Carolyn Hax: How to plan a wedding you want without alienating others

January 6, 2012

Over the years, columnist Carolyn Hax has doled out more than a few helpful hints to would-be brides and grooms. Now, with a bevy of newly engaged couples about to start their wedding planning, a roundup of some of her sage wisdom on how to set boundaries, what you should think about before a destination wedding and how to have the wedding your family will hate.

September 2011: Left out of the wedding plans

I’m being left out of the planning of my own wedding. My future wife has a lot of very strong opinions and is also being backed (financially and otherwise) by her mom. I don’t have very strong opinions about weddings generally or this one in particular, but I feel like I should be concerned that I’ve been consulted about almost nothing this whole time.

Blessing or a curse?

“I don’t have strong feelings about wedding plans, but I’ve realized I do feel strongly about being included in decisions that affect both of us.”

Please, please take very seriously any response from her that doesn’t feel right to you. Don’t make the very common mistake of saying, well, I don’t care about the wedding anyway and she does. Pretty soon the issue will be something you do care about; make sure you aren’t yoked to someone who doesn’t care what you want.

***

February 2008: Why don’t my preferences matter?

I’m recently engaged. Most of what I’ve heard so far from family and friends is what I should do, what they want out of me and requests to explain why I’m not interested in doing X or Y like other brides -- and I’m feeling as if my preferences don’t matter.

I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve never even been a bridesmaid. I already have a hard time putting myself first in my various relationships. I don’t want to be rude or a Bridezilla, but so far my attempts at getting people to respect my wishes aren’t working.

— City of Wedding Hell, Population Me

You’re letting me plan your wedding? It must be “my day”!

You need:

· A budget. If the total comes from but doesn’t drain your savings, you’re beholden to none but each other.

· A location. Choose without apology if you like it, can afford it and can make it accessible to those who matter (in descending order of importance: the couple; the people whose presence is important enough to affect the date and location; everyone else).

· An officiant, representing your beliefs as a couple -- not your beliefs as a dutiful child, your beliefs in appearances or your beliefs in location, location, location.

· Finally, you need enough refreshments and seating to make your guests comfortable; invitations; a head count that reflects both your budget and vision; music to keep things festive; and a dress that doesn’t scream “fairy-dust poisoning.”

Unless that’s your preference. This whole blueprint is about marriage, on the couple’s terms. Assuming your terms aren’t “vanity” and “waste,” the only people you’ll really offend are those who want things done their way, not yours -- i.e., the ones you can’t please anyway.

Here’s what you don’t need: anyone’s respect. Want, yes, not need. It’s between you and your fiance.

Mazel tov.

***

July 2010: Mom is going to hate this

My wonderful boyfriend and I have decided to get married. Next Tuesday. At City Hall. Neither of us can stomach the idea of a big show and feel it is really a private matter -- the rest of the marriage is when other people get to butt in.

My parents are going to be upset. Really upset. I’m the only daughter and my mom has been making noises about how much she’s looking forward to planning our wedding and when are we going to get engaged already? This is exactly why we’re doing it the way we are.

Is there a good way to handle this? We are going to my home soon, and I planned on telling them then. In person, with enough people around that there hopefully won’t be a scene. Am I being a coward?

— Atlanta

Yes. You’re being brave in taking steps to live your life on your terms -- but your courage runs out when it comes to owning it.

Don’t sneak around like naughty children, don’t hide behind a crowd when you tell the truth, don’t present the truth to Mom as a fait accompli. All of those choices are setting this up to be an act of bad faith.

Please talk to your mother, face-to-face if possible, and be prepared to say, “Mom, you’ve talked about planning my wedding for as long as I can remember. I wish I felt the same way, but I don’t want a big wedding. And so I am not going to have a big wedding. “ ‘Guy’ and I are going to get married on [date here] at City Hall. If there were a way for both of us to have what we want, then I would do it, but since our desires are so far apart, I have to go with what’s right for Guy and me. I know this will be hard to accept, but I hope you will also find a way to be happy for us.”

It’s not a very original speech, and there’s a reason for that. When you choose to act against a parent’s wishes, you need to hit certain specific key points: acknowledging their position, showing you care about it even though you disagree, laying out your priorities and course of action, demonstrating your resolve, and opening the door for peace.

It can help, too, to offer some form of compromise -- namely, to invite your parents to give their blessing to this choice by being present at the wedding as witnesses. That’s your call, because it depends on their ability to play along -- and your ability to say, “We’ve invited you as a witness, and nothing else, which means no catered lunch afterward” (or wherever you want to draw your line). If you really really can’t trust your mom not to show up with Aunt Mary, Cousin Lou and a tray of Swedish meatballs, then, yes, she’s leaving you no choice but to tell her either after the fact or without naming the date or location.

Still, don’t use the hide-behind-a-crowd option. That usually just makes people feel even angrier about the controversial news. Tell her privately. Don’t escalate where it’s still possible to manage, contain and divert.

***

August 2008: What to consider when planning a destination wedding

My girlfriend of four years and I are in the preliminary stages of planning our wedding. We want a unique wedding, but not large or showy; we want our important family members there; and we want to make the decisions when it comes to most details.

We both have always dreamed of having our wedding on the beach. We moved to Florida one year ago so I could attend graduate school. We both come from a town in Michigan where ALL of her family and most of mine still live.

I would love to have family and friends come down for several days. Why have an ordinary wedding when we can really be creative and make this an especially memorable event for everyone involved?

There are problems, though. Her grandparents would not be able to attend (lack of mobility), and mine probably wouldn’t, either. It would be a financial strain on my girlfriend’s family to come. Also, they would (strongly) prefer us to get married by a priest, to which I say, “No way.” We are both atheists.

To the money concerns, I have two potential antidotes: (1) Encourage people not to give a gift, and to treat themselves to a little vacation in Florida instead, and; (2) Pay for the wedding ourselves, meaning the only costs for everyone would be the flight, hotel and miscellaneous costs.

I see an opportunity to have an extraordinary wedding. Is that selfish? What do you think we should do?

— J.

Here’s what your guests hope you’ll do, even if they don’t know it yet themselves: Add up flights, hotels, ground transportation, meals and every other cost that triples when you’re away from home, and then compare that to the 50 bucks most cost-conscious people would (rather generously) spend on your wedding gift.

Then do some role-playing, and imagine you’re allotted two weeks of paid vacation from work. Now imagine you’re inclined to spend those weeks, I don’t know, puttering around your garden, or skiing, or lolling at Paris cafes.

Now imagine a relative asking you to spend half your annual allotment in Florida on his idea of your dream vacation -- a “unique, creative and memorable” celebration of himself.

I say this without bitterness; no close family member has asked me to choose between missing a milestone, or ponying up extra savings and personal time. But these two commodities are as precious as rubies, especially at this cultural moment, and people don’t appreciate being asked to part with these rubies just because a Midwestern backyard wedding doesn’t seem as special as the couple fancy themselves.

If you want to wed on the beach, wed on the beach; it is your home now, after all, and your money. And, certainly, your atheism makes the priest issue a non-issue.

Just know that your dream will hurt some important family members, no matter how you rationalize it. Not just grandparents, but also those who resent being asked to choose between paying dearly or missing out.

If the backdrop matters more than family, then elope and have a Michigan reception. If family matters more, then save the beach for the honeymoon. And if you want it all, either be prepared to pay for everyone’s travel expenses -- or learn this most valuable skill: how to say no to yourself.

***

September 2002: Wedding upstaged by his sister’s

I recently got engaged. We found a reception site that had a great date available next fall, talked with both families and put down the nonrefundable deposit. A week later my fiance’s younger sister got engaged. The wedding date? Five weeks before ours.

His family is small and lives far away, so they won’t be coming to both weddings. We feel it was intentional because his sister wanted to “be first.” (She has a history of acting like a little princess.)

Through my fiance, his sister knows I’m disappointed, but I’m looking for an apology. I am trying to be mature, but the fact is: I’m hurt, and being around my fiance’s family is no longer enjoyable, listening to the excitement around the sister’s wedding while feeling like the afterthought. When I try to talk to my fiance about this, I feel I’m putting him in an awkward situation with his family. Is there any way to let them know I’m very angry, without ruining a relationship with my future in-laws?

-- Bride No. 2

How old are you?

Rhetorical question.

So the sister upstaged you. (Or, she also found a place with a great date available, which happened to come before yours.)

So your fiance’s family will miss your wedding. (Or, hers. Or they will make a representative showing at both.)

So her wedding is bigger news to his family. (Or, as the bride’s family, they’re more involved and therefore talk about it more.)

So you opened your lunchbox and found that your cookies were gone. We’ve all been there. Whether they were stolen or your mom just forgot to buy more, you get the same two choices: shrug or cry. Your choice so far doesn’t become you.

If you decide this is bigger than the cookies, then stop feeling sorry for yourself and do something. Either talk to the sister yourself, or drop it. Either forfeit the deposit and reschedule for full attendance, or drop it.

And regardless of what you decide, find a way to accept that you got out-princessed. Priorities are always your friend. It’s the marriage that matters, not how bad you can make your groom feel because the wedding’s not going your way.

April 1999: How to I tell my mother-in-law to butt out?

How do you deal with the bossy future mother-in-law?She has suggested several times for us to get a bigger church to hold more of her friends-our church holds 140 and she has 100 people she would like to invite. However, then we would have to take out a loan to pay for the reception.We love the church, attend there regularly and want to keep things small. How can I politely tell her to quit the talk on our need for a bigger church or is it best to stay silent?

Tranquilizer gun, like any other ferocious beast. Either that, or you and your intended get ferocious yourselves. You just say no, you’re sorry, you both have strong ties to this church and are both committed to a smaller wedding, and don’t budge. It’s your day. But as with any pestilent — I mean, persistent — in-law, it’s up to the child to draw the line and enforce it, not the child’s future spouse (i.e., you). Don’t let yourself be conscripted to fight your fiance(e)’s battles against the Momster.

More Carolyn Hax

Tell Me About It archives

More Weddings and Engagements:

The holiday engagement boom is a wedding industry dream come true

Photos: Marriage proposals in the movies

Photos: Celebrity weddings and divorces of 2011

Photos: Wedding trends for 2012

Photos: How to choose a diamond

Engagement stories: Upload a photo and share the story of your marriage proposal

Timeline: When and how to plan your wedding

Getting married in the Washington area? Tell us your story to be featured in On Love.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers.
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