Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years. This week she counsels a stepmother who is (rightly) apprehensive about the high drama her husband’s vengeful ex-wife will create at their daughter’s wedding.
Dear Dr. Ford:
I am the stepmother of a bride-to-be. I have been married to the bride’s father for 25 years, and things are still not great in our “combined families.” I have two sons who are grown and doing well. My husband and his ex-wife have two daughters, both engaged and one to be married in June. My husband has been a wonderful father, and the daughters are very close to him, but treat me with cool civility. My husband and I had many friends in common prior to our marriage. His ex-wife and he were divorced before he and I began a relationship, so infidelity is not the issue. His wife has remarried, but never worked and has really never moved on. She still occasionally sees the friends that she shared with her husband, many of whom I knew well. We chose to not continue those friendships because everything was always drama with his ex-wife before she remarried, and in fact it’s still a lot like that.
I am an event planner and had hoped that I would be asked to help with the wedding in some small way. But I was told that the mother and the bride-to-be had everything under control. I have to admit that this was painful. Then I learned that people my husband and I knew well socially 25 years ago are attending the wedding, invited by the ex-wife, even though she has lived in a resort area for the past 20 years and has not maintained regular contact with these people. I was given only one table that I could fill, and there will be four tables of people whom my husband and I chose not to see all those years ago. I am dreading this wedding and don’t know what to do.
Is there any advice that you have?
Dr. Ford Responds:
It’s a sad fact that weddings are usually far from being purely happy occasions. We have been conditioned to think of them that way, and the wedding industry has exploded in the past few decades as vendors take advantage of our dreams of having a “special day.” Instead, though, weddings can serve as “flashpoints” for all the hot-point issues that the family has had to deal with historically over the years. There is always someone, and often several people, throwing the proceedings off because this rite of passage stirs up strong emotions.
I have seen feuds that have begun at weddings last a lifetime. The more “baggage” a family has to begin with, the greater the danger. So, for example, if the family is like yours and things “are not great in (the)…combined families,” they certainly are not likely to improve because there is a wedding in the offing. Indeed, as a rule of thumb you can expect those who have a history of behaving badly to be at their worst around issues concerning the wedding.
Your description of your husband’s ex-wife indicates that this is just the sort of situation that would exacerbate her worst qualities. A drama queen, she must relish being the center of attention, something that some mothers of brides mistakenly believe is due them at their child’s wedding. It’s not likely she’ll change her stripes now, however, and everyone, including her daughter, will be made to suffer. (For example, her daughter probably is not any more thrilled than you are to have four tables of her mother’s friends from long ago). It also sounds as if the ex-wife may be something of a provocateur: Why did she bother to retain these friendships after moving away? Was it to claim her ground and make your life less comfortable? It certainly seems to have had that effect.
And it does continue to bother you. One thing you can do is ask yourself why this woman’s behavior is still getting under your skin. The issues in your combined families are clearly chronic and not likely to improve, but you can change the way you react to them. Start by accepting that this is the way things are. Your husband’s ex-wife is likely to continue behaving in a certain way, and that’s that. And your stepdaughter has never been warm to you, so her neglect of your party-planning expertise can’t be too much of a shock. Why are you surprised? It may not be fair, but it’s the way it is, and luckily, you don’t have to interact all that often.
Meanwhile, you and your husband have not kept up with the former friends his ex-wife has invited, so realistically, you shouldn’t care that much what they think. There’s certainly no need to be embarrassed, since you had no hand in the divorce of the bride’s parents. Also, most people are used to one member of a couple remaining friends and the other letting go after they split. And if the ex-wife is as much of a drama queen as you say, she may less popular with them than you think. Concentrate on the close friends you have put at your own table. If you have chosen well, you will be surrounded by a select group who truly know you, appreciate you, and will be supportive of you.
My best advice, besides to be accepting, is to be gracious. The wedding is not about you (or the bride’s mother, whether or not she knows that). This is a big emotional event for your husband, on the other hand, and you can serve him well by being supportive and uncomplaining. I don’t know if either of your sons has married yet, but it can be a bittersweet but wrenching experience—which is one of the reasons people are so prone to act out. Let this wedding be a minor event for you and save your emotional strength for your own sons’ weddings—you will need it!
Dr. Cecilia Ford