I didn’t grow up with divorced parents. As far as I knew, the whole time I was a kid, my parents were happily married and everything was great—or, you know, imperfect-but-mostly-pretty-good. But then in my early twenties (shortly after I almost died in a bicycle accident, but that’s a story for another day), my mom found out that my dad had been having an affair for years with a woman he had dated in college, who lived halfway across the country from us (we’ll call her Rebecca). Initially, my parents separated and went to counseling to see if they could work things out, but a little over a year later they officially made the decision to divorce—the same month my now-husband and I decided to get married. Their divorce was finalized a few months after our wedding. In an odd way, my parents’ divorce process mirrored our wedding planning process almost exactly, and brought with it a lot of strange emotions and situations.
The first and most obvious issue was our guest list. My dad and Rebecca are now in a serious, committed relationship: He moved halfway across the country to live with her, they have supported each other through tough illnesses, he spends holidays with her family. But when we got married, it wasn’t quite like that—they weren’t yet dating exclusively, and my dad also had a local girlfriend (we’ll call her Judith). I had met both of these women, but only once each, and neither relationship seemed to be especially “serious” to my dad. After lots of fretting, we ultimately decided that we didn’t need to invite either of them to our wedding, and we didn’t offer my dad a plus one. As far as I know, this wasn’t an issue at the time, although I do wonder sometimes if Rebecca wishes she’d been invited, now that she’s much more a part of my dad’s life.
The harder and perhaps less obvious part was managing my relationship with my mom. She had a really hard time with the divorce (understandably), and just didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to participate in wedding planning with me. It’s certainly not something I would ever hold against her—it was a tough chapter in all our lives, but especially hers. It was sad for me too, but ultimately, I think she was more disappointed not to participate in my wedding and planning in the way she had imagined, and managing her feelings of disappointment ended up being harder for me than addressing my own thoughts on the matter.
Sometimes my own sadness at my family’s dissolution comes out of the woodwork and surprises me. I’ve found myself unexpectedly emotional (and yes, I should say it: jealous) at friends’ more recent weddings, when their parents are super present for them and give a killer speech, or plan a beautiful rehearsal dinner, or provide some other form of support that my parents just weren’t able to offer. Even though I convince myself I’m “over it” and doing great at handling my parents and their divorce, it’s never really that simple. As with lots of family dynamics and challenges, weddings have a unique way of bringing out all the old resentments and hurt feelings, and making them feel intense and urgent and really, really painful. I’ve seen other friends go through it, too, whether they are struggling with how to honor (or at least not piss off) step-parents, how to manage old painful feelings that suddenly feel raw again, to just plain family drama (plus divorce!). Divorce looks different for everyone, and we’ve certainly heard from plenty of smart, empathetic voices on the topic here. Maddie even wrote a two-part guide on the topic you can find here and here, and there are some beautiful essays as well. Divorce, remarriage, and step-parents are, of course, perennial topics in our advice columns.
So let’s help each other through it, shall we?
Are you planning a wedding with divorced, remarried, step-parents, or any of the above? Are you marrying into a family where you will be a step-parent? How’s that going? Any strategies to help cope? How are you managing everyone else’s feelings and expectations? Just need to vent? We got you.