Dear Carolyn: My fiance's parents divorced around the time he and his siblings graduated from college, nearly a decade ago. Since the last one's graduation, they have not seen each other in person and have not communicated in at least five years. None of the kids have gotten married, had a child or, thankfully, had some sort of emergency where the whole family would be together.
So our wedding festivities will be the first time they see each other in years, and they are both being kind of squirrelly about it. I don't really understand why two adults couldn't at least say, "Hello, isn't our son great! Enjoy the party" to each other, but this impending meeting is causing a lot of consternation among the parents, stepparents and kids about who will sit where, who says what and when so-and-so will be where.
My fiance and his siblings generally avoid mentioning one parent in front of the other and he seems stressed about the whole thing. Is there anything I can do or say to help ease the tension?
Awkward: You can be the voice of . . . I suppose I should say “reason” or “perspective,” but that’s not quite it. I’m thinking you can be the voice of whatever.
Meaning, you’ll come out of this married whether his parents play nice or overthink everything or even get into a public fight. Don’t invalidate your fiance’s fears; for all you know his parents will behave badly around each other. So allow for that in your assurances: “Yes, your parents might not get along. But it will be okay, because we will be okay.”
You can also get creative. Is there any chance of getting them together before the wedding, to get the first awkward reunion over with? An engagement party or something.
If that’s not realistic, then at least encourage your fiance to make a point of mentioning one parent in front of the other, thereby pre-breaking the ice in a small and low-stakes way.
When his family members bring up the seatings and sayings and miscellaneous, take the same position: that pushing through the awkwardness as soon as possible will allow everyone to get on with the business of celebrating.
Beyond that, just be calm and be a patient listener. That includes not saying things like “I don’t really understand why two adults couldn’t at least say, ‘Hello, isn’t our son great!’ ” While I understand what you mean, and also sympathize — you believe in the power of maturity, bless you — there are so many families torn up by and about terrible behavior by exes that your attitude could come across as naive or worse, smug.
So go with the whatever: “Yes, it could all go south, but we’ll get through it — we’ll be okay. And who knows, maybe they’ll shock us all with their grace.”
Finally, you can also both choose to concentrate on hosting your guests, not managing each guest’s experience. That changes your expectations and therefore your stress. Any stress that proves resistant to your de-escalation tactics at least has an end date. Congratulations and good luck.