Bringing People Together

Lauren: When you can't keep everyone separate anymore


Hawaii is the halfway point between our families, but that’s not the only reason we chose to get married there. We picked Hawaii because going to the States gave us access to American Sign Language interpreters (the tropical island thing was also a plus). It would have been a hell of a lot easier to throw a wedding where we live, but the interpreter thing kept bugging me.

What were the odds of finding an ASL interpreter in Australia, where the standard sign language, Auslan, is so different? People suggested that we ask one of my sisters to interpret, but that was always out of the question. Interpreting is work. The best interpreters facilitate conversations without being in them; I wanted all of our guests to be in on any conversation they were a part of. No way were my sisters going to be asked to put their personal involvement aside to perform a role, like we had been so often growing up.

When I was twenty-four, the family cat got sick. She sat in my lap as my dad drove us to the vet, me sitting shotgun and my mom in the back seat. It had happened so quickly that no interpreter had been arranged; I struggled to convey information between the vet and my parents while processing my own feelings. This was Princess, who I’d picked up from my Grandma’s farm when I was eight years old, and she was dying. I burst into hacking sobs and my mom swept me into the waiting room, leaving my dad with the vet, a pen, and a piece of paper. The lack of an interpreter forced all of us to play multiple roles, making a heart-wrenching situation even more so. These moments are bound to happen in life, but if I can make plans to circumvent them, you better believe that I will.

So no, I won’t be asking either of my sisters to be half-present at the wedding, nor subject my parents to an interpreter who cannot possibly remain neutral. There was never any doubt that we would hire a professional interpreter, one who won’t be emotionally invested when they pronounce us as married. This person will stand up and interpret during the ceremony, sit at the parents’ table during dinner, and act as the tool that allows everyone present to understand the speeches, whether they are signed or spoken. It’s a relief, but it doesn’t answer all of my questions. Such as: Will my parents feel awkward, being the only Deaf people there? What can I do to make sure everyone is comfortable? Will the Aussies make jokes that offend the Americans? What if the Americans can’t understand the Australian accents? What if certain people (who may or may not include the groom) get drunk and decide to do a nudie run?

It’s not that I’m opposed to nudie runs; it’s that I think my parents might not love being privy to one at their daughter’s wedding. See, I know about everyone’s quirks, but they don’t know about each other’s. There’s no way of predicting the wedding vibe, the way our twenty-four guests will gel. More worrying, each person knows who I am when I’m with them, but different people bring out different sides of me. I am a modified version of myself depending on who I’m around, and I don’t think I’m the only one who responds this way. It does makes me wonder—who will I be when they’re all there at the same time?

I started compartmentalizing the people in my life when I was a teenager, maybe earlier. I kept them all as separate as possible. My work friends were not the same as my school friends, and neither group was allowed too close to my family life. Romantic liaisons occupied their own wedge; I rationed out different details about my love life to different people. Part of that came from walking the line between the Deaf and hearing worlds, and watching the way others changed when they met my parents. Language barriers can do funny things to people; I had a borderline cocky ex-boyfriend who froze up and turned to me in terror every time one of my parents addressed him directly. Then there were the friends who didn’t get along, sparking drama for no apparent reason, and work people who became withdrawn when introduced to school friends. It seemed simpler to keep my people separate, even if it wasn’t practical.

As I grew up, I saw that other people didn’t handle things the same way. They stopped trying to hide their alcohol consumption from their parents after turning twenty-one. They invited their friends, colleagues, and family to be in the same room and it didn’t appear to cause them secret stress. We became adults, and our relationships with the people we love adapted. Meanwhile, I resisted. I continued to juggle the aspects of my life, lest the world combust if they were all brought together. It was relatively easy, because the people I love are geographically scattered; bringing them together would be logistically implausible.

Then came the wedding.

There are many elements of the wedding we can control: the food, the venue, the music. Then there are those aspects that we leave up to circumstance, like the weather and how much fun people have. We could lash out on contingency plans and crowdsource all of our music choices, but that still would not guarantee that everyone meshes well and has the time of their life (or remains clothed). Yet, I somehow feel responsible for each person’s level of enjoyment. As if I’ll be handing out a questionnaire afterward: On a scale of 1 to 10 how much fun did you have? Was there anything the couple could have done to improve your experience?

Around the three-month mark, I got really worried about mixing everyone up. I was sure there were things I could have done differently to help people have a good time. Judging by my level of concern, you’d have thought we invited the Sharks and the Jets to Hawaii, not our closest loved ones. Though as with nearly every other aspect of wedding planning, what I ended up needing was time. I wish I could say I had a revelation, or snapped out of it after a soul-searching conversation with my best friend, but I didn’t. (Though my sister’s advice of “Make sure there’s enough booze and it’ll work itself out” helped.) I just… stopped worrying about it. A month before the wedding I realized that I no longer had the emotional energy for things that were beyond my control. While I could definitively choose whether or not to wear a veil, there was nothing I could do about the way our guests get along.  So I will opt for what was always going to happen: sensibly leave people to their own devices, trusting that they are capable humans who can have conversations with each other.

If there’s one life lesson I’ve learned from inflated expectations on New Year’s Eves and birthdays, it’s that you can’t force fun. We have done what we can to make sure things run smoothly in terms of communication, food, and transport.  As for who I’ll be when all of my people come together, well, I’ll still be a version of myself. My people might always be separated by distance, but it’s probably overdue that I bring them all together, at least for one day. Our guests will get a chance to meet each other at a happy hour on the Monday before our Wednesday wedding; there’s not much more we can do but relax and hope it goes well.

If that doesn’t work, there’s always booze. And streaking, of course. I’ll just get my sisters to run interference for my parents. That, I have no problem asking them to do.

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  • Kari

    As you say, you just have to trust that people will behave and be good guests…..and they probably will. I think given that your group is smaller and will have all travelled a long way to be there it’s kind of a bonding exercise in itself, and yes, people might still be inappropriate but it’ll be OK. Good intentions and all that.

    (Are Australian accents really difficult to understand? I always thought we were on the comprehensible side of things.)

    • Sarah

      I was wondering that about the accents too! I’m from Melbourne and can’t remember ever having trouble making myself understood to people from English-speaking countries. Mind you, Aussie slang can be a little weird!

      • KH_Tas

        Melbourne’s pretty easy compared to other parts of the country though, I’m from inner-regional Vic and I struggle with some rural/QLD accents

    • Amy March

      In general I would say no, easy to understand (Aussie parents, living in US). But if anyone is trying to lip read that could certainly be a complication.

      I do find that Americans are sometimes taken aback by Aussie humor, but they’re generally so charmed by the accent/koalas/omglongflight that they just roll with it.

    • Mezza

      I generally don’t find Australians hard to understand (American, working at an Aussie-owned company in the US), but the other week I was transcribing a video that included one of my bosses and holy crap did it take a lot longer to transcribe his section than the section involving people with US accents. So on some level I do apparently have to work harder to understand the accent.

      • Kelly

        Also, Aussies in other countries have generally modified their accent to be more easily understood. My fiance says my accent is very different from the rest of my family; if I spoke like them, he would struggle to understand me!

    • Kelly

      Regional accents can be very difficult to understand. Particularly country accents. My American fiance cannot understand my Aussie brother-in-law. :(

  • Allison

    I worried about this so much too! Then I realized that whenever I have attended a wedding, I wasn’t expecting the couple to only invite people who would jive well with me… I expected them to invite their people. And if someone did something unruly, it wasn’t a reflection on the couple at all, it was just part of the craziness of bringing all different types together for one awesome reason.

    • SarahG

      This is such a good point. I always forget to think about myself as a guest — do I expect a carefully curated selection of interesting people I want to be my new BFFs? No. I expect your wacky right wing Uncle Harry and your cousin who lives “off the grid” in an RV and the childhood friends you haven’t seen for years and aren’t as close to anymore… etc etc. I mean, that’s the essence of what makes weddings beautiful (and also stressful for those planning them).

      • Angela

        Yes! Actually, one of the coolest parts of our wedding was hearing, in the days/weeks/months afterward, stories of all the weird and wonderful pairings that serendipitously took place; i.e., my Minnesotan coworker who loved my South Carolina high school friend’s dry sense of humor, my older uncle who “discovered” quinoa through my mom’s best friend, and our Parisian photographer who shared a bit of a crush with one of our groomsman (they’ve been exchanging adorable messages on Facebook, squee). The lack of control over what happens when you put all these people in a room is, without a doubt, a big contributor to “wedding magic.”

        • Tania

          There were so many hook ups at our wedding. It was awesome. Although this led to a few awkward moments at the day after pub meet up! Brilliant!

  • Lauren

    Lauren, the thing you said about keeping friends/your people separate — that’s how I’ve always been, too! Although, I didn’t live in a dual-language family growing up so I can’t say it’s because of that. I’ve always had a hard time bringing friends from different parts of my life together. It makes me feel…uncomfortable. But I love them all! I kind of feel like it has to do with my preference for giving my full attention to one person at a time. I don’t know. Anyone else like this?

    • Sarah E

      I’ve done the same thing, definitely. Though I can’t say it’s because I’m a one-interaction-at-a-time person. I’m quite the opposite. However, I do relate directly to Lauren’s mention that she’s a different slice of herself with each group. It’s a little sad that after having three strong groups of friends in college, I really only stay in touch with one group now, having let the others subside into the occasional exchange of facebook comments. On the one hand, at least we have that. On the other, that’s not really a meaningful friendship. I think I lost the emotional space to keep up with all of it. I was always missing out on something- a party here, an event there, because I had other groups of friends to hang with, and I hate missing out on fun. And it’s exhausting (and often futile) to try to pull friend groups together. There’s no rule that your friends have to get along with each other, just with you. So if work friend A doesn’t like dorm friend B, oh well, they don’t have to, as long as they’re good friends to you.

      The concern about what this will do for our wedding is very present in my life. For some friend groups, I’ve lost touch and therefore will not be inviting them. I love them dearly and would gladly catch up, but my guest list is already at 200, and my wedding isn’t really a great catch-up opportunity. But the family-Sarah/friend-Sarah divide has always been a large gap. My friends allow me to be more fully my present self, while my family remembers every interaction with me at age 8 or 12 even while interacting with me now. On the other hand, my strong family connections have really shaped who I am, and I feel relieved at times being able to fall into familiar roles and not have to explain a joke or why I’m doing something a certain way.

      8 months out, my current plan is to appoint some friends as interference-captains to keep me in champagne and away from drama, and hopefully let the rest take care of itself.

    • AR

      I can definitely relate to this separate groups of people isssue. I never purposefully kept friend groups separate, but because I moved around so much (college, grad school, postdoc, job, all in different states/countries), it ended up working out that I had very separate groups of friends. And because I was growing and changing with each step, they all know a slightly different side of me, and all different from how my family knows me. I also worried about how it would all play out at our wedding, but I needn’t have worried.

      In all cases, everyone from each “group” had someone from the same group that they knew already. So, worst case scenario, people from each group could just hang out with each other and have a great time, supporting us and catching up with each other. That worked like a charm, but that’s not to say that there wasn’t a lot of fun mixing among the groups as well. They were all there for the same reason, to celebrate our marriage and our happiness, and that was enough to put everyone in a great mood and give everyone something in common.

      And as for who I was that day, in the midst of all these wonderful people who knew slightly different versions of me? I was fully and comfortably myself as the person ready to commit to my husband, overjoyed at the immense feelings of love coming from everyone around us. It never crossed my mind that day to try to be any other version of myself. And it was a total blast!

    • Jade

      This is me as well, although I have become more consistent over the years as far as just “being myself” and not a particular slice of myself depending on who I’m with. The truth is that each of my social circles allow me to express different parts of myself fully, it’s nearly impossible to integrate all of me into one circle.

      My family doesn’t know my work friends, my college friends don’t know my internet friends, my FH doesn’t know my college friends, my work friends don’t know my FH, etc. And then we have to throw FH’s family and friends into the mix? I have anxiety about whether they will all be silently judging each other the day of the wedding, but I think that’s me being paranoid.

    • “They invited their friends, colleagues, and family to be in the same room and it didn’t appear to cause them secret stress.”

      Secret stress is correct. I’m a different self around different groups of people, and those patterns of behaviour are engrained and comfortable. The way I am around my family is part of our comfort zone, the way I am around a certain of friends has its own familiarity that’s part of what makes our get-togethers so intimate, happy, comfortable. Throw in several different dynamics and I can’t stop stressing out about whether my uncle is comfortable, or whether my best friend feels awkward at this family gathering.

      I’m good friends with a couple in their 50s agree that “it’s not a good idea to mix groups,” which validates my feelings. At a wedding it’s a necessary evil, but after that I plan on going back to mingling separately with different groups of people, or selectively inviting friends over for dinner whom I know will get along.

  • Nell

    We had a disastrous first meeting of our parents. I spent a month quaking in my boots about what will happen at our wedding. But then, in their own way, each set of parents separately reached out to me and my partner to tell us how much they appreciated US. I realized I was mostly afraid that the quirks that upset each side would reflect poorly on us as a couple, and push away our families. Amazingly, none of that is happening. Our parents are not going to be friends – but they are going to support US, and that’s what matters.

  • K.

    I love this piece. In many ways, my fiance could have written it. While the language-barrier (Spanish) is easier to overcome, he has always been someone who deeply compartmentalizes his relationships. I think I was the first girlfriend that actually met and got to know ALL of his friends, rather than just the ones he thought would get along best. Of course, this was seven years ago, and not much else has changed – he freaks whenever his three best friends have to get together (doesn’t help that they aren’t all exactly fans of one another…they don’t hate each other, but definitely never calling one another). And his mom’s family is very culturally insular compared to my more traditionally American family, so he interacts with both groups very, very differently.

    But I think, despite his natural insistence, our focus on our wedding shouldn’t be “How to we split our time equitably between all the different subsections of our guests?” but rather, as the title says, “How do we bring these people together in celebration, even for just a short time?” And our people all love us, so I think we can trust them…plus booze never hurts. The psychological hurdle for my fiance will probably be the toughest part, though.

    • Sarah E

      That’s a really great framing you share, I might have to steal that. Especially with divorced parents, I am constantly trying to quantify our visit time to make sure I have evenly spent time with each, and how does time with Grandma count if Mom is still working, and now that I have future in-laws that I love hanging out with, how does that count, and what percentage needs to be extended family time or just immediate family time and does my partner need to be there for any/all of it. . .? So my head explodes when I follow that line of thought with the wedding. Because of course, I am projecting everyone’s feelings without actually asking them about it.

      I know that to feel joyful, I will want to dance non-stop at the reception, so I’m planning on a pre-ceremony receiving line to get my welcome/thank-you/hostess duties taken care of, so I don’t feel obligated to chat when I want to be shakin’ it.

  • ruth

    I was so worried about exactly this before our wedding. While i have never faced the challenge of having hearing impaired guests, i was nervous because my family are southern rednecks, bless their hearts, and my husband’s family are NY jews, and our friends are pagan hippies, and I didn’t see how this was going to work out. And I just wanted to say, it all turned out fine. When the day itself came, we realized we just had to say eff it, whatever will be will be – our focus was no longer on them, and whether or not they got along, our focus was on us. And the thing is, the two of us were so high on our own joy that day, that that joy was infectious to ALL our guests. Also, guests are grownups, and at a big event, there’s room for everyone to have fun in their own way – the drinkers drank, the dancers danced, the people who just wanted to stay for the ceremony juststayed for the ceremony, etc… Point is, it all worked out. I’m sure it’ll all work out foryou guys too! Best of luck!

  • Emily

    Wow, this is beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your fears with us. This especially stuck out to me

    “We became adults, and our relationships with the people we love adapted. Meanwhile, I resisted. I continued to juggle the aspects of my life, lest the world combust if they were all brought together.” It’s funny how in other people’s lives that seems to spontaneously happen, but in our own lives it is a very conscious action.

  • Emily Ardoin

    This really hit me! I realized a few years ago that I was compartmentalizing my life like this. To this day, I still get so nervous about my birthday parties because it means bringing all of my friends from various aspects of my life together and ohmygod what if they don’t get along? Which is silly. Because they will put on their best faces and make it work, even if they don’t like someone, because they love me and they want to love whoever I love. I hope it’s the same for my wedding day. (Although, my 250 person wedding will be quite different than your 40 person wedding! A lot easier for people to avoid people they don’t enjoy.)

    • Sarah

      I have worried about people not getting along too, and whether they will like each other… “what if person A can’t understand/tolerate person B’s quirks like I can” etc. Which I now realise is kind of arrogant and insulting to my friends. To use Lauren’s example, if I can still love person x despite the occasional nudie run, then other people are capable of figuring out how to be okay with it too without me feeling ashamed of x. I would be horrified if my friends and family were ashamed of me or felt responsible for my behaviour. We’re all adults and I’m no more perfect or imperfect than anyone else.

  • Lily

    “I know about everyone’s quirks, but they don’t know about each other’s.”

    That really sums up something I felt a lot during wedding planning, but didn’t know how to articulate. In the end, though, one of my very favorite parts of the wedding was seeing people from different parts of my husband’s and my lives not just mingling but really clicking. The whole wedding weekend really glued our two separate communities together into one and for that I will always be thankful.

  • SarahG

    Getting married this Sunday (eep!) and I’ve had exactly this fear. Our families have met briefly and gotten along, but they are SO different. Mine is working class, right wing, Catholic, children of immigrants — his is upper class left wing Jewish intellectuals. If they ever talked politics for a second it would be a disaster. I also feel incredibly protective of my parents… I don’t agree with any of their politics, but they are good people and they love me, and I am hypersensitive to intellectual types being condescending towards them (the last time we had dinner my partner’s side of the family was talking about the World Bank, and my dad was like… the what? And I wanted to kick the people who smirked at his ignorance). Anyway, all that is to say — this week, I’m just letting it go. They are who they are. They are all nice people, and… and this is key… they *want* the wedding to go well. They want it to go well, we want it to go well, and with that amount of good intentions in the room, I have to believe that it will, in fact, go well. Intentions matter! Fist bumps to everyone else worrying about this. I think we’ll be OK.

    • TallToes

      Hi Sarah,

      I think that’s really the key point- they want it to go well as much as you do.

      I also have a right wing, Catholic family. My in-laws are college educated, atheist liberals. We worried for months before everyone met, and it came out in some awkward conversations with each set of parents. My mom threatened my dad within an inch of his life not to mention anything political, and my in-laws were warned that my parents don’t take jokes about religion well.
      Everyone was trying so hard, and it was clear there were “safe topics” that had been determined in advance. It went over really well. No one left the room in a huff as we’d feared.

      Intentions matter a ton! And finding their common ground for them can’t hurt.

      • SarahG

        Glad to hear that it worked out, and hoping the same holds true for us :) Thanks!

  • SuperDaintyKate

    Today it’s my day to thank APW for a very timely piece, and you, Lauren, for sharing this.

    My mother (who, funny enough, is an interpreter for the deaf) has struggled with mental illness her entire life. Growing up was hard. I didn’t have friends over or sleepovers at my house, and there were major parts of my life that my parents knew nothing about. I was made fun of a lot because my mother was “weird” and “different”.

    Now, I have almost no relationship with my mother. We talk on the phone twice per year, for about 15 minutes each time. It works for me. I’ve always looked at it as a form of self-preservation.

    This past weekend, she came to visit for the first time in 4.5 years. Worlds collided. She saw me drink for the first time (I’m 30). And the lead up to the inevitable parent-meet-parent dinner was tormenting.

    I wish I could say it went well despite my fears. It didn’t. My mother is still a fundamentally narcissistic person, and that was out in full force at dinner (and the rest of the week). I don’t think everyone had a very nice time, but luckily K’s parents are kind and thoughtful people, and would never say as much to me. So I survived.

    I don’t know how this will all play out at the wedding. It causes me a great deal of stress trying to imagine how people will react to her. But at least I know now that it’s possible to survive. And at least my BFF has met her now, so she can be fully prepared for what she has signed up for by agreeing to run interference. So thank you, Lauren, for reminding me to give up on what I can’t control.

    • roserose

      Oh man, I relate to this! My mother has some narcissistic personality/mental health issues which led to her freaking out a mere 3 days after my fiance and I got engaged, and ever since I’ve had so much anxiety about how it will be to plan a wedding or have her at my wedding or have her meet my fiance’s take-no-shit sisters or what happens if/when she makes the wedding all about her. And there really isn’t a lot of advice that seems applicable.
      One helpful (and hard) reminder I read in the APW book was that you can’t expect your loved ones to be different people at/around your wedding – e.g. if someone is flaky, they’ll probably be flaky about the wedding, etc. I can’t expect her to be someone she’s not, and I can only set boundaries, hope that she’s on her best behavior out of respect for me, and then let it go because I have no control at that point.
      Anyway, this is hard and I hear you. Good luck. <3

  • River

    Lauren, thank you from the bottom of my heart for this! I, too, am GREAT at compartmentalizing my friendships and relationships and trying to keep everyone in the their own corner. This is partly due to the estrangements my father would insist upon when I was a child (LONG story) and partly due to my having had about six separate lives during my six years of on and off college…Not to mention the way theatre people tend to gather different very tight communities temporarily while working on a show!! Add on to this the fact that my mom’s family and my dad’s family are from two/three entirely different cultures (hooray MULTIPLE language barriers!!!) and have not been in a room together in almost two decades. Plus Z has his own family and friend groups and issues to bring to the (very large haha) table.

    So…I’m trying to let go of my worry that my 150-200 person wedding will devolve into a HUGE shizz-show of people with wildly different ideas about who I am and who Z is – – squabbling based on their totally divergent life paths and experiences. WOOF. Anyway, thanks Lauren – it’s nice to hear I am not alone in this compartmentalization and worry. BEST OF LUCK to you – it certainly sounds like you have a good and practical plan for this happy occasion :-)

  • I’m someone who brought my people together every now and then almost as a social experiment to see what they would do. But it was real interesting when for our wedding we brought his people and my people together only to discover that in several cases they already knew each other. That was strange.

    • MDBethann

      Giggles, I had a weird thing happen at my wedding like that. The husband of my DH’s cousin was married before & when he arrived at our ceremony, he realized that it was the church at which he’d married his first wife and that my father had performed that ceremony (he hadn’t put the names & locations together until then). Talk about a small world!

      • I think you win for best small world story.

  • Anna

    YES! My compartmentalization started in middle school, and primarily involved being myself everywhere except for at (Mormon) church and my dad’s house (no swearing, and very little speaking my mind). I specifically remember a middle-aged man who had previously only known me from church who spent a week helping out an all-girls church summer camp who said “Wow, Anna! You’re so different at camp! You really came outta your shell!” Of course I didn’t speak my mind at the time, but I was thinking “No, dumbass, I’m being closer to myself right now. I’m “so different” AT CHURCH!”

    So this has also been a source of confusion/worry as we start thinking about planning our wedding. The plan is to have an immediate family only wedding (plus one close friend), and I guess I’ve been thinking of the wedding as some sort of weird mathematical/chemical ratio where 1/4 Mormons + 1/4 former-Mormons + 1/8 non-Mormons-who-live-in-Utah-so-“get it”-but-have-“feelings” + 3/8 siblings’ spouses & kids = WEIRDNESS! If for no other reason than that these people rarely see each other (divorced decades ago, still tense!), or have never met (compartmentalization!), and that the Mormons (my dad specifically) are kinda awkward, and on top of that no drinking to help them loosen up! (Also contributing to weirdness, I have 5 to 8 *times* as many immediate family members as he does, depending on who counts as “immediate.”) So I keep coming back to the thought that if we “diluted” the Mormon/Anna’s family concentration with a medium-sized crop of mostly-mutual friends, would equal…less weirdness?

    We both want to keep it intimate & simple, but it’s hard to imagine it *feeling* intimate and simple if there’s all this weirdness stemming from compartmentalization hanging around. Oi.