Q: My fiancé, “X,” and I have been together eighteen months, and we got engaged two months ago. We’re planning the wedding for this upcoming July. We both live in the Midwest, and our parents live on the coasts (his on the West Coast, mine on the East). As a result of this distance, in the year and half we’ve been dating, I’ve met his parents only twice, and he’s met mine only once.
My parents and friends (both local and on the East Coast) have been incredibly supportive and eager to share in our joy since our engagement. His parents, however, have not been supportive at all. Over Thanksgiving this year, his father sat X down and made a point of telling him that he didn’t believe that X and I were a good fit. His reasons for this were somewhat vague: X’s father was worried about competing career goals (X is an engineer in the private sector, and I’m an academic), or personalities that were “too different.” While these differences are very much real, they are things that X and I have been successfully negotiating for our entire relationship.
After X’s father made this statement, X told him that he obviously disagreed and in fact we were going to be engaged soon. This announcement has snowballed into the largest argument that X has ever had with his family. X is an only child, and he and his parents have no contact with extended family, or even really a close circle of family friends. In the most charitable read that I can give, the reasons X’s parents give for disliking me come down to the fact that they are worried about losing their son, who has been the bedrock of their (somewhat troubled) marriage for almost three decades, and I’m still something of an unknown quantity to them. I do not know how quickly those worries will go away, or if they ever will.
For his part, X has stayed committed to defending me. But the more he asserts his commitment to our relationship and our marriage in July, the more his parents fight against it and their list of complaints about me grows. X does his best to shield me from this, but I can tell that it’s wearing on him. Thankfully, at my suggestion, he started counseling to help him better handle his relationship with his parents, but I am worried about 1) whether his parents will actually come to the wedding, and 2) what will happen if they do (will they make a scene?) or don’t (will that prevent him from taking joy in the occasion?).
While I know the counseling will do long-term good for X, the wedding itself is only a few months away, and I’m trying to figure out what I can do to triage the situation. Compounding this issue, is my own family: I have a good relationship with them for the most part, but my mother is sometimes a very difficult personality (passive aggressive and short-tempered) and hard to get along with, and I wouldn’t want that sparking a confrontation when (if?) the two sets of parents meet. My parents do know that his parents have qualms about the marriage, but out of respect for his privacy I haven’t told them how big of an issue it has become. What do I say if they don’t come to the wedding? Or, what do I say if they do, but remain unhappy and disappointed when they meet my family?
I want this to a be an occasion for joy and excitement, but I am worried this ongoing fight will put a pall over the entire day. I know I can rest assured of my family and our friends’ enthusiasm, but I don’t want his parents detracting from that for my fiancé. Any advice for navigating these tricky familial waters?
—Wanting Better For Him
A: Dear WBFH,
I’m honestly just impressed that you aren’t taking this way more personally. He’s got your back with his parents; you encouraged him to get in therapy. That’s normally the advice I hand out, hoping it will do some good. But look at you both! You’re both handling yourselves really well in a super upsetting situation.
And that’s pretty great, because it’s all you really can control in all this. You can’t determine what they choose to do, whether or not they show up, make a scene, or continue to drag this argument on for months longer than needed. The very best you can do is figure out how you’ll respond. Ask your partner how he would want to handle all of these hypotheticals. What if they show up? What if they don’t? What’s the absolute worst-case scenario, and what next if that happens? Come up with a plan. Honestly, that plan will only do so much. It’ll still be hurtful and tragic if they come to the wedding only to splash a glass of red wine in your face. But you’ll be unified, you’ll be prepared, and you’ll have already started the process of working through how you feel about all these possible outcomes. Maybe best of all: every time that, “Ugh, what will we dooo…” worry pops up, you can squelch it with, “NOPE, got a plan already.”
I know you’re asking, but I can’t really tell you what that plan would look like. It depends on how much of his family you’re willing to bear right now, when they’re being so personally hurtful to you. And it depends on his feelings, which I’m sure are super complex. So just ask him what he wants to do. Suggest that you establish some plans for what happens if shit hits the fan, and see what he thinks those should be. Continue to support him in all the ways you are already.
Allow yourself a little introspection, too. At the core, this is about his relationship with his parents, yes, but you’re not completely unaffected by this, yourself. Apart from how blatantly insulting it is for them to oppose your marriage this way now, you’re signing on to endure this mess for however long they drag it out. Maybe it will never change, there’ll always be lingering animosity. Are you okay with that? Maybe you, also, could use a bit of therapy to sort out your feelings on diving into this family?
No matter what you decide, keep standing strong in the knowledge that this ultimately isn’t about you. Whatever their deal is against you (if they have a troubled marriage, it’s likely a whole lot of projecting happening here), the fact that they won’t drop it is not about you. And in the same way, it’s also not on you to fix it. If they don’t show up? You can’t change it. They probably will remain unhappy and disappointed when they meet your family, so don’t put pressure on yourself to win them over. This is not about you. And it’s also not on you.