While unpacking years—or, in some cases, decades—of family trauma and turmoil may not be at the top of your to-do list, it’s likely to come up at some point while you are wedding planning. But living in an age when expectations for weddings are at an all-time high can make some brides feel insecure about their family’s skeletons. After all, snapshots of warring siblings on the dance floor or cousins arguing by the cake table aren’t exactly Insta-ready.
Whether we like it or not, family drama has become more the rule than the exception. It’s time to accept that pretty much everyone has it, and those who say they don’t are probably just better at hiding it. And weddings provide for the perfect environment for such drama to spill out—no matter how deep you’ve buried it in the proverbial closet. From parents who aren’t on speaking terms to last-minute will rewrites (yes, really), five women shared what it’s like dealing with family drama ahead of your big day. And, more importantly, they provide expert advice on how to stay sane through family drama before your wedding.
When there are divorced parents who don't get along
Bethany’s parents hadn’t been in the same room together for years, which meant that tensions were essentially inevitable. “Balancing family dynamics played a large role in wedding planning,” she says. “From my parents, each feeling like the other should be financially responsible for deciding seating arrangements so we could minimize contact between the two, it was always something we had to think about.”
Ultimately, she decided to implement a strategy of “give and take” in an effort to treat her parents as equally as possible. “We tried it so they each had aspects that made them more comfortable,” Bethany explains. “For example, not having my dad’s girlfriend attend dress appointments with my mom, and having my dad choose the order of seating during the ceremony and putting buffers in between him and my mom.”
“Put expectations in writing, whether it’s an email or text. Don't compare parents and contributions because everyone will add to the day in a different way. Something that stuck with me was people telling me that the bride’s attitude dictates the mood for the day. If you are enjoying yourself and letting things go, usually the people around you—whether it’s friends who don't get along or parents who are separated—will too.”
If you are enjoying yourself and letting things go, usually the people around you—whether it’s friends who don't get along or parents who are separated—will too.
When there's money involved
Although Rachel tied the knot three years ago in a courthouse ceremony, she and her husband are prepping for a destination wedding later this summer. And honestly, she’s just hoping to survive the whole thing. “I am crossing my fingers that nothing explosive goes down at this event,” she says. That’s an understandable sentiment when you consider the complicated dynamics among her in-laws. Her father-in-law was written out of her mother-in-law’s will ahead of the wedding, and his siblings sold off various shared properties without telling him.
But perhaps the cherry on top of the sundae was her mother-in-law’s, shall we say, interesting sense of humor. “She did not help matters by posting all sorts of nonsensical comments on our wedding Facebook page,” Rachel says. “Including but not limited to: asking if she could wear a leather thong bikini to the ceremony after I told her that she was welcome to wear ‘anything that made her feel beautiful.’”
“There’s definitely pressure to suppress family drama during weddings, but you don’t want the day to just focus on that. Make sure that you have a full understanding of all the family politics and potential drama when you start planning. Get your spouse to be open with you about this because as the planner, it will likely come down to you to orchestrate adequate seating charts, speech handoffs, etc.”
When there are issues surrounding the guest list
Looking back on her nuptials a decade ago, Amelia isn’t quite sure how she handled the challenge of planning a wedding as the multigenerational family drama unfolded in the background. “I wouldn’t say I balanced it,” she says. “It felt like we were stepping into landmines when we were just trying to plan an event that was true to us.” Amelia and her then-fiancé were hit on both fronts, with drama erupting in ways they “never could have foreseen.” His grandparents, for example, wanted the couple to invite distant cousins as a truce of sorts. “[It was] to smooth over some long-held grudge that didn’t involve us,” Amelia explains. “My husband had literally met these people once, and it was just a standard of ours that we didn’t want any strangers at our wedding. I wanted to look around and know every single person.”
It felt like we were stepping into landmines when we were just trying to plan an event that was true to us.
The grandparents ended up rallying their extended family to try and “discipline” them into doing what they wanted. “We were adults, and they were treating us like petulant children," she says. "Some relationships never really recovered from it—the grandparents left our wedding early to go spend time with the uninvited cousins.” As for Amelia, she faced a father who insisted on officiating, even though she’d been clear about her wishes. “He blindsided me on a trip home, cornering me at a dinner in public to say that I couldn't have my brother-in-law officiate because it would be blasphemous,” she says. “I was a ‘heathen,’ and my wedding would be a ‘sham.’ I've been married for 10 years now—some sham.”
“Try to be as financially independent as possible because the money comes with expectations and strings. Know what you’re willing to compromise on and what you aren’t. If it’s a deal-breaker, stand up for yourself. And remember that whatever drama is swirling, it’s probably about the person who’s stirring the pot and not at all about you and your spouse. So know that it’s unfair for you to be expected to somehow fix larger family issues or appease irrational people with an event that’s supposed to be about your relationship.”
When you are part of a blended family
Jennifer faced a classic conundrum for brides from blended families. “I was anxious about choosing someone to walk me down the aisle,” she says. “Due to my mother being married multiple times, I have three men who consider me as their daughter, and I consider each important in their own way.” Over the course of a three-year engagement, Jennifer and her-now husband planned—and canceled—multiple ceremonies because the men couldn’t get along. “One father wouldn’t pay if another was involved, and one wouldn’t come if the others showed up,” Jennifer explains.
To avoid dealing with the drama, the couple went the courtroom route in May, but they’ll also have a “simple outdoor ceremony” this September. And the drama has, unsurprisingly, already taken shape. “Of course, all three fathers wish to be at the wedding, so to make it fair, I am having my mother walk me down the aisle,” Jennifer says. “I thought this was a simple fix to a complicated problem, but now one of my fathers—who has been there my entire life—is deciding not to attend our wedding ceremony at all.”
“Do what you want. My biggest concern was who would walk me down the aisle, and instead of making a difficult choice that would hurt someone, I opted to go against tradition and do something that would make me happy. Don’t be afraid to go your own way.”
When different religions butt heads
Like many brides-to-be, Catherine was hopeful about what planning her big day would look like. “I had idealistic expectations,” she says. “And the reality hit me like a cold glass of water to the face.” When it comes to background, Catherine and her partner are pretty opposite: She’s a Mexican-American who was raised Catholic and who grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He’s a Methodist from the Midwest. To further complicate things, the couple decided to have a Japanese Shinto ceremony, much to their mothers’ collective dismay. “My husband’s mom’s reaction was, ‘Aren’t you inviting God to your wedding?’ And my mom’s reaction was, ‘This is clearly Satan testing my faith. I will not fail you, my Lord.’”
Despite both sides being “passive-aggressively upset” about the decision, Catherine has no regrets about standing her ground and doing what she and her husband wanted to do. “Honor your tribe by maintaining your boundaries and learning to lead a life with these big changes,” she says. “Our lives were enriched that weekend by this lesson.”
“If your parents aren’t already present, non-judgmental, and helpful in practical terms, they are not going to be just because you need their help with your wedding. It's not the most important day in your life—it is the day with the most pressure and expectations. It’s easy to get pushed around by what others want or need, but it’s important to resist it. It’s best to focus on your spiritual and emotional health as an individual and as a couple. Keep moving forward.”