I have spent quite a few hours in recent weeks talking with couples about family dynamics that are adding stress to their already-stressful wedding planning experience. It seems that certain situations are heightened as the wedding draws nearer, giving the couple more to worry about. Whether it's an interfaith, same-sex, or nondenominational ceremony, it stirs the emotions of the clan.
Over time I have seen, first hand, that when it comes to the wedding day, most loved ones pull it together and support the couple. But it is good for all soon-to-be-marrieds to know that relatives acting up in weeks prior to the ceremony is not unusual.
In fact, family members tend to act out some primal, archetypical roles when it comes to a wedding. Some get caught up in very stereotypical roles.
Why? Because your marriage may trigger a lot of different feelings in the people who love you, just as it is triggering you. Another way to help head off the problems is to clearly understand the psychological dynamics that can go on with people involved in your wedding. And to realize, even those who love you dearly can get crazed.
I interviewed Virginia Rachmani, LCSW, MA, a psychotherapist in private practice in Manhattan, for my book Wedding Goddess , and I still think her insights are brilliant and helpful.
“Getting married is a crisis … but a normal crisis,” said Rachmani.
She explained it's a “crisis” for you and your beloved in that you are making a huge commitment, a decision to truly grow up and be responsible, and these are you final, formal steps away from your parents. It's a crisis for your loved ones because they are along for the ride, trying to help you deal with your stress and tasks, and yet dealing with their own issues.
“Very often if someone is stressed out — whether they have emotional problems or not — they regress to being preschoolers,” she said.
In effect, everyone involved in your wedding — including you and your groom — can act out as if you are a bunch of kids in a sandbox. Rachmani suggested that giving language to some of the “freak out” behaviors that might arise will help you cope with and manage the emotions in the sand box more effectively.
She indicated these as some of the most common problematic behaviors that can surface in your family:
•Your mother may talk incessantly about the wedding planning, relationships with the groom or his family, or decorating your home. Conversely, she may become aloof or even depressed. She may be experiencing a revival of her own fantasies of the perfect wedding — or the perfect marriage. She may also be dealing with midlife issues around aging, work or lifestyle.
•Your dad may become increasingly possessive, and perhaps will relate to you as he did when you were a small child. Or, he may constantly complain about the wedding expenses when you know the money is available; he might alternatively distance himself from you or any wedding planning whatsoever. Frequently these behaviors emerge because he feels out of control or unable to protect you. Perhaps he never disclosed his discomfort with your living with your fiancée before marriage, or the fact that your fiancée's family is in a different world. Like your mother, he is also dealing with aging and post-childrearing changes in his marital relationship.
•Your unmarried sister may act out in an assortment of ways, like missing fittings for her dress. Married sisters and brothers sometimes behave in a proprietary way, hovering, or conversely, dismissing the importance of your wedding or “putting you in your place.” Siblings may resent the attention you are being given or the fact that you are happier than they are themselves.
•If your parents are divorced, any difficult family dynamics may intensify, since the wedding or your relationship with your fiancée and his family may trigger lingering feelings of loss that appear as anger, frustration and sadness.
Of course, some of these roles may switch and be applied to different people in your life. But you get the idea. Any one can have a reaction, an agenda, or a projection on you and your beloved. Not because they are bad people but because they are human, and part of a family system.
Really difficult issues may be helped by professional family counseling prior to the ceremony, to work out some of the issues in advance. And some of these issues will require you and/or your mate to put boundaries in place, makes requests to parties who are creating havoc (such as,”Please hold it until after the wedding!”), and/or to rise above and find a way to be the wiser person.
As one bride says, “Pick battles wisely, and ignore some of the things that can't be changed.”
It wouldn't be a wedding with out a little wedding drama!
Sometimes the best defense is a smile, a hug, and a thank you. Your parents and family members will not transform over night, but you can use the understanding of these dynamics to transform your behavior around them.