Last year I posted here an open letter to the divorced parents of a bride or groom. It was a simple plea for parents to put aside any animosity and generously focus on the joy of their child's wedding. To be honest, the letter did not generate the heated response I had anticipated! But then, a few months ago, out of the blue, I received an email from Roger (names changed), a divorced father whose daughter, Susan, is getting married later this year. Roger wrote that my "letter" helped him realize that more than anything he wants to be emotionally present for his daughter and future son-in-law. Of course, there is a "but"!
Roger and his wife divorced when Susan was little. His ex-wife eventually married Jack and as Susan's step-dad he's been a huge part of her life. While Roger is not a buddy with his ex-wife and Jack they have always respected one another. And all three are contributing to the cost of the wedding. So, what's the "but"?
Susan has asked Roger to escort her down the aisle and she and her fiancé, Brad, have asked Jack to officiate the ceremony (he'll be getting ordained online). Roger feels confused and slighted as it appears that Jack is being given a larger and more important role in the wedding celebration. In addition, Roger's family is Jewish and Jack is not. What will people say if there's no rabbi? To his credit, Roger doesn't like feeling petty. On the other hand, he doesn't like feeling confused. He asked me what he should do.
I only know what Roger told me and so, of course, there are several sides to this story. Whatever the "real" and full story might be, Roger is not the first parent to feel slighted by the decisions of a bride and groom -- and you don't have to be divorced to feel confused!
Here are some pointers I offered Roger during a phone conversation:
Start from the belief that no slight is intended. Roger said that he had a good relationship with Susan, as did her step-dad Jack, so we can legitimately presume that Susan and Brad are seeking to do their best. The great traditional honor is for a father to escort his daughter down the aisle. Because Susan's fiancé is not Jewish and because Susan's step-dad is not Jewish and because Susan and her fiancé have decided to have a non-denominational ceremony, it makes sense why they would ask her step-dad. He is an ideal officiant (theoretically) in that he appeals to both sides.
It doesn't matter what people think. I know - simple for me to say! I gently reminded Roger that his mother is deceased and so it doesn't matter if she would have been disappointed that her only granddaughter is not being married by a rabbi. The dear woman no longer has to worry about such things! I urged him not to worry about what people will say because if anyone objects to Susan not being married by a rabbi, then, they can stay home and binge watch their fav TV series! A wedding is a day for joy, not judgment.
Trust your relationship with Susan and ask her to help you sort out your feelings by explaining her decision. I reminded Roger that he is not asking Susan to get his permission for anything; rather, he's simply asking her to help him make sense of a new type of celebration because he wants to be fully present for her and her Brad.
A great communication tool is something known as "Perception Checking." If you don't understand why someone is saying or doing whatever, here's the template to kick off the conversation: "When you (describe factually, without judging, what's confusing you), I wasn't sure if you (offer a possible interpretation of why you think the person is doing what they're doing) or if (offer yet another possible interpretation). Please help me understand because I feel confused and I very much want to be your dad that day."
Clean - honest - no games!
I went on to suggest that, if possible, Roger, his ex-wife and Jack, together with the couple, explore how to broaden the scope of the ceremony so it's not focused on Jack and is more inclusive of both families - after all, Brad has parents!
• Both mothers could do a reading (they alternate stanzas).
• All three dads could give the blessing at ceremony's end.
• Jack could make clear in his opening remarks that he speaks on behalf of all the parents.
Roger liked what I had to say, but, let's face it - all of this is tricky because people see a wedding from different perspectives. When it comes to communicating with family, we rely on our default settings, especially when buttons get pressed.
So the question Roger needs to ask (and perhaps you) is, "What can I do differently, so as to get heard and understood, so as to hear and understand?"
Roger assured me that he was going to talk with his daughter because even though it would be a hard conversation to have, more than anything, he did not want to end up causing her pain. And besides, he wanted to enjoy every minute of her wedding. But in order to do that, he had to clear up his confusion.
Again, the ultimate question, whose answer will guide all your decisions is this: "Who do you want to be - for the couple - during one of the seminal times in their life together?"
The answer to that question will be the best gift you can give your child and her/his spouse!
PS: I didn't have the opportunity to speak with Susan and Brad. If I had, though, this is what I would have suggested to them:
As a bride, as a groom, as a couple, it's easy to become so focused on what you want, that you can presume so much, too much, of those you love. To reduce miscommunication, practice these 5 strategies:
1. No surprises - keep all VIPs in the loop throughout the planning.
2. Be honest in talking with parental units - no guilt-tripping (no matter how tempting - or potentially rewarding).
3. Don't assume responsibility for your parents' feelings. This isn't about "making" them happy. However, don't trample their feelings.
4. "Because" - that simple word goes a long to bringing about understanding. People appreciate understanding the "why" behind a decision.
5. Keep channels open - "this is what I need from you" can probably never be said too many times!
And what everyone needs to remember is this: you can disagree and still love!
JP Reynolds, M.Div. has officiated more than one thousand weddings and has coached hundreds of people in how to create and deliver heartfelt, personalized ceremonies. If you've been invited by a friend or relative to celebrate their wedding ceremony and are wondering what to do, visit: http://ceremonymadesimple.com