Wedding Undergraduate: Growth & Separation

It seemed logical to kick of APW Pride week with a wedding planning post from an LGBTQ perspective. So I’m delighted to bring you Nicole’s post about learning to merge families that don’t necessarily want to be merged, and about finding a way to build your own support when you need it. Plus, as a bonus, it include’s Nicole and Annie’s brilliant idea of the Team Leader approach to family problem solving (must start using this ASAP).

Nineteen months ago, my girlfriend, Annie, asked me to go on a midnight walk in the middle of a blizzard in her hometown. We held hands and laughed as we trekked down to a park, feet freezing and eyelashes full of snowflakes. Being the romantic she is, I didn’t find it odd when she started asking me questions about our relationship. When she asked, “What’s your favorite thing about me?” (I promise, she’s not a narcissist) and I responded, “Your questions,” I probably should have known that the next thing out of her mouth would be “I have a very important question for you. Will you marry me?” While I was thrilled to say yes, what I didn’t expect was how this question – will you marry me? Are you ready to be married? Would reverberate through my family in hurtful ways through the next year and a half.

We learned very quickly that engagements and weddings and marriages are not just about the two individuals who decide to enter into them. They are, incredibly, about families. In both actual weddings and the blog world, family relationships are thrust into a unique spotlight, for good and obvious reasons. In my experience, these narratives seem to occupy one of two extremes when the engaged discuss family relationships. At one extreme, the discussion seems to surround the people who are close to their family. They have lovely, glowing wedding celebrations that are true mergings of two families, and everyone cries tears of joy and makes ludicrous demands about Jordan almond favors and gives toasts that pull on the heartstrings. At the other extreme stand the brave individuals that speak openly about deep and painful estranged relationships, biological parents that aren’t in the picture, and parents who have not been in the same room for decades. I can only imagine how heartbreaking it could be to deal with issues of this nature while planning for a marriage. I try to beat down my envy for those in the first camp, and I give major props to the second for their honesty and courage. But what about the space in-between the extremes? What happens when members of your family of origin are simply pretending that you aren’t engaged? When they refuse to fully support openness and authenticity for people who are not straight? When they don’t seem to support their children’s progress into adulthood and marriage?

What do you do with that?

Over the course of our engagement, Annie and I have learned a tremendous amount about our relationship dynamics, our goals for ourselves both as individuals and as a couple, and our relationship to our faith tradition. But above all things, our engagement has been a serious study of what it means to be and to become family.

When Annie and I told her parents that we were engaged, their basic reaction was: well, we were kind of expecting this! Then they ordered us champagne at dinner. Since then, they have been steadily supportive and excited about our impending marriage. When we told my mother, she simply cried. When we told my father, he smiled grimly and went upstairs. Since then, the crying and silence has taken on other forms.

My family does not approve of our decision to get married. Their disapproval stems from a variety of sources, including the emotional wounds of divorce, a cultural Catholic heritage, and the belief that we are too young to marry. For the most part, my family and I disagree over what marriage is, can be, or the role it should play in my existing family. Over the course of our engagement, these differences came into sharp focus, and have left us feeling very alone in the planning process.

In the aftershocks of my family’s disapproval, I am beginning to deal with expectations that I cannot meet. It has forced me to confront the fact that I am not a mere product of my family of origin, and that I am an adult who is fully capable of her own wise decisions. In my family, adulthood and independence are not a given. They are lived and struggled into, after being voluntarily chosen.

And of course, this hasn’t just affected me; this affects my partner in a different but equally serious fashion. Annie has been slowly coming to understand that some members of my family may never include her with open arms. This is an incredibly painful, but realistic possibility that we are both still coming to terms with. This process may be gradual, but it is steadily moving us to a newer understanding and clarification about who we are, what we love, and what we stand for.

I firmly believe that weddings (among other things) are about disparate families coming together to become one melded whole. However, my own experience is living proof that sometimes, this is not actually possible. People must have the desire to be joined, to be open to others. If this desire is imbalanced, the enterprise is guaranteed to fail.

Building a family (along with planning a wedding, ironically enough) is really difficult. But it’s the most immensely worthwhile thing that I have done with my life up to this point. It is a constant discussion, with active listening and storytelling. It means reevaluating our goals, hopes, and values to be sure we’re on the same page. It’s a crash course in an examination of boundaries between the families we come from and the families we are creating. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received is to treat our families the following way: each of us is the “team leader” for our respective families, but we are on one “team.” Certain situations need to be tackled by the team leader alone; other situations require the whole team’s input. I am also learning that I am not responsible for providing my partner with a happy, healthy, loving extended family. That’s something I have no control over, though I do have control over the way that I interact with them and the way that I honor her as my first priority.

Annie and I decided to grow a garden this spring. With excitement, we planted seeds in late winter and incubated them in a small indoor greenhouse. We watched the cucumber and tomato plants sprout. We carefully planted them in larger containers and have nurtured and watered these plants daily. It’s come time to separate a few of the small plants and once again place them into larger pots. We’ve hesitated for a few days now because we know, in a few instances, that the roots have become intertwined. We know that pulling the plants away from one another could be damaging. Roots are the foundation and source of nourishment, and they run deep. But unless they move into pots of their own, they will never be strong enough to bear fruit. We will take our time in doing this. We will be careful. What nature has so beautifully reminded us of is that new growth requires separation.

Photo: Kelly Prizel

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