When you marry, you not only marry a person, you marry a family. And your fiancé gets more than just a new spouse, he/she gets another branch of the family – your family!
This is how it has always been, but in recent decades, the reality of extended family has come to be seen as an intrusion into the private life of the couple. And a wedding is a peak time when tensions with extended family and in-laws are inflamed.
For many engaged couples, interference in the wedding plans by a domineering family member from either side, is a major source of stress and resentment. Power battles can erupt over any and every thing, causing deep wounds that may poison the relationship for life. At a time when everyone wants to be celebrating, such tensions can be a devastating killjoy.
The reasons for the tension can be many and are rarely the fault of only one party. Both sides are often guilty of insensitivity, ingratitude, judgementalism and selfishness. Here are some tips on how you can navigate these trying times.
1. It’s (not really) Your Day
The idea that it’s your day is a myth that’s fed by the ‘princess-day’ culture – that is, it’s all about the bride primarily and groom secondly. The thing is; weddings are community events. Marriage is not really a private relationship – it’s a community sanctioned and supported institution because good marriages make stable families which produce well-adjusted children. And everyone benefits when children become mature, tax-paying citizens (as opposed to welfare-dependent delinquents)!
Moreover, couples in love generally want to share their joy with their friends and family. A major part of the desire to marry is to marshal the approval and support of those closest to us for our relationship. We want to not only celebrate our union; we want our friends and family to celebrate with us.
And this is great. It’s what makes weddings such wonderful occasions; two families and their friends coming together to celebrate the life-commitment of two of their own.
It’s a celebration of the joining of two families, not just two individuals.
Unless you’re prepared to elope and have a wedding with only your witnesses, you need to come to terms with the fact that it is not ‘your day’. If you want to have your family engaged and really participating with you in the celebration, you have to be willing to let them in. And, for your own sake, do it graciously and without resentment, otherwise you’ll only be punishing yourself.
So do some soul searching and think about what you really want. At the end of the day, most couples do want their families involved; you just have to come to terms with the reality that it will be a compromise.
And by the way, this is the stuff of married life – learning to let go of cherished assumptions and expectations to make way for your spouse’s (and your children’s) needs and desires. Learn to give a little now – otherwise you’ll be in for strife down the track.
2. Blood to Blood
Let’s face it. Sometimes the in-laws can be difficult and trying to find a way through seems impossible. In cases where there is substantial tension, we recommend the “Blood to Blood” principle described by Bill Doherty and his daughter Elizabeth in “The First Dance”. It simply means, that if there’s going to be a difficult conversation with a particular family member along the lines of, “thanks for your offer, but we really feel very strongly about doing xyz differently”, it should be initiated by the fiancé who is related to them. That is, ‘Blood speaks to Blood’.
Why blood to blood? Firstly, the relationship is stronger and is more capable of withstanding the likely upset. Family members learn to love each other despite faults and limitations over many years. We know each other well and can therefore read the body language and intuit the ‘real’ issues more easily. We also know the family sensitivities and are used to apologising and forgiving each other. So the difficult conversation is more likely to be effective in achieving what you want if the blood relative does the confronting.
In contrast, the relationship between your fiancé and your family is relatively new. Both sides are hoping that the other really likes them and so both are particularly sensitive to slights and disagreements. Deep wounds caused at this early stage of the relationship can have a long-lasting negative impact setting up your future spouse to feel unaccepted or judged as inferior by your parents and family. Resentments across the in-law relationship established at this time have a habit of lurking in the background for years to come. Your job is to do what you can to protect your fiancé from these potential wounds.
3. Keep a united front
Before you take an issue to your family, you need to be on the same page with your fiancé. If there is a disagreement between you on the wedding planning, this makes it difficult for you to clearly communicate what you want from your family. It also sets the scene for family members to take sides; a recipe for a stormy wedding day.
This is not always easy. Often, we struggle to verbalise what we feel or really desire. We may have strongly held opposing views to our fiancé or we may simply be uncertain of what the real issue is for us. This makes communication with our fiancé messy and conflicted.
Part of successful marriage is learning how to negotiate our differences. It’s a skill that isn’t instinctual – it has to be learned and is one of the key tools you will learn at a good marriage preparation course… so to get maximum benefit, enrol in a course sooner rather than later so that you can start applying the skills straight away.
Read more about SmartLoving Couple Decision Making
Making the Transition
Transitioning from being a single to a couple is trickier than it appears. There are new loyalties and priorities that need to be formed and appropriate boundaries put in place to protect the marriage. Previously intimate relationships often need to be reformulated; your best friend becomes your second best friend, your family of origin as your primary support network becomes secondary, your untethered freedoms and self-directed decisions submit to a new value of couple-focused decisions.
Often the transition process is complicated by misgivings and subconscious fears; are we really ready to surrender our cherished independence? Our ambivalent commitment to the process can cause misunderstanding and hurt between us. And in some cases, can derail the relationship completely.
Your engagement is meant to be a time of delight and anticipation. It’s also an important time for consolidating your relationship skills and setting in place habits that will support your growth as a couple over the coming years.
If the wedding plans are becoming so fraught with tension, it’s time to call a ‘time out’. Schedule a day to just be together, connecting with the person you love. Agree to not talk about the wedding or the problems for at least four hours. Focus on re-establishing a romantic connection and you’ll find that the issues are much easier to solve.