Am I Actually to Blame for My Divorced Parents’ Epic Meltdown?

My mom isn't coming to the wedding and apparently it's all my fault

bride holding wedding bouquet

Q: My dad left my mom for another woman fifteen years ago. After a protracted nasty divorce, they have evolved into politely ignoring each other. My brother and I have frequently been asked to choose my mom over my father (clearly, boundaries aren’t her thing) in most matters. My independent relationships with both parents have been functional: I ignore my dad’s past bad behavior toward my mother, and my mom and I grew some polite emotional fences.

Four years ago, my dad married the other woman. I knew about it, and I never said anything to my mother (or brother). I told myself that my brother had been told or realized at some point (they wear wedding rings), but I never asked him to confirm. I actively decided not to share the news; I was afraid of the emotional fallout should my mom find out.

Fast-forward to the present: I asked my dad to tell my mom about his marriage before my wedding, so she wouldn’t find out the day of when he and his wife arrived sporting wedding bands. My mother has hit the roof. She says I have caused a huge rift and betrayed my brother. And surprise, she’s decided she can’t attend my wedding.

I feel terrible, but don’t know why. Is it because I’m in the wrong, or because I’ve been really effectively emotionally conditioned? Did I wreck my family and betray my brother? If so, how do I come to grips with what I did? — Anna

A: Dear Anna,

Let’s take a second, step back, and look at the situation. How many adults do you count involved? Because from where I’m standing, I see five: you, your brother, your mom, your dad, and your stepmother. In other words, that’s five grown-ass people who should be able to handle it without falling apart. And from what I can tell, four of you are… but your mom has a lot of work to do.

I don’t think this is about your brother—not even a little bit. If your dad and stepmom are both wearing wedding rings and he’s been around them, it’s safe to assume that he knows. I mean, it probably came up at least once or twice, right? “Oh hey son, how are you? We got married!” and so on. Also, hey. They’ve been together for fifteen years, so I think it goes without saying that you and your brother aren’t entirely surprised by this turn of events.

I think this is a hundred percent about your mom: her anger, sense of betrayal, and embarrassment. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to have your husband (and the father of your children, no less) leave you for someone else, period. I don’t know how it feels to then have him STAY with the “other woman” for over a decade, because that’s got to eat at her. I’m sure it has been no picnic explaining what happened, over and over, to friends and family. I imagine that it would kind of suck to know that it’s all going on still, and that they’re as happy as can be.

But you know what? It’s been fifteen years, and no one grows from clinging to the past. I don’t know the specifics of what did or did not go down between your parents, but I do know that there’s no way it’s healthy for your mom to continue to harbor this much bitterness about the situation. Now she’s opting out of your wedding entirely? Does she also plan to opt out of future holidays and events? What happens if you and your partner have kids and the kids talk to her about their other grandparents? Do they get shut down? In other words, is it ever truly possible, or even realistic, to fully erase an extra partner from your life if kids are involved? Probably not.

If I were you, I wouldn’t make this conversation about your brother, and I wouldn’t cede any power by letting her do so. In no place did you state that your brother has been emotionally devastated or is dealing with any kind of fallout, so I’m assuming he wasn’t nearly as surprised or pissed off about their marriage as your mom was. Instead, I’d frame the conversation around your mom: What is she feeling, and why is she feeling it? And more importantly: Is their marriage really so terrible for her that she’ll miss this singular event in her own child’s life? After all, it’s not like your wedding will happen again.


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  • joanna b.n.

    So, if you should somehow be able to convince your mom that the reasonable thing would be to attend your wedding, maybe help her come up with some ways to buffer herself from what will inevitably be somewhat stressful – seeing her ex with his former mistress. Such as, seat them at different tables at dinner (obviously) and surround her with people she loves and trusts (family or friends her pick). Set separate times for her to meet/hang with your future in-laws when your dad won’t be there, instead of trying to fake a happy, group nuclear family gathering. Give her ways to express herself in your wedding (we had my mom do a reading) so she feels special (esp. if you’re doing things like dad walking you down the aisle and/or father daughter dance. Because if she can be grown up enough to show up at what will be a combo of a very happy and a very tough day, then you can be grown up to find ways to show that you care about her feelings. Maybe?

    • clarkesara

      My parents are also divorced and can’t stand each other. My dad is also remarried, and my mom is not. I’m making sure my mom gets a plus one and knows that she can use it for ANYONE she wants, whether that’s someone she’s only dating casually, a girlfriend, etc.

      • Abby

        I second all these things, and want to add– if your mom does rally herself to make it to your wedding, ASSIGN SOMEONE ELSE to check in with her throughout the day/weekend to make sure she’s ok. I wound up spending an unplanned hour in the middle of my (very tightly scheduled) wedding day sitting with my mom because she needed a support system, and much as I love her, that shouldn’t be your job on your wedding day. Best of luck with whichever way it works out.

        • KPM

          Yup. This sounds like a place that ideally your brother can handle but if not maybe it’s your mom’s sister or a cousin of yours, or even a friend who is just really good with moms (don’t we all have one?) If you worry your mom may try to rile whoever is her support up, then a non-family member may be best.

  • Amy March

    100% not your fault! It’s not your job to share your father’s news with your mother or brother, and encouraging him to do so before your wedding was a good idea. Your mom is being emotionally manipulative and, frankly, mean. “I’m sorry you feel that way, I hope you will decide to attend my wedding.” And hang up the phone/leave the room/delete the texts. You do not need to act as a dumping ground for your mother’s emotions.

    • Megan

      This definitely was the right choice for LW! Imagine if the mom HAD found out the day of the wedding!

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  • T.K.

    In this situation, I’d elope in a heartbeat.

    • Cellistec

      Right? It’s not like eloping can make things worse at this point.

    • Sarah Shinyhelmet Stovetop

      Why I’m eloping. My parents are awesome separately, but absolute garbage humans when they are in the same room and I DO NOT want to deal with it.

  • Eenie

    “grew some polite emotional fences” – I love this phrase. And good for you.

    LW, you sound rational and logical and tried your best to watch out for you mother’s emotional well being. I hope enough time passes between the time of the letter and your wedding day that your mom changes her mind about attending.

  • clarkesara

    Would love any and all advice about getting married when your parents are acrimoniously divorced. My situation isn’t remotely as bad as this question, but I just got engaged and there’s already a LOT of unspoken tension and competition between my parents. Especially where money is concerned.

    • Marlin Rando

      This may not work for you, but for me, the biggest thing was to not talk to one parent about what the other was doing. Especially with regard to money. Either lie about where the money is coming from, or scale it down so you’re not so dependent on their money. Also, this sounds harsh, but my husband and I stopped discussing the wedding with them once we’d figured out the venue. It wasn’t worth the drama. Finally, realize you can’t control your crazy parents. Weddings get people all worked up. My mom was trying to buy us a wedding cake 2 days before the wedding despite the fact that my husband told her he’d already done it…

      • emilyg25

        Yeah, you don’t even need to lie about it. You can just say, “I’m not going to talk about our budget with you.”

        • Marlin Rando

          That’s true. But my mom can be verrrry exhausting. Sometimes it’s just easier!

        • clarkesara

          This has proven to be worse, because then my mom can imagine that the budget is larger than it is, or like there is some kind of secret drama at the heart of everything, probably caused by my father. The gist is that she’s determined to see him as her obstacle to getting my the wedding of her dreams. Rather than the actual obstacle, which is that despite sharing half her DNA and being raised by her, the girlie apple fell really, really far from the tree and I’m just not interested in having a big elaborate wedding.

          • Marlin Rando

            Oof, I feel you on the “girlie apple” being super far from the tree. Honestly, forget my advice. People are going to do whatever they want, especially your parents. That’s the number one thing I learned from having a wedding. I spent the whole morning of my wedding visualizing myself flipping the whole world off and smiling SO BROADLY. So whatever works, I guess.

      • Abby

        I really agree with this. For budget, if you’re in a position to, it helps a lot if you can set aside a chunk of your own money with your fiance to be able to say “we’re paying for the wedding, but all contributions (monetary or otherwise) are appreciated” and then not share exact figures with any of the parents involved. Then each parent (or set) can contribute what they’re comfortable with, but in the end it’s your money, your decisions, and no one has to know who paid how much for what.

    • snf100

      I don’t have too much advice, just commiseration. My own divorced since I was 4 perfectly willing to talk to one another parents stopped talking to one another and used me as a go between 4-5 months before my wedding. They were fine on the day of, they just ignored one another completely. I sat them at separate tables, introduced both my mom and step-dad and my dad and his wife as parents of the bride. If you are comfortable you might ask both sets of parents make a toast, particularly if both are contributing financially (I didn’t do that, and it caused my dad a lot of hurt)

    • Abe

      Oof, MONEY, amiright?? If at all possible, try to take on the wedding finances as a couple, and tell your parents they are welcome to “give” or “contribute” to your wedding however they’d like (or are able). That way, they are not communicating with each other about finances or wedding details, and all control of the budget is going through you. It’s not the traditional “brides’ parents pay for everything”… but it is working for us!

      It also helped with my divorced parents to talk about wedding line items rather than dollar amounts — for instance, I could say, “Hey dad, mom is paying for the dress and the photographer. How about you take care of the wedding coordinator and flowers?” Then I could work out budgets with them separately, and they are none the wiser about each other’s contributions. Good luck!

      • Giselle

        Seconding your method of asking divorced parents to take on line items! I’d expected to pay for our wedding and took the line item method with my parents after an unexpected gift of a dress from my mom. I asked my dad if/how he wanted to contribute, monetarily or otherwise. Then gave him some photographer package options to pick what he was comfortable with when he said he wanted to chip in. It worked really well and put the kibosh on my mom asking every time we talked if my dad was contributing yet.

    • clarkesara

      Unfortunately, the money problem is specifically that we are paying for the wedding ourselves and not sharing information about financial contributions between parents because, yes, it’s none of their business.

      The crux of it is that my very traditional, conservative, and WIC-loving mother hears, “We are paying for the wedding ourselves, we want to keep it simple, we’re going to have an afternoon backyard wedding with a food truck, etc etc etc” and her takeaway is that my evil father is shirking his traditional fatherly duty of throwing his only daughter a big fancy wedding. Anytime I shore up our vision of a simple and fun wedding that feels like us, my mom comes back with “I can’t believe your father won’t help with the wedding!” and “Look, if you want, I can talk to your dad about the money issue.”

      My mom is coming to visit and wedding dress shop next month, so hopefully when I say in person THIS IS THE WEDDING WE WANT, she’ll stop with the “your dad should be paying for a real wedding” business. Until, then, though…

      • Eenie

        That sucks. I’d tell her how much it hurts you when she makes those comments. You can pull out some feminist things like: “We’ve decided this is the wedding that we want, and as the very first act as a married couple, we want to finance it ourselves, just like we’ll be doing for the rest of our lives.” IDK. Some parents just don’t get it.

        • Totch

          I’d also focus on the hurt aspect of it. When people make snide comments about a small wedding, it can be helpful to point out that the only thing making your wedding FEEL small is people consistently discounting it. You are having the exact wedding you want and your mother belittling it is her ‘shirking her duty’ to support you as a person.

      • Abe

        I think it’s great that you’re emphasizing that you are having the wedding you WANT, regardless of how much money’s in the budget or who is financing it. Of course, you can’t control whether she hears you… but if you have a heart-to-heart in person, I really hope she does!

      • Marlin Rando

        Ooh that does suck. I’m really glad you’re able to have the wedding you want and pay for it though. Because ultimately you guys are fine.

      • p.

        This may be tough to do, but you may need to be more direct with your
        mom and tell her explicitly to stop bringing Dad up. Maybe something
        like, “I need you to stop bringing Dad into this. This isn’t about Dad.
        This is about me and the choices my SO and I are making about OUR
        wedding.” And when she brings up Dad again (because it sounds like she
        will), repeat this.

        • clarkesara

          I LOVE THIS SO MUCH.

        • MDBethann

          And also emphasize that since you are getting married in front of an officiant, it is a REAL wedding. The size and cost of a wedding doesn’t make it “real” (it seems to be David Tutara’s philosophy, so I stopped watching his wedding shows on TLC) but the fact that a couple is getting married makes it REAL.

  • First off: You did not wreck your family. You did not betray anyone. This is not on you.

    This is a tough subject for me, because of my own parents’ rough split. They divorced for a lot of reasons, but it was mostly about my dad being in the wrong in a lot of different ways. But my mother, bless her, never tried to make me choose between them. She sat back and let me come to my own conclusions. In any interaction (and there hasn’t been many…three or four in fourteen years) she has always taken the high road and said that no matter what happened between them, they had a responsibility to their children, that they were both still parents to my brother and I. My dad didn’t really make that possible and has caused a lot of hurt because of his terrible attitude and treatment of her.

    So I just want to say again that this is not on you. Your mom was betrayed by your father a long time ago. That can still hurt, but she has no right to put that on you in any way. You didn’t have a responsibility to tell her about your father’s marriage. For her to take it out on you and to miss such a big event in your life is really hurtful and something I would have a hard time forgiving. I would just tell her that you understand she was hurt by your father and learning of his getting married may have refreshed that hurt, but if she skips your wedding because of it, it won’t be your father she’s hurting, it will be you. She’ll be damaging her relationship with you, not with anyone else.

    • Lindsay

      Second this! I think the phrasing you include at the end is so important and necessary to convey to the mother – by skipping out on this very special, once in a lifetime event of her daughter, she is only hurting the daughter… not the ex husband.

  • Marlin Rando

    I am intimately familiar with this story. I’m an only child of parents who don’t seem to like each other, and divorced right before my wedding (though they’d been separated for several years). As someone who grew up with a similar emotional dynamic let me just say: NONE OF THIS IS ABOUT YOU. Your parents (especially your mother) have their own issues and it is not your fault that your mother is upset. It’s unfair that your wedding is the pivot of this sucky situation, but you didn’t make this happen. When you’re used to dampening conflict by hiding your parents’ lives from each other you get used to feeling responsible for their conflicts. You protect your less stable parent from info they can’t handle and it feels like things going wrong is partly your fault. But it’s not, dude! You’re about to get married, which is awesome. You want both your parents to be there, but your mom is going to have to pull it together before that happens. I hope she’ll put her issues aside for a couple hours and be able to attend (without major drama). Start practicing some scripts you can use to set boundaries with her, like “I’m not going to talk about dad with you,” “The wedding will be fine–you don’t have to interact with him,” etc. My parents were both in spite/panic mode up to the start of the ceremony, but it was fine. In the end I was married to an awesome person and my parents had managed not to kill each other.

  • AnonK

    “I feel terrible, but don’t know why. Is it because I’m in the wrong, or because I’ve been really effectively emotionally conditioned?” I am feeling this so hard lately, except in my case it’s an older sibling. Part of what’s gotten me through my family fallout has been my fiance’s loving reminders that I do not have control over the situation, because my sibling’s reactions are stemming from something that has nothing to do with my actions. I consistently tried to be understanding and respectful, much as it sounds like you have, and it just blew up in my face, as it did for you. When the only way out is unconditional apologies (when, in fact, it’s you who deserves an apology) and appeasement, sometimes the only thing to do is take care of yourself.

    Maybe you will have a conversation with your mom that will work out with both of you feeling better. But it’s also okay to accept that you don’t have power over the situation. You CAN just send her an invite (or wherever you are in the process) and let her make her own decision. You do NOT need to take responsibility for insuring that she attends your wedding. It’s not your job to do that, and it doesn’t make you a bad daughter if she decides not to come.

  • Cellistec

    Ditto to the chorus of It’s Not Your Fault. The meltdown smacks of manipulation–the part about the mom guilt tripping by proxy by invoking the brother, as well as the sheer fact of LW feeling responsible for keeping the remarriage news a secret because mom was clearly going to have a meltdown. I wonder whether mom’s decision not to attend the wedding is a threat to get what she wants (which would be…dad and stepmom uninvited? who knows).

    It’s unclear whether LW still wants mom to attend the wedding, or is okay saying “I hope you’ll attend, but I understand if you don’t feel able to.” The latter seems easier to deal with, assuming it really would be fine for her not to be there. If it’s the former, though, some grownup talks may need to happen, along the lines of “I understand you’re hurt and upset to find out about dad’s remarriage, but it’s important to have both my parents at my wedding, and I want to find a way for everyone to be in the same room and enjoy the day.” From there, it might help to search Captain Awkward for some script ideas.

  • Violet

    Everything about your mom’s reactions screams “I don’t know how to handle my feelings!” It sounds like sometimes you prevented her from having feelings to help her out, and other times you’ve handled her feelings for her. I can understand the reasons why you have done this. Now she’s saying she has to avoid a situation in which she’d have to deal with her feelings. This is not your fault. She’s had 15 years to figure out how to handle her feelings on this subject. Including get professional help. She has (passively, in all likelihood) chosen not to do this. She is the one who has neglected to learn how to handle her feelings. Not you. This is not on you. Just because sometimes you picked up a burden that was rightfully hers doesn’t mean it’s somehow your fault when you try to place it down where it belongs, back on her.

    You did nothing wrong.

  • You are absolutely not to blame, and yes, many divorced parents are this emotionally manipulative. You can get your mom to attend the wedding, but it will probably require some legwork.

    As a survivor of the 8+ year disastrous divorce of my own parents I feel compelled to give a little insight. The reaction your mother is having can be pretty typical among divorcees and their attempts to manipulate their children against each other. It’s a sad an unfortunate situation, but the sooner you can look outside of all the hysterics through a third person perspective, the better. It’ll help you make less reactionary decisions and be more aware of everything as a whole.

    So your mom is likely experiencing a few things with the news that your father remarried: 1) she feels like she hasn’t succeeded in life as he has by getting remarried, she feels like a failure, somehow less because he’s “doing better”, because it’s always a competition between them, 2) she sees him as the enemy, so her instinct is to pull the kids toward her for support – the kids are all she has left, 3) you kept this “secret” from her, so in her mind (not reality) it’s totally reasonable to lump you into the “enemy” category (albeit likely temporarily). Depending on the temperament of your mom, getting stuck in this enemy category can last a few hours to months. Many divorced persons are a tad narcissistic, thinking they are the only one who matters, their happiness and situation is the most important in an almost child like way, they are self important because the family as it once was is no longer – divorced with grown and moved out kids. Dealing with narcissistic people requires patience, a level head, and the ability to spell things out succinctly and logically.

    Figure out if your mom and dad can be in the same room together for 20 minutes without setting the building on fire, if that’s possible sit them on opposite ends of the room with family they love. If she’s freaking out this badly after 15 years, it’s probably best they keep any communication with each other short or non-existent at the wedding itself. They don’t have to speak to each other, or even see each other. It sounds like you want both of them there, so tell them that, it’s only happening once after all. If either wants to be involved by giving a speech or a walk down the aisle, arrange it, but try to make it as equal as possible with ample physical distance.

    Obviously you shouldn’t HAVE to do any of this, but this is your family. Families aren’t perfect, no one is. Asking for a little consideration for one of the most important days in your life isn’t unreasonable. And, I mean after everything you’ve been subjected to, they kind of owe it to you to just sit down and behave on this one.

  • S

    Can I just say that we’re acting like everyone else bar the mother has been acting like a functioning adult this whole time, while ignoring the fact that it is VERY STRANGE for someone to get married in such a secretive way where one of their children knows that the wedding occurred but doesn’t know if the other kid knows? If I knew my Dad got married to someone and didn’t know whether my brother knew or not, it’d be because either my dad and brother weren’t currently talking as the result of a falling-out, or because my Dad was exceptionally immature. Parents should tell their kids when they get married, full stop (regardless of a falling-out, actually, in my opinion). And it is exceptionally bad parenting to only tell ONE of your kids. Forgetting pitting kids against the other parents, it sounds like the kids have almost been pitted against each other. And for this to have been such a secretive marriage that in the space of four years this wouldn’t have naturally been revealed to the mother in some way (they were married for ages and had kids together and they don’t have any mutual people that they talk to, ever? She just never finds this out until the ex-husband tells her directly? I don’t know how gossip spreads in your neighbourhood, but…) means that he went to lengths for her not to find out. Yes, the mother’s reaction is immature. But it doesn’t sound like it’s completely unwarranted to freak the F out when you found out that your ex-husband has been married for FOUR YEARS and keeping it a secret from YOUR CHILD.

    • Violet

      Oh, I don’t think the dad is blameless. There’s a lot of dysfunction going on here. But LW can’t change the past of how her dad handled these things. And only the mom right now is holding her wedding attendance out of LW’s reach for something LW didn’t do. So I think LW needs validation that this is not her fault and guidance as to how to handle her mom right now. I actually can imagine feeling pretty freaked out in this situation if I were the mom, too. Secret marriage? Realizing my relationship with my kids is so strained they couldn’t share this info with me? Yeah, that’s bad. But while I can understand the mom’s feelings, I can’t excuse her resulting behavior to LW. That her mom is currently acting less functionally in no way excuses her dad, I just don’t see his past behavior as LW’s most pressing concern right now.

  • raccooncity

    “What happens if you and your partner have kids and the kids talk to her about their other grandparents? Do they get shut down?”

    This is a huge fear of mine. One of my parents and their partner allow ZERO reference to my other parent in their presence. Like, to an extreme – if the other parent calls me coincidentally, they both get silent and often stepparent sulks alone for the rest of the night. Simply because I, an adult, was called by a parent who has no idea where I am at any given moment. Stepparent also doesn’t allow talking about times before their existence.

    Anyway, I deal with it by ignoring them when they’re full of shit but also not making my life hard by not bringing up taboos in their house.

    I’m super worried about how they’ll be with my kids.

    • Eenie

      Sometimes, not always, grand kids change things. I’ve seen bickering divorced parents SUCK IT UP because they realize they can either see their kid/grand kid half as much, or make nice with their ex.

    • BDubs

      ohmygosh that is such BS….

  • BDubs

    WHOA! Full Stop!
    You asked your Dad to contact Mom and tell her about the marriage before your wedding day so she would be in the know.
    I assume he complied.
    So now Mom is roasting YOU over hot coals for…? Asking Dad to tell her?
    How did you get in the middle of this particular issue?

  • AmandaBee

    NO. The answer is NO. You have no responsibility in any of this.

    As the child of two dysfunctionally divorced parents (who I love), I get the need to feel like you can manage their emotional issues toward each other. It’s a comforting lie we tell ourselves, because it can be hard to realize that you can’t make them dislike each other less. But you can’t, and it really is not your responsibility to do so.

    Your parents are adults. So, presumably, is your brother. You aren’t responsible for their emotional issues with one another, and it’s perfectly reasonable for you to ask them to communicate with each other like adults. I’m sorry that they can’t appear to handle that, and I’m really sorry that your mom wants to take that out on you by not attending your wedding.

    That said, I would focus on what you want moving forward. Do you WANT your mom to attend? There is no right or wrong answer to that, it just depends on your relationship with her.

    If you do, I wonder if you could just remind her that it’s really important to YOU that she’s there. And that you want her there, and that her choosing not to be there would be very hurtful. She needs to realize that this isn’t about her.

    If you don’t, I’d just let it be. Disengage, and let her made her choice, and realize that’s not a reflection of you in any way.

    Family is tough. Your dynamic seems extra tough. That said, its sounds like you’ve managed it with maturity and grace…which is more than I could say for your family. So keep doing what you’re doing *hugs*. It’s definitely not your fault.

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