As a former wedding writer, I spent many Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons — nearly 100 of them — watching couples make their way down so many aisles, and gaze at each other across altars or under chuppahs, and exchange vows in typical and truly odd locations, including a cemetery. (Yes, I’m dead serious.)
Regardless of age, gender, or the quality of booze at their open bar, they all had something in common: They wanted their weddings to be fun, meaningful, and drama-free. And that meant navigating some difficult scenarios on the road to their big day.
High emotions, free-flowing alcohol, and seating-arrangement musical chairs have the potential to trigger Game of Thrones-level acrimony. Throw in wild-card wedding guests, like a drunk uncle, feuding bridesmaids, or an overbearing momzilla, and more often than not, minor controversy — or, on occasion, major — is the rule, rather than the exception.
The pressure to keep everyone happy and make everything perfect can take an emotional toll on an engaged couple. “It’s easy to lose sight of what this day is really about, and that’s true love,” says Suzanne Gelb, a Honolulu-based clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships.
Whether you’re planning your own wedding or attending one as a guest, it’s helpful to know how to deal with sticky situations before they unfold. Vox asked several pros for advice on how to handle surprisingly common wedding-related pitfalls.
If a family member or close friend is upset at not being asked to be part of the wedding party — or, if you’re the one being asked, and you’re concerned about the cost
Once you’ve chosen the wedding party, “you don’t owe a lot of explanation or apology,” to someone who isn’t selected, says Diane Gottsman, a wedding etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Texas. You just need to be polite and upfront, and then, she adds, “Let it go.” But there are ways to help mend hurt feelings: You can invite the friend or family member to participate in wedding dress shopping, extend an invite to the bachelor or bachelorette party, or ask them to arrive at the venue early for select group photos.
Alternatively, if you are looking to bow out of wedding party responsibilities, broach the conversation with the person directly and honestly. “It’s all in the delivery and tone of voice,” says Gottsman. “Say, ‘I am so honored that you asked me, but unfortunately, I just don’t think I can give it the financial commitment that you deserve. I want to honor and respect you, but I can’t give you what you are going to need for this. Thank you so much for understanding.’”
Of course, a couple can make a conscientious effort to minimize costs and cut corners to help enable loved ones to participate in the wedding ceremony and festivities. For example, brides can estimate baseline costs ahead of time (for example, the cost of the dress, accessories, and travel expenses) so bridesmaids know what financial commitment they are making. The couple can also allow some members a free pass on the shower and bachelor/bachelorette activities by covering the costs or not making them obligatory to attend.
“People have different financial obligations and restraints, so be open and honest, so it doesn’t lead to more friction down the line,” says Julia Pham, a wealth adviser with the finance firm Halbert Hargrove. Pham suggests picking rentable or preowned bridesmaid dresses online or suggesting a cheaper makeup service, like GlamSquad or a Sephora makeover, for the entire bridal crew to help cut costs. You don’t want your special day to jeopardize their financial future.
If a family member doesn’t get a plus-one invitation and tries to override your decision by adding another guest to the RSVP card — or you’re the guest, and want to broach getting a plus-one
Before you send out your invitations, clearly determine with your partner how you’ll dole out plus-one invitations — particularly to guests in new relationships and your single friends. (Just because your cousin Sheryl has been Facebook official with her boyfriend for three weeks doesn’t mean she gets the golden ticket.)
Whatever you decide, it’s important to stick to it. That way, you can truthfully explain to a disappointed guest that no one other than the bridal party and immediate family gets an exception. If the venue has guest limitations or your budget is tight, you should also note that.
That said, “It’s not the bride and groom’s job to entertain a friend because a guest doesn’t want to show up alone or hates mingling,” says Gottsman. You can soften the blow by telling the guest you’ll make a conscientious effort to find a comfortable seating arrangement at the wedding, ideally with family or other singles. But if the guest decides to decline the invitation, be kind, gracious, and understanding.
Alternatively, if it is a very close family member, and you have the space for them, accommodate the bonus guest. You want your loved one to enjoy and feel relaxed at your wedding, even if that means allowing them to bring their new partner or close friend to the party.
According to Anne Chertoff, a wedding etiquette expert and former editor for Martha Stewart Weddings, a guest should never try to ask if a plus-one invitation wasn’t offered. “If you have not been invited to a wedding with a plus-one, we recommend not asking for one, as it may put the couple in an awkward position, as the couple may have had to limit the numbers due to space or budget restrictions,” she says.
If you have feuding family members or less-than-amicably separated or divorced parents
Some weddings bring families together, but others can be a catalyst for more tension. Whatever you do, address the topic with your partner ahead of time.
“The initiative falls on the soon-to-be-married couples’ shoulders to determine how to best handle the situation in front of them,” says Gelb. “The test is one of their communication skills and how willing they are to compromise.”
Then, consider the potential challenges of having warring guests at your wedding and whether the positives of their attendance outweigh the potential negatives. If the guests decide to attend, it may be helpful to make sure that they’re seated as far away from one another as possible at the wedding and have several family members designated to act as buffers between them. You may also want to let your wedding planner and photographer know of the family dynamics in advance.
If you’ve done everything in your power to handle the situation with grace, and they still refuse to play nice, try instead to focus on the larger picture. “Keep bringing yourselves back to your joy, what really matters to you and why you’re doing this,” says Gelb. “You may not like the situation, but you can accept it. And acceptance doesn’t mean you’re okay with it, it just means that you have chosen not to fight it and focus your energy on someone else’s battle.”
If your parents are worried or unsupportive of your choice to have an interfaith — or nondenominational — union
According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, before 1960, 19 percent of American married couples were of two different religions. Now, that number has jumped to nearly 40 percent.
But you may still need to address the topic of wedding traditions and religion tenderly with your parents well in advance of the big day. “In my experience, most of the complexities surrounding interfaith unions come from a fear of the unknown,” says Eileen O’Farrell Smith, founder and director of the Interfaith Union, which holds one-on-one workshops with couples and families in Chicago. “The key is encouraging families to move from their head to their heart through communication, dialogue, and sharing information.”
O’Farrell Smith will often invite the clergy, along with the couple and parents, for an informal conversation over coffee or drinks to help break the ice, listen, and create a mutual understanding. Sometimes, she’ll invite a family to observe another interfaith ceremony so they have a clearer vision of what a combined ritual might look like. “There’s always a way to involve everybody,” says O’Farrell Smith.
Couples, for example, can also find other ways to pay tribute to their families’ religious and secular traditions by incorporating music, decor, fashion, poetry, and food. “This will not only show respect to your family, but will add interest to the festivities,” Gottsman adds.
If an overly intoxicated guest is slurring or acting inappropriately
Delegation is the name of the game here. Politely ask a relative or your wedding planner to step in and assist the guest by “helping them to their seat, getting them a glass of water or a cab home,” says Chertoff. Another tip: If you know a certain guest is prone to over-indulge, alert your wedding planner and vendors so they can keep a close eye on them and thwart any potential challenges.
If the wedding has been delayed, postponed, or canceled
If a wedding must be canceled, Gottsman suggests asking a close family member, perhaps your parents, to email your guests and wedding suppliers with the news. An explanation isn’t required and delegating will help keep you out of the crossfire of any follow-up inquiries. Also, remember it is best practice for the recently uncoupled to return all gifts, which includes engagement, shower, and wedding presents.
If you’re a guest, it’s okay to ask how the bride and groom are, but don’t pry. “If your friend or relative wants to talk about the cancellation, they will let you know,” Chertoff says. “It’s fine to call, text, email, or write a note checking in on them, but let them take the lead as to how much they want to share about the cancellation — and when.”
If you purchased a ticket to travel to the wedding, contact your travel agent or airline and ask about a refund or credit to your account for future use. If you purchased travel insurance, contact the insurance company as soon as possible and explain the situation, as you may be able to recover some portion of the ticket expenses. But don’t expect the hosts to pay.
“You may not ask the couple or their parents to cover your out-of-pocket expenses,” Chertoff says. And no, you can’t ask for your present back, either.
Megan McDonough covered weddings for The Washington Post.