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Help! My Mother-In-Law Is Too Controlling

Mothers-in-law: for life, not just the wedding

Q: My soon-to-be wife and I have been together for almost four years, and engaged for two. My future mother-in-law has requested that my parents (who are divorced, by the way) wear specific outfits to the wedding. She’s asked my mom to wear a purple dress, and she’s asked my dad to wear the same suit as the rest of my groomsmen.

My parents have been resistant, to say the least, and now my fiancé and her mother say they feel that my parents aren’t supporting the marriage.

There have been several heated discussions back and forth between all of us. I’ve been trying to keep the peace, and feel stuck in the middle. Things are now at the point where my dad is backing out of paying for or being present at our rehearsal dinner, and it would not surprise me if neither of my parents stuck around for much of our wedding. HELP!

—Anonymous

A: Dear Anonymous,

I know this is going to sound obvious, but I’m going to write it out anyway, simply so we all start from the same place of understanding: just because your folks are balking at your future mother-in-laws’ outfit demands, does not mean that your folks don’t support your marriage. Let’s just dump that faulty logic model to the curb.

Now, I can’t tell from your note, but it sounds like your future in-laws might be paying for some or all of your wedding day. And those finances can be terribly tricky. The people who pay for weddings can sometimes act like they’ve bought the day, like they get to dictate what happens therein.

But even if your mother-in-law was paying for the entire wedding, that wouldn’t give her full license to direct and produce. Because she’s not getting married; you are. Here are the people who get to ask your parents to wear certain pieces of clothing when they attend your wedding: You and your fiancée. C’est ca! (That’s French for “stand down, future mother-in-law.”) I could imagine the two of you asking your parents to wear certain shades of purple. Or maybe asking folks to wear a certain tie. Or maybe any color they like, as long as there’s some glitter on the fringes. (Also, in the end? Even you really can’t control what they decide to wear. K’s parents happen to really like tie-dye. Halfway through our wedding clambake, they got a little tired of their finery, and changed into their beloved tie-dyed t-shirts. While that was maybe not an exact match with the boat shoes and khakis that most of my family sported, it also meant they were more comfortable in a big group of newly made acquaintances. So, okay by me.)

But all of this should be coming from the two of you, not your mother-in-law. So I might start by talking with your future spouse about how both of you can come to agreement on what all involved parties should wear, and why this demand of her mother’s might make your folks feel pushed around. You may also want to let both your folks know that you’re working on this, so they don’t back away from you and lose sight of the bigger picture. Once you guys are (hopefully) on the same page, the two of you can present a united front to your future mother-in-law, and explain that your mom will be wearing something that makes her feel happy on her son’s wedding day, rather than an arbitrary shade of Radiant Orchid.

Now, having worked myself up into an indignant frenzy on your behalf, I will also tell you to settle in. Because while you are not marrying your mother-in-law directly, you and your fiancée are likely already deep in the weeds of negotiating various and sundry boundaries with her, and those dilemmas aren’t going anywhere post-wedding.

My hunch is that a mother-in-law who wants to oversee all wedding costume design may also have strong feelings about, say, house decorating, child-rearing, holidays, last year’s Subaru safety ratings, and whether to cook the stuffing in or outside the turkey, to name a few. So, the real work ahead is figuring out what you and your partner prioritize, how, and then figuring out how to communicate it outside the bounds of your relationship. There is an art to kindly, firmly establishing boundaries with people outside your marriage, and while it may never feel particularly good to say to someone, “I hear what you want, but we are going a different route,” it is something that gets a little more natural with practice.

And while you are practicing all of that boundary-setting, let me just say once more that it’s really hard to have a domineering mother-in-law when you’re trying to establish yourselves as a married couple. It’s equally hard to negotiate this stuff with your future wife, who may be accustomed to just taking the easy route and bowing to her mom’s pressuring ways. We’re all sending you moral support, and letting you know we think the safety ratings on last year’s Subaru are just fine.

Elisabeth Snell is guest-writing Ask APW while Liz Moorhead is on maternity leave. If you would like to ask a question please don’t be shy! You can email: 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!

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