Why Is My MIL Becoming The Focus Of My Wedding?


AAPW: this party isn't supposed to be about her issues

by Liz Moorhead, Editor, Ask APW

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Q: For the past fifteen years or so, my fiancé’s mother has been an alcoholic. She goes through periods where her drinking is really bad, and periods where she doesn’t (seem to) have an issue. This topic is something that is never addressed in his family, until recently. A little over a month ago, we had a really bad encounter with a VERY drunk future MIL, and the secret came out that she has been drinking hard for the better part of the last year.

My fiancé and his brother have finally taken a stand and are doing what they can to try to get her the help she needs. Currently, they are not on speaking terms with her until she begins some type of treatment. Although this seems harsh, this is what they have been instructed to do by addiction medicine specialists.

While I am so happy that something is being done to get her healthy, and really hopeful that she does get better, one thing is incredibly frustrating to me. Our wedding is just a short seven weeks away, and suddenly the entire day (and everything leading up to it) is solely focused on his mother and what her role will be in all of this. We are allowing her to come to the wedding, but our lack of contact with her seems to have everyone confused about what the day means for her. They have lost sight of what the day means for us. Even his parents think the wedding is “her day.”

I am not the type of girl who is obsessed with her wedding and wants the day to be a perfect fairytale where all eyes are on her, but I am big into symbolism. My wedding day, for both my fiancé and me, is supposed to be the incredibly happy day surrounded by our loved ones, a symbol of happiness and hope for an incredible life ahead.

We are beyond frustrated that she has become the center of attention; we feel like there is a dark cloud hanging above the day and are struggling to feel like there isn’t even a point to having a wedding anymore. How can we reclaim our wedding? How can we put the focus back on the happy fact that a wedding is the start of a marriage, a new family being formed? How can we get excited again when we are struggling with all of this sadness? I want her to be able to be a part of all of this, but I don’t want that to be the only important thing to everyone.

—Sad and Fed Up

A: Dear SAFU,

I can see why this would feel hard. But there are two big (honestly, probably irritating) lessons here: 1. You’re stuck having a wedding with the family you have, and 2. You can’t will your wedding to mean something to your guests.

It would be really, really nice to have a wedding without the crud that various people bring with them. And looking at the fancy photos on Pinterest, yeah, it would seem like everyone else has amazing families free of problems. But you have to know that’s not true. Maddie confirms it, adding that when she was a wedding photographer,

I shot somewhere close to a hundred weddings, and boy what you see in photos is NOT reality. Which isn’t to say that everyone is faking their happiness at weddings. But there’s usually something going on behind the scenes that’s more complicated than it looks. The bride who was estranged from her dad, but wanted a father-daughter dance anyway. The relative who was battling addiction and almost didn’t make it to the wedding (so you bet your ass we got a smiling photo of that guy). The couple that was coping with the recent loss of an important family member. Or hell, my own wedding, during which certain members of my immediate family were barely speaking with each other. The point is… everyone’s got their shit. And those weddings I mentioned above? Were some of the most joyful events I’ve ever attended. It’s not a zero sum game.

It’s nice to imagine some idealized wedding version of your loved ones, but you have the family you have. And they inherently have their issues. It just comes with the territory. In this instance, MIL is having a tough (but hopefully improving) time battling her addiction, and including her means you’re including accommodations for whatever hard spot she’s in.

Though you don’t really dig into it in your letter, that also means that by agreeing to invite mom, you’re signing on for whatever baggage your MIL may bring with her. Maybe she won’t be on her best behavior. Maybe she’ll knock a few back. It’s terrific that you probably have come to terms with those possibilities, and are still including her. But I also want to reassure you that it’s pretty unlikely that stuff will take over and overshadow the entire day, even if it does happen (which it may not).

Not only are you stuck with the family you’ve got, but even in the most ideal circumstances (when there aren’t hard things involving addiction or tragedy), your wedding won’t mean to everyone else exactly what it means to you. And it’s not something you can control. Some of the most well-meaning folks are looking forward to the family reunion aspect. Others are excited about that buffet. Your cousin might remember this wedding as, “The last time I was still with that douchebag.” The only thing you can do is create meaning for yourselves. That’s what counts here.

This might be a good time to talk about that symbolism you mentioned.

You talk about hoping this wedding can be all “happiness and hope” to mark the beginning of “an incredible life ahead.” That stuff can still be entirely, one hundred percent accurate. Happiness isn’t always completely separate and distinct from darkness. In fact, it rarely is. The most wonderful things in my life have also brought the most difficulty and pain, and I’d guess that goes for most folks. Starting an incredibly, happy, hopeful life together that embraces that not all happy times are entirely made of joy and sunshine is poignant in its own sort of complex way. You’re stepping into this life together by being a huge support for your partner as he faces a rough time with his family of origin. That happy but foreboding little “for better or worse” phrase comes to mind. There’s a reason why so many folks incorporate that into their vows, you know?

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO ASK APW A QUESTION, PLEASE DON’T BE SHY! IF YOU WOULD PREFER NOT TO BE NAMED, ANONYMOUS QUESTIONS ARE ACCEPTED. (THOUGH IT REALLY MAKES OUR DAY WHEN YOU COME UP WITH A CLEVER SIGN-OFF!)

Liz Moorhead

Liz is an illustrator and writer who paints custom stationery and types up impassioned opinions about weddings, etiquette, feminism and motherhood (usually while shaking a fist and mumbling expletives around mouthfuls of cheese fries). Her spare time is spent sipping bourbon with her husband and playing Don’t Throw That in the Toilet with her sons.

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  • raccooncity

    Be patient with your fiance. Ask people who are not him to listen to you stress about how annoying all these accommodations are. As the person with the drama-family in my relationship, I can tell you it’s SO hard in the moments when my partner (understandably) gets fed up when he wants to just have all the wedding things, no questions asked, but I want to avoid them to avoid the ensuing drama.

    I feel bad, but controlling my environment a little helps me have less anxiety about the day. Be kind, be patient, complain to a friend.

    Liz: incredible advice today.

    • kate

      you know what else though, sometimes the drama comes from a completely unexpected place too. before our wedding, we would have classified my husband’s family as the “drama-family”, but guess who was carefree, supportive, joyous and great throughout the weekend and guess whose parents caused a major meltdown at 11pm the night before that bled over into the whole wedding day (and which we are still processing)? yeah. so, yes, be kind and be patient and also know that you just cannot predict or control this stuff every time, whether it comes from the expected drama-family or not.

      and liz’s advice is spot on in either scenario – a big part of my coming to terms with the parts of our day that, no lie, absolutely sucked is reminding myself (a lot) that that doesn’t erase everything else about it.

      (and so also, sidenote, you know this, but don’t feel bad about your “drama-family”. you can’t do much to “fix” them anyway and he knows that….and you also never know when the tables will turn.)

  • Emily

    I totally agree with Liz that a beautiful, happy, future-focused day can still be achieved. There will be plenty of people at the wedding who will shrug off whatever may be going on with your FMIL and will just be so damn excited to congratulate you. Have you let your wedding party know what’s up? Ideally they will be there to back you up all day long. Also, maybe assigning a sympathetic family member to “mom duty” would help– Someone that is down to hang with her, can take her back to the hotel if necessary, and just sort of shoulder that situation for a few hours. Good luck :)

    • Kayla

      Agreed. Unless the wedding guests are mostly family, a lot of them won’t even know what’s going on with FMIL. It must feel terrible to be struggling with this while in the final weeks of planning. But people are coming to your wedding to celebrate with you, not to talk about your FMIL. Their joy will help you focus on the celebration. Best of luck, LW!

  • Lisa

    “Happiness isn’t always completely separate and distinct from darkness. In fact, it rarely is.”

    All of this. Wonderfully said, Liz.

  • 39bride

    Awesome advice, Liz!

    “Happiness isn’t always completely separate and distinct from darkness. In fact, it rarely is.” Our wedding was a clear example of that, and yet guests told us it was one of the most joyous and meaningful weddings they’d attended. Out of 60 people invited, 8 couldn’t come due to health issues, leaving an entire empty table at the reception that could’ve been filled with my mother’s dear friends that we painfully cut from the guest list); two of my husband’s brothers came with their mental illness and developmental problems that made them at best look like dark clouds hung over them (we put them at a corner table where they could easily leave the room if they got overwhelmed); another brother’s absence was appreciated (he was the reason 18 months later we suddenly had preteen nieces living with us); we missed a cousin in my tight-knit family who erroneously felt that his lack of professional success meant he was too embarrassed to show up; both our fathers had passed away far too young and neither parent remarried so it was just us and our moms; the very-recent widow of a dear mentor sat in the ceremony with a genuine smile on her face that somehow was full of grief at the same time (I had cried at my dress fitting, not for joy but in grief myself).

    And for all those complications, it was a great wedding full of joy and meaning and triumph, and every wonderful thing a wedding should have. It’s somewhat trite but true–if not for pain/darkness, we’d never know joy/light when we see it.

  • Eenie

    Liz’s (and Maddie’s) advice is spot on. I’d only add that you can simultaneously know you’re doing the right thing and still be pissed about it. If you’re really into the symbolism, think about how you’re joining into a family that is finally facing their issues and supporting your future MIL. I’d want those people on my team for the rest of my life. You can also ask those people around you on the day to just not mention anything about your MIL to you. You can choose to be ignorant about it (for one day, I don’t know if it’d be healthy to ignore it for a long time).

    • Danielle

      “Simultaneously know you’re doing the right thing and still be pissed about it.”

      UGH, adulthood!!!

  • anonymoose

    We were faced with a similar dilemma – both of our fathers have long histories of alcohol abuse, with varying levels of current sobriety. I would recommend appointing a close friend or family member to keep an eye out for any trouble, and be prepared to remove the offenders if necessary. This may not prevent a meltdown, but it helped us feel like we had a plan to minimize the drama if a situation were to arise. In the end, everyone behaved like responsible adults, but I am SO glad we had the peace of mind that bad behavior would be handled by someone else, allowing us to focus on, well, us.

    • Hannah

      This is great pragmatic advice. I was that “watcher” person for someone going through a difficult time at a family wedding. There was one blip, which I handled, and while the bride and groom knew about it, they’ve affirmed it didn’t change their day (they knew something happened and they knew I took care of it, end of story). One of the things I learned from it was that while the person’s issues occupied a good chunk of time before the wedding for the group that knew about it, at the wedding itself, it didn’t matter. Very few other people knew about it, and the focus remained, as it should have, on the bride and groom. So to the letter writer, it’s on your mind now, but the majority of the people who show up for the wedding are there for you and are not thinking about your future MIL.

      • Eenie

        Ditto. I was just a guest at a wedding where I only knew the bride and groom and a couple other work friends. I heard about a lot of the family drama leading up to it (because what else do you talk about at lunch?) but on the day of it was non existent from my perspective. The day was solely focused on the two of them.

      • z

        We should have a thread on how to be an effective “watcher”. I would have no clue how to do it!

      • ruth

        I’d like to second that a “watcher” can be a very effective strategy. I think the most important thing is that it’s a person that the person whose issue it is trusts. My dad has some issues with drinking and we were worried about how things were going to go at our reception. My mom spoke to his best friend beforehand and asked him to be a watcher, and he was the perfect person because he and my dad have the kind of relationship where he could gently lead him aside and he’s someone my dad listens to. In the end, he didn’t even need his watcher duties, but it made it so that we didn’t have to use any of our emotional energy worried about that situation – we were free just to focus on the day and each other. Best of luck! Family is wonderful but tough!

  • Katie

    My former in laws were very angrily divorced after a drawn out and abusive legal battle a few years before my ex husband and I were married. They had not even been in the same breathing space since the final decree until our wedding day. For a long time it was all my ex could think about leading up to the wedding.

    He and I sat down and talked A LOT about the whole situation and about our personal aspirations for the day. Then we talked about what we could do do make US feel better, and the things we would be willing to do to accommodate them so we could let the worry go as much as possible. We seating them at separate tables, with several tables in between. We took family pictures with each and their entire side in attendance so they would not feel alone and so they’d have a great keepsake of the day. We offered to seat them in separate pews for the ceremony, which they ended up declining. We discussed our plans with them separately, and I think it helped them to know that we wanted them to be comfortable and to also have a good time. In the end, they were fine.

    I know the facts of your situation is much newer, and much much different, but I think the strategies could be useful to you. What can you and your fiance do to accommodate the situation? Perhaps adding inventive non-alcoholic drinks that will allow her to feel festive and appreciated? Perhaps seating them with someone she is really looking forward to seeing? And then letting her know, however indirectly, that you are trying to do special things for her so she has a good, healthy time. And then, to whatever extent you both can, releasing as much worry as possible. All you can do is your best, to the extent of your boundaries. As others have said, the occasion is filled with such joy and excitement that it is bound to help alleviate your feelings of worry on the day, and it’s ALSO bound to encourage your community to step and and support you in order to protect that for you.

  • Sheila

    Liz’s advice is great, and I wish the letter writer all the best.

    While not exactly the same situation, my mom is a recovering alcoholic, and has been sober for eight years now. My fiance and I talked about what would feel good for us for our wedding and reception and have decided that out of respect to my mom we won’t be serving alcohol. Luckily, we plan to have a morning ceremony and brunch which makes it a bit easier. We then plan to go out to a brewery/bar later that night with the people who feel like joining us. I know my Mom would be fine if there was alcohol at our brunch reception, but I would hate for her to have to feel uncomfortable or like she would want to leave early. Also, because of her sobriety we are able to have a relationship, she’s able to be at my wedding, and that means the world to me. It means way more than having a mimosa.

  • kitty33

    My mother is also a recovering alcoholic and we are planning our wedding for next year. A year ago she did a 30-day inpatient program and has been doing reasonably well, especially compared with before. However, I know there are temporary relapses. I have a lot of anxiety about her being around so much drinking, especially when her behavior has adversely affected how I feel and enjoy large family events in the past (graduations, etc) – it’s so difficult to watch someone you love become a different person. My rule (for protecting myself emotionally) is that I’m not around her when she drinks. So, if she’s not managing her addiction well around the time before my wedding, I don’t want her (addiction) to be there. At the same time, I can’t possibly imagine my wedding without my mother. We’ve settled on inviting her, but asking herself to police whether she should stay at the reception the whole evening. Fortunately, after the inpatient program, we’ve been able to talk more openly about her addiction and how she handles it. She’s also more aware of how her addiction affects her family. Hopefully it works out. Thanks for posting such an important discussion of families, large (boozy) events, and addiction.

  • H

    Everyone’s advice is really great, so I don’t have much to add to the emotional side of things, but logistically, it seems like there’s more you could be doing to make the day go smoothly and have the focus not be on her.

    You say, “We are allowing her to come to the wedding, but our lack of contact with her seems to have everyone confused about what the day means for her.”

    Does that mean that you, your fiance, and his brother won’t have any contact with her up until the day of the wedding? I’m in no way an addiction expert, so maybe speaking with her before the day is a bad idea, but it seems like it could relieve a ton of stress if you guys spoke with her beforehand to explain expectations and what her role will be. Even just logistically, it could do a lot to set your mind at ease. You could also specify that she can’t attend if she’s going to drink, and then have a family member in charge of leaving with her if she violates that expectation.

    Hang in there!

  • ParkSlopian

    My heart goes out to OP and her future in-laws. It’s an emotionally fraught situation and there’s no magic solution, for sure.

    If she and her fiancé are not already familiar, Al Anon is a great resource for people who have a family member who is struggling with alcoholism. Addiction doesn’t just affect the addict, it’s very difficult for friends and family too… so I’d encourage OP and her fiancé to try a meeting and get support from others who are going through this. http://www.al-anon.org

  • BDubs

    Having a designated scene-staller as was mentioned below is a great idea! Similarly, I think it might be helpful to you to have someone besides your future husband to be your cheerleader. Maybe a bridesmaid or another close friend or family member with an optimist’s mind. Ask this person to be your go-to vent person, and then have him or her encourage you with “Oh but you’re going to look so lovely! And that sash you spent weeks picking out is so sparkly and perfect!” Have a source of affirmation who will remind you how much joy is yours for the having and let it drown out the negative. Hugs, LW!

  • eating words

    In addition to all the advice here, I wonder if there are family members that you feel close enough to speak to about some of this. If so, maybe there’s a time that you could remind them what *you* want from your day, while still acknowledging the potential difficulties of the situation. I don’t think it’s inappropriate for you to remind people that it’s a wedding, and it’s *your* wedding, and you want to be able to get excited about it sometimes.

  • Sarah

    When I got married, we had a super short (2 month) engagement and sacrificed a lot of things for my MIL. We were so focused on her being nasty and having meltdowns (Borderline Personality Disorder), that we ended up just trying to get it all over with, instead of taking time to enjoy the process and actually do what we wanted. When it was over, I was so relieved and exhausted, just because we wouldn’t have to deal with her anymore.

    3 years later, I am sad over this. I wish I had just focused on what I wanted and what would make us happy, instead of trying passify her or deal with her. These are my primary memories of my engagement period and my wedding day. I am sharing this so you don’t fall in to that trap as well. Focus on what YOU want to take away from your wedding. The rest will follow.

  • Penny7b

    If you’re worried about your MIL’s issues taking over wedding time, maybe consider focusing on some parts of the day that she won’t be at (like getting ready with your bridesmaids and time after the ceremony with just you and your new spouse getting couples portraits). You could even mention your concerns to a bridesmaid or friend who can help make sure you get at least some time to just celebrate how happy you are. While I think these moments will happen anyway, you might feel better about it if you can identify when they might happen in advance.

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