Balancing bonding and boundaries while planning your wedding

Marguerite MacRobert

It’s YOUR big day. So why is your mother expecting to arrange the flowers? You were besties with your future father-in-law until the wedding planning started. Now he is micro-managing ‘protocols’ for a ceremony you wanted to be casual. Help!

Namibia Planners have some tips for expressing your wishes and creating healthy boundaries, without the drama of hurt feelings and missed opportunities to bond with your family on your special day.

Why have boundaries when planning a family wedding?

According to groundbreaking researcher Brene Brown in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, boundaries can make you a kinder, more compassionate person, as you aren’t being sweet and people-pleasing on the outside while inwardly feeling resentful and judgemental (and ultimately exploding).

It’s not just about the wedding. You’re in for a lifetime of intimate involvement with your parents and in-laws. There will be shared festive occasions, or them babysitting your kids, and support through life’s trials.  Yet, whether you’ve been living with your fiancé for years, or are marrying straight from your childhood home, you need to establish yourselves as an independent unit with your own house rules.

Weddings can be a battle-ground for exactly this reason. For parents, even if you left home a decade ago, a wedding is traditionally deeply symbolic of independence from your family of origin and the establishment of a new family unit. This can make parents clingy in a way that takes you right back to your high school years.

While you can have some compassion for their feelings, you can also gently keep pointing out that you have to do things your way because you are establishing your own family. Try being open and curious about how your parents might be feeling about their ‘baby’ truly leaving them (even if it makes you as a 30 year old with a management job want to roll your eyes so hard you fall over backwards). Often just acknowledging and naming these unspoken big emotions helps.

In-laws can get similarly controlling as it might be hitting them that having an influence on their son or daughter’s s spouse could be the only way they get to carry on fussing over their ‘child’ going forward. They could be trying out their influence on you precisely because this is such an important event. Again, being open, curious, and kind about their feelings and wishes, but very firm about what you want as a couple, is a good way to go.

You need to be both kind and firm in establishing boundaries. Your wedding means your decisions ultimately get priority. Even if your parents are paying, this gives them a say in the budget limits, but not your dress style or wedding location. If they are using money to control your wedding, they may use the same tactic when you are choosing your kids’ schools or where you want to live and work. That is not a recipe for a healthy relationship. Putting this on the table, with respect and gratitude for their input, but also the reasonable expectation that this is not about power and control, is important.

If you are finding there are just too many people’s needs to consider and your wishes are getting squeezed out, then perhaps rethink the whole thing and consider the benefits of a small wedding.

Having healthy boundaries is about deciding what your lines in the sand are: so far and no further.

If your parents seem utterly incapable of respecting your clearly expressed boundaries, strongly consider consulting a trained therapist.

Wedding traditions, community and compromise

If all this were straightforward, no-one would sweat the small stuff and end up yelling or crying over something as silly as seating plans.

For modern couples, there can be a huge generation gap between the expectation that a wedding is a kind of optional celebration that is just about the two of you, and the expectations of older, more traditional, family and religious members, who could see a wedding as full of religious, legal and traditional roles and expectations. 

The older generation may have the long-term perspective that a wedding is a public as well as a private commitment, and that your relationship with your spouse going forward is going to involve them in all kinds of ways. You might need their support over the birth of a child or an extended illness, or you will have to take care of them when they age. So the argument you’re having might not be about the flowers. They could be considering their role in your new life and whether you’ll make them welcome and respect their input, or not.

I recall that bonding with my mom-in-law was something I really looked forward to for my wedding, as she was a really talented party organiser. It got super tricky though when she thought she’d be arranging all the flowers. This was something I wanted her guidance on, but wanted to actually do myself.

We had to have a difficult conversation and find middle ground. In the end, we picked a very significant, large flower arrangement in the church that she could have totally to herself. We also gave her carte blanche on making the wedding cake, which was a totally fabulous tiered pavlova totally out of my baking league. Then together we made a giant ice bowl with flowers set in it like stained glass to hold ice cream. This was a great mix of doing something meaningful together, doing some things apart, and giving her a few opportunities to shine.

My mother-in-law passed away 5 years ago, and while we certainly had our share of battles over boundaries, I am so grateful we gave her those influences at our wedding. Every year on our wedding anniversary we make our own version of pavlova, and our kids help make a pretty ice bowl set with flowers. It’s a lovely way to remember how much she contributed to our special day. At the same time there is no simmering resentment that I didn’t get to arrange my own wedding bouquet the way I wanted to.

If you can find ways to honour traditions together, include your weird aunt and make your husband’s grandad feel useful, you may have one or two items at your wedding that aren’t what you’d call spot-on trend, but you’ll also have precious memories of bonding with your families and at least one ‘unique’ photo from your wedding that reduces you to helpless fits of laughter.

Which of the balls you are juggling is made of glass?

The big decision is: what is not negotiable and what is? Which of the balls you are juggling would bounce and which would shatter if you dropped it?

Nobody gets to decide what someone else’s glass ball is. These are the big boundaries you need to protect to be true to who you are.

Clearly defined and communicated boundaries can actually improve bonding between family members at high stakes times like weddings. If you exercise compassion and curiosity in trying understand the other person’s needs and limits, and express your own, you have a real opportunity to grow. 

Namibia Planners always welcome your positive tips on how to manage these tricky situations, so feel free to leave a comment!

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