Becoming a Wedding Expert

...or not


A few months after we got married, Jared and I were walking home from the pub and happened to pass through a wedding reception. A Foo Fighters song blared from the normally quiet sailing club and we could see people on a dance floor through the second story windows. As we watched, a bride and groom, slightly disheveled, ran across the walkway to the docks to get a few late-night photos.

“Hey,” I said. “A wedding.”

“Well spotted,” Jared said.

I wanted to call out to them, to say We just got married too! It’s like noticing that you’re wearing the same shirt as a stranger; you can’t help but notice you’ve got something in common. I was looking for emotional validation, acknowledgement that not too long ago, we’d been in their position. The newlyweds laughed as they posed, and I kept my thoughts to myself; if there’s anything I learned while wedding planning it’s that interference from strangers is rarely appreciated.

Now that I had successfully been through my own wedding, I thought I had a new understanding of how to help people who were still planning theirs. The next time I had a close friend or family member getting married, I hoped that I would be the perfect ally. I would know the right things to say and what to steer clear of, conscious of heightened emotions and ready to offer support. I’d be overflowing with sage advice about managing complicated feelings and guest lists, plus give useful tips on cutting costs and which elements to DIY.

That’s why I was so blindsided when my little sister and her boyfriend announced their engagement last spring and the first question that zipped through my mind was Can I see the ring? This, followed by When are you guys going to get married? and Do you think you’ll wear a veil?

I wasn’t a cool, savvy older sister at all! I was just like everyone else, with their rules and expectations and gun-jumping. What I had learned, it seemed, was nothing. My marriage license did not bestow me with the ability to dispense useful advice in any form. It only made my questions more confusing for the newly engaged. I imagined Megan and Alex knitting their brows in consternation after our Skype sessions. Shouldn’t she know better than to ask those pushy questions? they’d say to each other.

Fortunately, my advice was not required. Within weeks of getting engaged, Megan and Alex had picked a date in July of 2015 and put down a deposit on a Chicago brewery. At that point, our own wedding was still five months away and we hadn’t even worked out where we were going to buy the alcohol. I immediately Googled the venue and found myself getting drawn into her wedding; it was the antidote to my planning stress.

“I’m so excited for your wedding,” I told Megan.

“Stop it,” she said, horrified. “Your wedding hasn’t even happened yet.”

Megan refused to indulge in talk of her wedding, adamant that the family should focus on mine first. The week of our wedding I wrote You’re up! in my copy of the APW book and passed it to my sister. When I stopped by my family’s condo the night before we left for our honeymoon, she was already nearly finished. That night, talk turned to Megan and Alex, about how they were next.

“You guys,” Megan shouted. “It hasn’t even been twenty-four hours! We are not talking about this now.”

I realized that although it was Megan and Alex’s wedding, we still saw it as ours. The rest of the family has an emotional stake in her wedding, each of us for different reasons. For me, it was a chance to share what I’d learned, to help her along. All of my wedding questions had been answered; it was over, no going back now. But here was Megan, going through the same experience, and hearing about her choices allowed me to better imagine what it was like for her.

My wedding advice, when applied to anyone else’s wedding, could be totally useless. Although Megan had my back for all of the choices I made, that doesn’t mean she wants the same from her wedding. I thought back to the times I struggled to make decisions: what I wanted wasn’t for someone to tell me what to pick; it was to tell me that whatever I chose was okay. When you’re in the thick of wedding planning, bombarded by wedding talk by everyone in your life, it can seem like small decisions carry a very big weight.

There were plenty of moments leading up to our wedding when I attributed too much importance to minor decisions. I knew that the difference between a silver tie and a grey tie would not make or break the wedding, but there was a time when it felt important. Any wedding-related questions consequently felt loaded, a perceived reminder that each choice could contribute to the success or failure of the day. I couldn’t recognize them for what they were—people trying to connect with me about an experience that many of us have or imagine having.

Why, then, do I find myself wanting to ask Megan the same questions that used to bug me? Clearly, one wedding does not an expert make, and I still don’t know the right things to say. What I’m trying to do is show my enthusiasm, and asking about centerpieces and hairstyles is one way to do that. If I can’t be there to help, I need to look for other ways to be there for my sister as she plans her wedding.

Megan and I have been playing the role of sisters much longer than we’ve played the roles of brides-to-be. It’s not surprising, then, that my tendency to be an older sister is more deeply ingrained than anything I learned during wedding planning. As her sister, I might not always say the right thing, but I hope I can show that I care, that I appreciate the magnitude of what she’s doing.

Even though weddings vary wildly in scope, there is something more than the details that tie them together. A wedding marks a transition; for some it may be small, for others life changing, but for all of us it symbolizes the beginning of something significant. Perhaps the best we can do is to be there for each other with the best of intentions, even if it means asking—or answering—a few pushy questions along the way.

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  • Amy March

    If I avoided asking my little sister questions out of fear they were bugging her we just would not talk! But it works, because when she responds to a heartfelt meaningful question that demonstrates all my love and concern for her with a poop emoji, I also let it go :)

  • Alyssa M

    “Although Megan had my back for all of the choices I made, that doesn’t mean she wants the same from her wedding.”

    This is such a small part of your post, but it’s the thing I tried hard to learn from being the little sister in this situation and then very quickly afterwards the elder sister. My sister was married years ago and seemed to take all of my different decisions as judgments on the way she did things… and it made it very frustrating to talk to her about my wedding. So when my brother was getting married very shortly after me I really tried to support his decisions without comparing them to mine… it was surprisingly difficult but I hope I was less annoying!

    • Juanita

      Sibling comparison? Ahh, my brother is getting married the year after me and everyone but us is comparing the two and my mom is still uncomfortable with it because he should be getting married sooner, well he’s not. But yeah, it makes it hard when I’m not comparing myself to him, and he’s not comparing himself to me, but a lot of people are choosing to make it a weird competition of sorts.

      • Alyssa M

        Yeah, we definitely had a LOT of other people comparing the two. We were only 5 weeks apart and had VASTLY different budgets, so everyone who knew the details of both was doing it, but I hope it really helps that WE weren’t taking each other’s choices as judgments on the other’s.

        • Eh

          My BIL and SIL got married just over a year before us. In the year between our weddings a family feud blew up and was centered around my BIL/SIL. Part of this was because my husband’s family doesn’t (didn’t?) like my SIL and another part was my BIL/SIL trying to find their place in the family. This was exaggerated by the fact we were getting married and having “our wedding” and not their wedding. They took our choices to make our wedding “ours” personally (they disagreed with our timelines and were offended that we didn’t take them up on their offer of the left overs from their wedding). This was made worse by the comments we were getting from relatives, for example, don’t get married outside on the hottest day of the summer, are you inviting your cousin’s children?, please send thank you notes out in a reasonable time. It was hard not to compare the two weddings for many family members, but my husband and I tried to stay focused on that we weren’t doing something to spite my BIL/SIL but because our wedding was about us. Another comment about my BIL/SIL’s wedding was that it was all about her (the theme of the wedding was princess fairy tale) and that there was nothing about my BIL in it (he was not more than an accessory). So after our wedding people made tons of comments about how my husband was all over our wedding (we had music from his favourite movies, Lego table numbers, board game centerpieces).
          My MIL frequently comments on how I was a calm and organized bride. Even when my MIL and I disagreed about things (and we disagreed about a lot – not being married in a church, not being married by their pastor, having board games as centerpieces, letting my sister pick her own MOH dress, the guys buying suits – oh the list goes on) she knew that we had thought out the decision and even if it wasn’t what she would want for herself she understood that we were doing it because it represented us. She still compares my behavior to my SIL’s behavior leading up to their wedding (my SIL actually called herself a Bridezilla and my in-laws had never heard of the term but they 100% agree with it). So just less than a year after our wedding my sister got married and my MIL asked how my sister was at being a bride – specifically if she was calm and organized like me or a Bridezilla. Apparently there are only two options but my sister was neither – she is not a naturally organized person who tried to be organized and then got frustrated by it but never was a Bridezilla. Oh and their wedding was totally different than ours and we never judged them for having a huge wedding that was country chic and totally from Pinterest.

    • Lian

      We just got married, and now my husband’s sister is engaged and will get married this summer. I will keep your experience in mind and make sure we are supportive of her decisions even if they’re different than what we decided to do!

  • Juanita

    None of my siblings are married yet, and most of my friends are not either, but between this year and next year, myself, my older brother, and two dear friends are getting married.

    As I’m not married yet, I’m trying to figure out the balance of this is what we’ve done so far, what have you done so far especially in relating to my older brother.

    “I thought back to the times I struggled to make decisions: what I wanted wasn’t for someone to tell me what to pick; it was to tell me that whatever I chose was okay.”

    Also this, I just really want this from my family and those around me. You don’t have to tell me the decisions, just that I’m going to make good decisions. There’s been so much emotional stress about us getting married at all, and so many things have had to change for good reason. I just really need to be told “It’s just a wedding, it’s okay, the people who care will show up, and you make good choices, so whatever you choose will be good.” Thank goodness, I’ll be married come August!

  • A.

    I completely agree with: “What I wanted wasn’t for someone to tell me what to pick; it was to tell me that whatever I chose was okay.” I actually wanted to applaud it for hitting my 6-months-to-go feelings so directly on the head.

    But coming from still planning and navigating family—and especially *new* family—I think it’s also important to express that need…or realize which family members may or may not be capable of this, for big or small reasons. The front-half of my engagement was filled with stress over my future sister-in-law criticizing tiny elements of our wedding, including her very weird fixation on our save-the-dates being “snobby.” I’ve since realized that she feels like her younger brother is having a fancier wedding than she had and it makes her feel insecure and even a little resentful, even if she’s generally happy for us.

    Do I think we’re having a particularly fancy wedding? No. But it’s all relative, no pun intended. But regardless, for whatever reason, it made her lash out about the little things (like save the dates or food choices, etc) and I kept feeling the brunt of it. So I’ve since learned to TELL her about things and make sure I express tons of upfront enthusiasm. At the end of the day, for whatever reasons, she’s not someone I can rely on to smile and tell me that everything I’m doing is okay. But that’s also okay, especially since I’m lucky enough to have others. And becoming resentful myself of her inability to validate our ultimately insignificant choices doesn’t set the stage for a lifetime of knowing each other or acknowledges her other fantastic qualities that have nothing to do with our wedding.

  • Lauren from NH

    The tricky thing about the “questions everyone hates” is that if no asks them, then you can start to feel like people don’t care and aren’t interested, which is usually the secret reason why people ask in the first place, because they care, even though it comes off as pushy or judgy. It is a double edged sword of sorts. I vacillate between wanting to share everything about the wedding rapid fire and acting like it’s an unspeakable CIA mission so people cannot judge just how many traditions I am kicking in the nads. I think I have an external balance, but internally sometimes I am all over the place!

    • Allison

      Also, not everyone hates the same question. I didn’t really think twice about showing people pictures of my dress, but I asked my friend’s new fiance the other day and she was clearly in unspeakable CIA mission mode. I think the really important thing is to gauge feelings and make it known that you are interested, but not prying. Which is easier often said than done, I know.

      • Lauren from NH

        Indeed. Two other people in my office are engaged also and the one guy is so negative! I used to try say something positive when the topic came up, or if he was complaining about the cost, trying to commiserate and offer constructive options. Nope. I try to be nice to his fiance at our company party, and ask her how things are going, him: “Oh god not the wedding!” grouse grouse grouse. Determined storm cloud. I keep out of it now, it’s none of my business, but it almost seems like the guy doesn’t want to get married. But my point being, like intern Lauren said, being a wedding friend/confidant/peer is challenging…and.. sometimes just impossible to get right.

    • msditz

      Totally. I felt this way about the wedding, and also when I was pregnant. By the time I hit the 6 month mark I was so sick of answering the “When are you due?!” questions…but at the same time, if I had a conversation with someone and the topic of my obviously pregnant belly did not come up I would leave thinking, “um hello, don’t they want to know about my baby?” I think everyone wants their major life events honored and acknowledged, but also don’t want to be boring and talking about the same things over and over again. Slippery slope!

  • “I realized that although it was Megan and Alex’s wedding, we still saw it as ours.”

    I guess this must be why everyone has an opinion about our wedding, even though they’ve already had theirs.

  • Julia

    We’ve been engaged a little over a year now, and just starting to the plan the wedding for this fall. I spent basically our entire engagement having this conversation:

    Person/Family member/Friend/Coworker: “How’s the wedding planning???”
    Me: “Oh, we haven’t done anything yet, we’re just enjoying being engaged.”
    Them: “….I see.”

    People ask All The Questions to show enthusiasm and be polite. I get it. In my shoes, I felt that if I wanted to share something about the wedding… I would. Instead, whenever anyone asked, I felt super bombarded and then kind of judged since I didn’t have any answers at the time – since we weren’t planning!

    Now that we are diving in, I still have moments of: “Stop asking me things!” It’s part because I’m a private person, and part because I get nervous about receiving opinions and then feeling confused about my potential choice/already made choice. And sometimes, as a woman, I want to be like “There’s a lot more going on in my life than the wedding… You could ask me about that first.” Haha. I still understand that fundamentally, most people mean well.

    What I really love, though: when someone asks me how I feel about various things — i.e., “so what are you thinking for your ceremony?” And then actually listens without offering up opinions, experiences, etc. And then if they HAVE thoughts, saying, “I’d love to share what worked for me re: XYZ in our wedding, if you’re open to it.” It shows consideration and care at the same time. Sort of like what you describe with the feeling that your choices are heard and more than okay.

    (What I also love: when someone asks my fiance how the planning is going :) )