The thought of a wedding usually brings pictures of joyous couples exchanging vows, mothers joyously weeping into lace handkerchiefs and the couple happily exiting in a shower of rice. However, before the first invitation gets printed, I have seen many brides in my office sobbing hysterically, feeling torn apart by the demands of opposing mothers, fiancés, siblings and friends. Both large questions like: Is a priest or minister going to marry us? Who should we invite? Who gets left out? And seemingly small details like the texture of your table place card paper stock can trigger emotional reactions from family and friends that seem totally out of proportion to the task of organizing a wedding. Organizing a major event like a wedding ceremony is hard enough. Having your mother and mother-in-law both in hysterics while you are trying to make a decision can seem unbearable.

Amber, a 25 year old, came into my office complaining that both her mother and mother-in-law broke into an argument around the color of the limo that would drive them away from the ceremony. “This is stupid! It’s not the wedding I want. It’s not the wedding my mother wants. It’s not the wedding anyone wants! I don’t understand why getting married has to be so hard. It’s just a big party!” This is where most brides go wrong in their thinking. Amber is not joining two people in marriage; she is joining two families and two sets of friends. We are talking about a major change in the lives of not just the couple getting married, but their family and friends. There is no getting around it. A marriage is a major milestone in life. Major life transitions, whether they are joyful or not, produces change and change produces stress.

Expect Conflict and Deal with It

The best way to cope with pre-wedding family “freak-out” is to anticipate that weddings provide the crucible for two families to work out their differences. Knowing that there is a higher risk for conflict before a wedding can help you think things through and anticipate problems. Don’t think that you are going to prevent or avoid conflict. This stage of development in your family is all about learning how to work together. As difficult as conflict may be, it’s the appropriate resolution of conflict that will set an important precedence and style for working together in the future. Trying to avoid conflict will only postpone the inevitable confrontation until later.

Establish Your Territory as a Couple

Your marriage ceremony is a statement to your family, friends and community announcing the creation of the family that you and your spouse are building. The creation of your wedding allows you a first chance to establish your own territory as a couple. Don’t try to please everyone. This is an impossible task. Part of establishing your new identity as a married couple is being able to clearly say what you want. This also means saying no to what other members of your family and friends want.

Handling your wedding ceremony sets some important precedents regarding how you and your fiancé will handle conflict with both families. Each of your relatives will be looking to you for an indication of how you will handle conflict. They may not ask, but they will be observing you. Then, they will adjust their usual ways that they cope with conflict to your behavior. Work as a team with your fiancé. He or she may not have the same relationship or emotional baggage with your relatives as you do. Your partner may be able to communicate with a difficult relative in an effective and caring manner because they don’t have the same history with them as you do.

Styles of Conflict

The best way to think about this is to list all of the players from both families and think about how each of them handled stress and conflict in the past. Some people will sit and stew about a slight forever. Others may hold onto resentment and allow their irritation to build until some minor problem becomes “the last straw” and throw a fit about everything all at once. Some individuals may appropriately express their irritation in real time. While past behavior is not always a good predictor for future behavior, you might get some important clues about how to deal with potential “freak-outs”.

Establish Clear Roles, Tasks, and Authority

Once you and your fiancé and ask yourself what kind of wedding you both really want, you can communicate your desires to your family and friends. Clearly designate each family’s roles and authority. Figure out who in your family has the skills and strengths to be able to carry out your wishes. Remember, some people have the desire to help, but no follow-through. Others have the desire, but no skills. Take a clear-eyed look at each individual. Aunt Zelda might fancy herself a gourmet; but if you can’t stand her cooking, don’t take her with you to choose a caterer. Aunt Zelda probably has other strengths that you do appreciate. For instance, she might also have impeccable taste in clothes.

Let’s say Aunt Zelda is the sensitive type who would take offense to not “helping” choose a caterer. Find a different job for her to do that would still allow her to make a contribution to your wedding. You might say something like: “I know that you love to cook, but we need you for something that’s really important to me. Could you help me select my gown?”

Keep Your Perspective Loving and Respectful

While marriage is the most natural and wonderful of all human activities, the families of the bride and groom really do feel a sense of losing a son, daughter, brother or sister. Mom may comfort herself with the cliché: “You’re not losing a son, you’re gaining a daughter”. But the sense of loss is very real. Each family member’s life is going to change in some significant and subtle ways. The easiest and way to help your family members make this important transition is to let them know that you want to make that transition with them together. Let them know that they have a part in your new future. After all, there is life after a wedding.

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