Q:We’re planning our wedding and everyone seems to be thrilled. With one exception. Enter my father-in-law. He’s divorced from my partner’s mother and although it was over twenty years ago and they’ve both remarried, continues to harbour lots of resentment and anger towards her. He seems to have issues with a lot of people, actually. He’s almost sabotaged his own relationship with his daughter and her children, his sister and her husband, his mother and stepfather, his brother-in-law, and the list goes on. There’s almost no one in my partner’s family he is on normal speaking terms with.
We met him for lunch and announced that we were indeed planning on getting married and having a big family reception with everyone invited. The conversation continued with FIL listing off every person he currently has issues with and asking with concern whether they were invited or not, and us replying, “Yes, everyone is invited. Everyone. Including that person.” We half-jokingly noted that because they’d all be there, he’d need to be on his best behaviour. And he responded that he couldn’t promise that, because he’s, apparently, not willing to just “sit back and take it” any more. So what could—and should—have been an adorable, happy moment for him and my other half to get excited and talk about well, any of the fun or interesting aspects of the plans, turned into us scrabbling to find ways to reassure him that he wouldn’t be forced to interact with people he doesn’t like and him complaining about how much it costs to come visit us, so we’d need to give him plenty of notice. I don’t think he even once said congratulations. Compared to my parents and my partner’s mother, who all wanted to know about our fun, wacky reception plans, offered unprompted to help towards the costs and expressed nothing but joy and excitement for us.
My partner says he “doesn’t care,” that if his father acts up he can just leave and he’ll have to deal with it… but I know him. He’s a sensitive sort, and he gets a little wet around the eyes just contemplating what could go wrong, although he’s vetoed me enlisting a couple members of my own family to subtly keep an eye on and distract FIL if need be. I can see how much this hurts him and it makes me so angry. I’ve given the FIL a rather stern telling off in the past when he’s upset my other half and, while that worked the one time I did it, it was about a very specific behaviour and not something I want to make a habit of doing. I’ve taken to concocting fantasy scenarios in my head where the FIL causes a ruckus and gets thrown out of the reception, but excuses and creative misdirection are used to make sure my partner never notices and has a wonderful time anyway.
I know we can’t control his behaviour, so what I’d really like are strategies to help us make the best of things, ways to come to terms with the worry that he might cause problems and ways to minimise the fall-out if he does, so if nothing else the party can just carry on. Unless one of you or the commenters is a genius magical wizard unicorn who does in fact know of a secret way to control the FIL’s behaviour, in which case please say so!
A: Dear Anonymous,
No unicorns here, I’m afraid. But you know what I do have? Threats.
I know, I say it all the time (and you even repeated it!). You can’t control the way your loved ones behave. They don’t change for your wedding day. Step back and let adults be adults.
Well it’s still true, but gets an addendum when someone flat out lets you know that he’s not going to be adult. See, when I say all of that, I say it with the assumption that grown ass people know that a fancy happy weddingtime isn’t the time or place to drudge up family dirt. Most adults know to smile and be civil and mutter cuss words to themselves as they sip champagne. You father-in-law basically just promised you he’s leaving the champagne civility at home and instead bringing a second set of crazypants.
So what do you do? You threaten him. You tell him, “Dad, this wedding day isn’t about all your sh*t. If you can’t just leave it at the door, sit on the other side of the room, and chat with the two solitary adults you don’t hate, then you’re not invited.” Period. Tell him that he’s not allowed to come unless he keeps it together for the five or six hours it takes to get married. Well, don’t you tell him, but your partner should. It’s his dad, after all.
The other red flag for me (other than his outright saying, “I will fight with people on your wedding day”) is that he’s already missing the whole point. You said it yourself. He’s already making this all about himself, instead of recognizing the day is bigger than just his petty drama. He couldn’t even step outside of himself to eek out a, “Yay you guys!” before jumping into embittered tirades. That, for starters, reeks of immaturity but also tells of the kind of personality who will further make things all about himself when he should know better. Tell him to behave, or he isn’t invited.
Here’s the thing about this threat. It’s really up to you two whether or not it’s a bluff. Which is more heart wrenching? The idea of not having dear old dad-in-law present on this momentous occasion, or the idea of him picking fights with one half of the guest list? I can’t give you that answer. It’s one you need to sort out with your partner and decide with some healthy realism. There is a good chance that one of these things will happen on your wedding day, and there’s also a pretty healthy chance that you’ll still survive anyway. So many of us have. Oh, so many of us. But, right now, you understandably want to minimize damage. And letting dad know that his antics will cost him an invite may be just enough to keep him in line (for the wedding, at least. You’re on your own for the holidays).
So, if you do invite him? Rest in the (admittedly, uneasy) comfort that other folks have uncomfortable family issues spring up at their weddings, and they survive. Then also realize that even if your father-in-law acts like a child, it’s not your responsibility to intercede in his adult decisions. If he causes some ruckus with family at your wedding, the party will probably still carry on. And his outburst bears no reflection on you. None. Step back and let adults be adults. (But, you know. Threaten them first.)
Team Practical, what steps do you take to avoid family drama at the wedding? How do you recover when conflict unavoidably bubbles up anyway?
Photo by Gabriel Harber
If you would like to ask Team Practical a question please don’t be shy! You can email Liz at: askteampractical [at] apracticalwedding [dot] com. If you would prefer to not be named, anonymous questions are also accepted. Though it really makes our day when you come up with a clever sign-off!