The phrase "You can choose your friends but not your family" rings especially true when a wedding brings all kinds of knotty relatives out of the woodwork. (Even goddess Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle had to deal with complicated family issues before her vows.) But there's a difference between putting up with a grumpy uncle's complaints about the reception hors d'oeuvres versus being around family members who constantly hurt you with their words or actions—people you might describe as toxic.
So what's the best way to handle these harmful relationships before or even during the wedding? Should some people be left to experience the event through the Instagram photos, or can you work it out and actually have them present?
Here’s how to deal with toxic family members before or during your wedding, so you can enjoy this exciting time and avoid getting bogged down by family drama.
Step One: Know Your Tolerance for Toxic
Many brides are fortunate to have good relationships with their family going into their nuptials, which means they have a solid support system surrounding them as they embark on this huge life step. Unfortunately, others go into their wedding days with unresolved family conflicts and/or members who seem keen on making everyone miserable when they're around.
If that's you, know that a toxic family member can come packaged in a lot of different ways—whether it’s someone who has outward hostility, substance abuse problems, or is a divorced parent with many, many grievances. Being able to identify what’s toxic to you is crucial so that you can determine what role that person should have at the wedding and how involved he or she can be with you during the day.
“Everybody has a different tolerance for toxic,” says Dr. Marilyn Gale, a licensed clinical social worker and a therapist who specializes in family therapy. “Some people seem to be able to ignore it or be really calm. Other people have toxic relationships that trigger their boiling point. Individuals have to be able to sense what their needs are and how much they can tolerate.”
Bottom line? Toxic looks different to everyone, and only you can be the one to identify it.
It’s Okay. Not. to Invite a Toxic Family Member
Weddings are traditionally a time for family to come together to celebrate new beginnings and to welcome a new family member into the mix. But what if a rocky relationship threatens to take away from that fun and inviting atmosphere? Should you feel pressured to invite those folks anyway in an effort to bury the hatchet?
That depends, says Kara Shaw, a licensed clinical social worker and counselor, who suggests that brides perform a mental rehearsal of how it might feel if that person were there compared to if that person weren’t there.
“If it feels like including somebody would feel so overwhelming that [it’s] the thing you would be focusing on, it’s really worth considering not inviting that person because you want to focus on yourself and on your marriage and the people who matter most to you,” Shaw says.
It might not be tradition, but it’s perfectly fine not to include toxic family members if you believe their presence would be distracting or unwelcome during such a special time.
If You Do Invite Them, Have a Plan in Place
Should you be flirting with the idea of including them, take small steps to meet up with them before the wedding day so that you can see how it feels to be around them and determine whether or not it would be the right decision, advises Gale. You could start with a one-on-one coffee date, and if that goes well, consider inviting them to a shower or other wedding-adjacent activity so you can gauge how they'll interact in a social setting. Remember, it’s okay to change your mind at any point. This is your wedding day, and you have every right to feel good about everyone who is on the guest list.
If things play out all right and you go through with the invitation, it’s a good idea to have a friend or a trusted relative keep a watchful eye over the toxic family member. This confidant should be a pro at damage control because if any problems arise on the actual day, you as the bride want to remain blissfully unaware of them.
“Have a bouncer, driver, or companion who is hired to quell the disruption quickly," says Dr. Laurie Ann Levin, a psychologist and author of Life in Life: Meditations to Live Longer, Strengthen Your Relationships, and Create a Healthier Life. ”Make a plan and play it out in several scenarios and directions so you feel covered to truly enjoy one of the most important days of your new life.”
Communicate with Your Future Spouse
Choosing a life partner means relying on him or her during difficult times. This can be tough when your partner comes from a supportive family and can't necessarily relate to your pain. Though he or she may not be able to directly relate, you should still be communicative about how you’re feeling and how he or she can help you.
Most important, you should feel safe to confide without fear of judgement. Your past experiences and relationships—no matter how good or bad—have contributed to who you are today, and a loving partner will be empathetic to this.
“In my professional opinion, more often than one might care to admit, you marry somebody who mirrors the most wounded place inside of you, so together your partnership heals both of you for a secure, healthy attachment,” says Levin. “It's unlikely that your future spouse will be insensitive to that which made you the unique, wonderful being you are.”
Take Care of Yourself First
Planning your wedding is a stressful time—even without the relational strife—and taking care of yourself should be a priority while you're tackling your mounting to-do lists.
Maybe that means taking a yoga class, spending quality time with your partner, or going for a walk at the end of a long day. On top of that, it’s critical to surround yourself with loving people who are there to listen—before and during your big day.
“The bride should have people she can count on who don’t just tell her what to do, but who are really able to listen and ask her what she’s needing," says Shaw, "so that she doesn’t feel alone in her process."
In fact, a wedding should feel like the opposite of being alone. No matter who’s included and who’s not, the focus of your day should be on celebrating your love and dedication to your partner with the people who love and care for you the most. The only drama should be the stunning details of your dress.