an unconventional approach to their wedding, it may be deeply triggering to parents who have always advocated for following a traditional path. If a bride has a poor relationship with her father, but has actually come to terms with it over the years, through boundary setting,distance or whatever means have worked for her, she’s now faced with the prospect of the father-daughter dance. She may have to choose between doing what doesn’t feel natural to her or hurting her father’s feelings.
The best that you can do is be aware of the dynamics that already exist between you and your child and anticipate how they might flare up during wedding planning. That way, you can choose how you want to respond rather than running on autopilot.
What if I want to invite specific people and my child is giving me grief about adding to the guest list? What if my child wants to kick off these people for friends they haven’t seen in years?
Each person should give some thought to how important or unimportant it is to them to have certain people invited. For example, is it somewhat important or incredibly important to you, as the parent, to have your two best friends there? Is it important enough to you to ask your child to nix their college friend from the guest list? Will it break your heart not to have those friends there or will it just be a little sad? These types of questions allow you to avoid a common power struggle between kids and parents in weddings -- i.e. “I’m paying for the wedding so my friends automatically gets to come” versus asking yourself whether it’s that important to you or, on the other side, “It’s MY wedding so my college friend will be there” versus your child asking themselves if that friend, who they’ve fallen out of touch with, really feels important to invite.
I’m finding that my child is VERY sensitive to my opinions during wedding planning. I feel like I’m always hitting the wrong button. How do I navigate this sensitivity?
This hits on something that is so foundational to what it means to be a human. It is in our DNA to want our parents to approve of us. Parents are that very first, critical, pivotal, primary caregiver and love in a child’s life, and the meaning of that can’t be understated.
Whether we’re all willing to admit it or not, we have hope rooted deep inside of us that our parents will approve of our decisions. When we don’t get this, it hurts. So, when you give a critical or differing opinion, it has the potential to trigger this primal response, causing a reaction in your child that you didn’t intend or expect. All you can do here is be sensitive to how important your opinion is and adapt your language and tone accordingly.
What are some things that parents don’t think about that cause the bride or groom anxiety?
It’s a hard pill to swallow, but simply having opinions about wedding planning can create significant anxiety for the couple. As the parent, you’re of course allowed to have opinion, but you should be aware that every opinion that you have is likely to make a decision more difficult for your child in the wedding planning process, especially if they don’t initially agree. My best advice here is to, as in any relationship, pick your battles. Decide which opinions are really important to you and share them. Let the rest fall to the side. This will significantly reduce anxiety and stress for all of you.