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A Guide For Planning a Wedding With Divorced Parents

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When both your parents and your future in-laws are divorced, planning a wedding sometimes feels like walking through a minefield. Although the divorces were both finalized a decade ago and everyone can handle being in the same room together for our wedding, there are still a lot of emotions in play for everyone involved, myself and Stephen included. How do you have an anniversary dance when your mothers would have to sit and watch their exes dancing with their new wives? How do you include one mother in the processional when the other does not want to walk down the aisle, much less alone, and there’s no clear answer for who should escort her? How do you figure out the seating for the ceremony for the mothers, fathers, second wives, step-siblings and half-siblings so that everyone feels honored but no one is forced to sit next to someone who causes them pain to be near? This is the tip of the iceberg, my friends, and it feels never-ending. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like for couples whose parents are unable to be in the same room at all.

I was never one to dream about my wedding as a little girl, but certainly not after sitting down to dinner with my family one night during my freshman year of high school and being informed that my father was leaving to stay with my grandparents and would not be coming back to live with us again. To say that my parent’s divorce shattered my views of romantic relationships would be hyperbolic, but it definitely had an impact on how I perceived my chances of staying with someone “til death do us part.” I doubted the words “forever” and “always.” I poured over statistics that could prove to me that being older, more educated, wealthier – namely, anything different from my parents – when I got married could somehow help me hold a marriage together for life when they could not. For all of my adult life, I tried to make peace with the idea that I might one day walk down the aisle and get married, but I would probably never truly believe that it would be forever.

This isn’t the part where I say that I met Stephen and everything changed.

Because nothing changed when we met. He is also a child of divorced parents who split up when he was in early high school, that time when young adults are just learning how to date and fall in love. We met after college, and we dated tentatively. We fell in love tentatively. We talked about moving in together “one day” for over a year before we finally felt comfortable doing so. Every move forward was risking getting hurt bigger, more spectacularly. We had almost no one to model a healthy and happy relationship for us. We didn’t have any way to know that we weren’t doing it completely wrong, doomed to fail miserably at some inevitable future point.

And then one day, we took a leap. We had to step away from the past, from our parent’s marriages, and take a chance on us. We were ready to look into our hearts and trust what we knew existed in our relationship, despite what experience had shown us before. We were ready to get married.

Reading over some of the APW archives on divorce, I saw a comment with a quote from Samuel Johnson, who said that second marriages are “the triumph of hope over experience”. And even though this is our first and only marriage, that is sure what it feels like. It feels like we are going to stand at the altar and give the middle finger to divorce. It feels like we will look into the unknown future together and shout, “Come and get us! We are not afraid!” And while I can’t know what will happen to us over the course of a lifetime (which yes, could include getting divorced) I know that I’m not scared anymore. I know that I can promise truthfully and with all my heart to be part of our marriage for my whole life. In some ways it doesn’t matter what happens after that, because I have conquered the fear that I could never love someone so wholly and completely. I can. I do.

But despite reaching this point together, planning a wedding – a celebration of love and marriage – is hard when your parents are divorced and so many traditions center around honoring the bride’s and groom’s parents as couples. We had to call our parents and tell them we were engaged over the phone because we couldn’t figure out how to tell four different people in person without choosing someone first and someone last, and getting them in the same room without ruining the secret would have been impossible. We had to have four different (and awkward) conversations about who is contributing to the wedding, and then had to keep the details of those conversations confidential from the other parents lest this turn into some kind of competition or bidding war. We had to think carefully about whom to invite so that all four sides of our families are relatively equal and evenly represented. We will probably have four parents’ tables and four speeches. We’re finding ways to divide our wedding by four, like we will have to divide our holidays and vacations and time by four for most of our lives, while trying to preserve the day as the start and celebration of one marriage and one  family.

It hurts a little when we attend weddings where both sets of parents are still married. Those couples are able to celebrate in ways that we can’t – more casualties of divorce. But that’s what life has dealt us and we have to do the best that we can with it. Life doesn’t stop or change for us so that we can get married in the perfect way we want, anymore than life stops or changes for us to do anything else. In the end it’s worth it to us to do whatever it takes to make sure that all four of our parents get to have a joyful day and enjoy watching their child get married to the love of their life. In the end all we can do is hold on to the people we love, who love us back and who we are lucky to have, and throw the best damn party we can.

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