Weddings bring families together in celebration, but when part of your family includes divorced parents who don’t get along, the idea of putting them in the same room may trigger visions of disaster instead of dancing. Experts agree the best way to avoid any uncomfortable situations between your parents is to be upfront and specific about expectations.
“When people are surprised, that’s when emotions tend to come out sideways,” says Karen Covy, a divorce adviser, attorney and coach in Chicago. She recommends updating each parent several times during the planning process about what’s expected during family photos, dances and seating arrangements. Another option is to have a wedding planner help you lay out a feasible plan before approaching your parents, says Heather Muto, owner of Heatherly Event Design, based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Wedding planners have seen it all, says Muto, including one set of parents who finalized their divorce during their child’s own wedding planning process, so being thorough about family dynamics—as private as that might feel—can help determine how intimately parents should be involved along the way. You should also think about how well they can be expected to get along on the wedding day. Do they need to be separated for ceremony, or is it possible that they’ll be open to sharing the responsibility of walking you down the aisle and sitting together?
Covy recommends assigning public roles to each parent, including stepparents, like doing a reading or giving a toast, to help them feel important and appreciated—feelings that ultimately smooth over any underlying negative emotions. Even private gestures, like asking for advice on song choices, writing separate thank-you notes before the wedding, or assigning tasks each would enjoy, like arranging welcome bags for the hotel rooms, can alter bad attitudes.
Related: How to Handle Difficult Family Dynamics at Your Wedding
As central as calming your parents’ feelings, so are setting boundaries and letting parents know how important it is to you that they behave like mature adults on your wedding day, experts agree. If parents don’t like being nearby each other, but it’s important to you to take formal family pictures with everyone, have your photographer handle the orders. Abbie Rudolph, owner of St. Louis-based Abbie Takes Pictures, brings a predetermined list of your photo goals with notes about each family member, who’s related and who can’t stand next to each other. “Basically, it eliminates people raising hands,” and asking to change the photo plan, says Rudolph.
You should also ask parents who they plan on bringing as a date and if you’re concerned it’s inappropriate or will lead to more hurt feelings, run it by the other parent first. If either feels uncomfortable with and if she feels uncomfortable with it, ask both parents to leave their dates at home, says Covy. Another expert-approved tip is to ask two guests—neutral relatives or close friends—to keep an eye on your parents’ alcohol consumption; avoiding overindulging is an easy way to help keep heated feelings at bay.
And whatever you do, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Muto encourages brides who are extra sensitive to their parents’ feelings to deflect the stress of reasoning with them to someone else, such as a wedding planner. “I act as the buffer all the time,” says Muto. “I have a million ways of getting around [a situation].”