by Cathy Heenan
Preparing Yourself Emotionally for Your Child’s Wedding
When your child decides to marry, the news can evoke many complicated feelings. There is the excitement and relief that your young adult has found a life partner. There can also be feelings of loss, and concerns about being replaced, forgotten, or no longer needed. When a child chooses a life partner, it is another statement of separateness from you, the parent.
This can produce anxiety in both you and your child. If you are able to acknowledge the impending change in your relationship and deal with your feelings, you have a much better chance of maintaining a good connection with your daughter or son and their future spouses. Certainly it is normal to feel some sadness about your soon-to-be married child seeming “all grown up” and beginning her or his own family.
Talking to a friend about how hard it is for you imagine your son or daughter building a life separate from you with his or her fiancé, or expressing your sadness about having to share holiday time with your perspective in-laws, provides an outlet for your feelings. Burdening your child with your sadness or anxiety often makes it much more difficult for her/him to separate and feel excited about the marriage. In addition, if you are out of touch with your feelings, you may “act them out” by becoming overly controlling when planning the wedding with your child — exerting your influence in an overbearing way.
Most young women have a vision of what kind of wedding they want. The process of deciding whether it is possible for “the dream” to come true can be very stressful. As a parent, acknowledging your daughter’s “wish” doesn’t mean you have to gratify it if you are unable or unwilling to do so. But validating the importance of the dream to your daughter is necessary. For example, you can say, “I know you want to have a wedding overlooking the water in a beautiful hotel, and that you have always dreamed of this. As you gather information, we’ll have to see how we can make this happen within our budget.”
The actual planning of a wedding can be exciting, tense, and fraught with disagreements between the child, her parents, her fiancé, and her perspective in-laws. Doing your best as a parent to minimize conflict is important. As the wedding plans progress the excitement can turn into frustration and disappointment.
There are so many details and variables in planning a wedding. At first the plan may seem very clear, but as you all move along through the process, things often change. For example, the location for the reception may have already been booked, or getting married in the city may have turned out to be too costly and so a move to a surrounding area now seems more appealing and less costly.
Your child may be more flexible than you as she joins with her fiancée in the planning. Her ideas of what she thought she wanted may be different than what she decides she really wants or can afford. If you start feeling frustrated or disappointed, try to remember to focus on what is most important. Ask yourself, “Whose wedding is this?” Remembering that this is your daughter’s wedding and not yours will guide you in responding in ways that are in her best interest rather than in yours.
This does not mean that your advice isn’t valuable. How you offer it is important and making sure you are not attached to your advice will reduce potential conflict. If you are attached to a particular idea, such as where the wedding ought to be held, ask yourself: “Why? What is important about this to me? Is this meeting my needs at the expense of my daughter and future son-in-law? Am I overwhelming my daughter with my vision? What impact is my behavior having on our relationship?”
- Be clear about whose wedding this really is. Sometimes it gets confusing: You may unconsciously make assumptions based upon your own wishes rather than the couple’s. For example, in an interfaith marriage, you might think it would be nice to have some rituals from your own religion. Your daughter might not be particularly interested in these elements and you might find yourself upset or angry.You may discover that certain things which are important to you are not significant for your child. This may come as a surprise and call into question how you raised his/her and the values he/she hold. Your son may not have the same connection to his heritage as you thought, or they may feel uncomfortable because his fiancée prefers no religious symbols during the wedding. Remember that your child is establishing himself as a separate person from you as he bonds with his wife-to-be.Initially your daughter may want to handle most of the details, find the hall, hire the caterer, select the flowers, plan the invitation, design the wedding program, etc. As she gets into the “thick” of the planning, however, she may become very overwhelmed and irritable. It’s a big job to plan a wedding. Instead of saying “I told you so, you should have let me help,” stop and take a deep breath and ask her if she might like some help. Ask what she would like to delegate to you.
- When the process gets difficult, it is appropriate to offer help, but do not take control of the couple’s experience. If you step in too forcefully they will inevitably feel resentful and will want the power back once they have found their footing. For example, the couple may be unsure of what color scheme they like. You suggest green and it is only then that they know they prefer blue. This can easily cause conflict because they are disagreeing with you after they had sought your opinion. But in fact you will have done your job, which was to help them discern what they wanted. Your job is not to take over but to help the young couple to gain clarity about what they want.
- Decide as a parent what really matters to you. Be selective. A wedding needs to reflect who the couple is, not who the parents are. However, if there is something that feels very important to you, approach your daughter and inquire if is possible for her and her fiancée to accommodate your wish, for example having a symbol that represents your heritage at the ceremony.
- Listen and then ask questions; wait to offer your opinion until asked. Or phrase your idea something like this: “Would you like to hear some thoughts I have about how you might save some money on the food while keeping it delicious?”
- People (parents and adult children alike) may dream of a “perfect” wedding, but the drive to make it perfect can come at a high cost. Assisting the couple in creating a “lovely enough” wedding helps to reduce disappointments and enormous frustration for everyone involved.
- Remember, there is an ongoing relationship between your daughter and her husband-to-be. Be sure to include him even if your daughter seems to be forgetting him. Remind your daughter to ask herself if this is something that her fiancé might also like, reminding her that this is his day too.
- Communicate with your future in-laws. Express regard for them. Recognize you may come from different economic, religious, or ethnic backgrounds. Be sensitive to them in your planning. For example, if the groom’s parents lead a much more modest life then you do, consider your choice of dress. If you are “over the top,” they may feel uncomfortable. Remember that you will be sharing a life-long relationship, so this is the beginning of building rapport and mutually good feelings. Writing a note to the groom’s parents inviting them to see the location of the wedding, or asking them if they have any preferences, demonstrates your desire to include them if they would like.
- The relationship between you and your future son-in-law can get tricky during the planning of the wedding. You may find you have expectations of him and that he doesn’t come through, which can be disappointing. Often you can speak differently to your daughter than to her fiancé; keep that in mind.
- A final thought. A wedding is an important moment in all of your lives. However, it is never more important than your relationship to your child, his or her fiancé, and your soon-to-be extended family members. How you manage all the challenges in planning a wedding can shape the future of your relationship with your daughter and your future son-in-law. Keeping this in mind will guide you in your communication and assist you in making choices that will protect this extremely important life-long relationship.
Dr. Cathy Heenan, a psychologist in private practice for twenty-five years in Newton, Massachusetts, specializes in couples and adult psychotherapy. She serves as a consultant to numerous businesses and organizations, helping to improve individual and group communication skills. She has been married to her husband Bob for thirty-two years and has a daughter, Lucy, who is 26 years old.