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?
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