Wedding Planning with your Fiance
Priority Setting and Teamwork
When it’s just the two of you, dating, life can be grand. It is truly the most self absorbed period of your relationship when there are no more worries than what movie to see or where to eat dinner. You can talk for hours about everything under the sun and you can fantasize about your future life together.
And then you get engaged. After the “hour of bliss” of being newly engaged, reality gives most of us a big smackdown.
Without realizing it, the ring symbolizes the beginning your public relationship. Your relationship is no longer about just the two of you. When you get engaged, you are becoming a son or daughter in law, a brother or sister in law, and you are joining a new family. Imagine being adopted at age 25 or 30 and this is what it’s like to get married. You are entering into a new emotional forcefield, a new family you did not grow up with and do not share a history with. Even if you’ve known your fiance(e) for years, there is nothing quite like “til death do us part” to change the way others will relate to you or to change how you view or relate to others. All the sudden your boyfriends mom is going to become your mother-in-law. If you want children, you will be making her into a grandmother and she will be your childrens grandmother, no matter how much you love or hate her.
Our book, Take Back Your Wedding, goes into great detail on working as a couple towards the big wedding day. There are excersizes designed to help get the conversation going and to avoid common pitfalls in wedding planning. We are very groom friendly, believing men have an important role in the wedding even if they chose not to be an active co-planner. Below is part of chapter three of our book, which assumes you are still at the beginning stages of wedding planning. We find brides and grooms love our advice even if their wedding is over because it gives them perspective on what went wrong. So hopefully even if you’re far into wedding planning the information below will give you some “a-ha” moments as to why things may or may not be working well between you and your fiance.
In this chapter we will help you get your act together before you go too far down the path with your family and friends. The first big question is so obvious that many couples skip it. It’s not about location, cost, or preachers. The first big question is what kind of team you want to be as a couple in planning your wedding. How do you want to do this together? A number of ways can work as long as you are clear with each other. Here are three kinds of partnerships we have observed, arranged from more traditional to less traditional:
The bride is in charge. The bride is the planner and decision maker. She keeps the groom informed and may assign him certain tasks.
Leader/Supporter. The bride is the clear leader but the groom helps make decisions and may have his own areas of responsibility, such as dealing with his parents and the men in the wedding party.
Co-Leaders: They make all major decisions together. They often divide responsibility for gathering information prior to making joint decisions, and they may also have some separate areas of responsibility.
Given that our own wedding planning experiences were closer to the “co-leaders” than the other two, we have a bias towards this kind of partnership. But as we said, any of these approaches can work as long as both people are clear and feel okay with the arrangement. Each also has its disadvantages. The co-leaders may argue more because they have to negotiate more decisions. The leader and supporter can run into problems when he feels trumped on a decision he cares a lot about, and when she feels he is not following through on his responsibilities. The fully in charge bride can feel overwhelmed by the responsibility and resentful about carrying the total load, and the groom may feel like an outsider during the planning of his own wedding.
Regardless of how you decide to divide your roles, we hold two firm convictions: both of you should express your dreams and ideals for your wedding, and each of you should take primary responsibility for dealing with your own family. Later in the book we will return to the family matters. For now we focus on how to talk openly and constructively about what you each want for your wedding.
WHAT IS YOUR IDEAL WEDDING?
Although there are hundreds of decisions in planning a wedding, there is a shorter list of key ones that reflect your cherished hopes for your wedding. We have developed a worksheet (Table 3.1) to help you clarify your expectations for six key areas of your wedding: location, size, season, ceremony, wedding party, and who will pay. All of these decisions affect one another, and there will be challenges in implementing them as a package. Being clear on what you prefer, what you feel you must have, and where you can bend, will help you avoid future conflict.
There is lots of advice available to you about the timing and logistics for deciding these matters. Our interest is on how you can surface your hopes and ideals, so that you can understand each other better and be a good working team as you begin your discussions with your families and other stakeholders in you wedding. Fill out the worksheet separately and then plan a time to discuss it after you had read the rest of this chapter, which will prepare you for the challenges you may face in the conversation.
HOW BIG, HOW SMALL TO HAVE THE WEDDING?
The size of the wedding is one of the main stumbling blocks for couples and families. The choice of who to include and exclude is fraught with both emotional and financial implications. It involves you as a couple and also your families and friends.
Size involves not only the big picture of what you envision as you look out over the room where you wedding is held and as you greet your guests in a receiving line or afterwards at the reception. It’s also about including and excluding specific people and categories of people—that’s why it’s hard. And those inclusions and exclusions involve the feelings and wishes of parents or grandparents who expect to have a say. Everyone has very different notions of what is acceptable. Some brides want as many people as possible, even if they have never met a lot of people in attendance. Others cry at the thought of looking out at the pews filled with people they don’t recognize. Some grooms assume that their buddies from elementary school will of course be invited, while others envision a small family wedding.
For some parents, a wedding is a time to invite everyone in their entire circle of
acquaintances—such as the boss who invites a hundred employees, most of whom don’t know his daughter or son. What if the other family has only a small circle of acquaintances? Or does not want to invite co-workers? All of this is complicated by the question of who is paying for which aspects of the wedding, and by whether either of you, or your families, believes in a fifty-fifty split of the guest list. Then add in divorced parents on one or both sides, each with new spouses who have friends and relatives they might want to include. It’s no wonder that wedding planning often hits the rocks early on the decision of how big the guest list should be, and which kinds of people should be included and excluded.
Another tricky decision related to the wedding size is the wedding party. While some people find it very simple to pick out wedding party attendants, others struggle with all the relationships, past-behaviors of drunken attendants, family, stepsiblings, and friends. Add location to the mix—whose hometown is the wedding in? –and it can be very stressful. It’s important to figure out what role you want your attendants to play; for example, if the groom has 3 sisters that expect to be in the wedding party but live 2000 miles away, while the bride expects local attendants to help with dress shopping and wedding planning, these issues can be worked out if you think through it well and find ways to avoid conflict (particularly in the family since you’ll be seeing your sister-in-laws the rest of your life!)
PITFALLS TO AVOID IN WEDDING PLANNING
Let’s face it: if you are a traditionally raised woman and man, the bride will have a fuller picture of her ideal wedding. If you are the bride, there is a better than even chance you have been thinking about this off and on since age six. You probably have been paying careful attention to the weddings you have attended as an adult. Too big, too small, too formal, too casual, too ostentatious, too simple, right mood, wrong mood, perfect music, distracting music—and so forth. For the groom, chances are that you did not start to pay attention to weddings until your friends began to marry, and that you do not have as many clearly formed ideals and preferences as your fiancée does. Guys generally don’t ask other guys if they thought the reception centerpieces were tacky.
All of this can work to your advantage if you play it right—men can come fresher to the discussion and women can come with a longer history of observation—but your differences can also keep you from having a balanced conversation about some very important matters. Even if as a bride you are going to make most of the decisions about the wedding, you will feel better about the decisions if you know what your future husband hopes for from his wedding. If both of you are going to work closely together on the wedding, it’s obviously important to get your expectations on the table early in the process.
In an unfortunately common example of misfiring, Nora told her fiancé Greg that she had always dreamed of a small, intimate wedding in the tiny chapel on the campus where they had both attended college. At the time, he could not think of a reason for her not to have her dream, so he agreed. Only after the chapel was booked did Greg tell Nora that he had “kind of hoped” to have his whole extended family come to the wedding. His clan alone would more than fill the chapel. She flipped, and brouhaha ensued between the couple and both of their families. Greg had not been acting on bad faith; he had not made the connection between the first decision on the lovely location and the later decision on the size of the guest list. And Nora and Greg together had made the mistake of not putting all of their expectations on the table at the same time. Each part of the wedding planning affects the other, and each member of the couple may feel strongly about different decisions.
This story points to another aspect of getting clear on your expectations: often it’s good to express your ideal wish but then do some homework on whether it’s feasible before agreeing on it, let alone acting on it. As the groom, your dream may be a wedding in the ski resort town of Breckenridge, Colorado. You and your bride met on a ski slope and Breckenridge is your favorite getaway spot. As the bride, you are willing to consider his novel idea, but your own ideal location is your hometown in Louisiana. Before trying to come to a decision on this important matter, you should both go farther down the list of expectations and consider the season and where the guests will be traveling from. Say it’s a winter wedding on the ski slope. His people are from the mountains of Utah and are used to driving in snow, while her Louisiana relatives panic when they see flurries. You have a problem, particularly if you want to invite a lot of relatives and friends. In this case, your common preference for a big wedding may need to override the innovative idea of getting married in a ski resort. On the other hand, if you both wanted a very small wedding with just a few family members, then maybe Breckenridge in winter would be your common choice—you can drive the southern relatives in from the airport—with perhaps a reception a week later in Louisiana. A wedding is like a complex organism where every part affects the other. Piecemeal decisions because one of you has a great idea can get you in trouble.
PUTTING REGIONAL DIFFERENCES ON THE TABLE
We take for granted lots of things about weddings, based on our region of the country. If you and your spouse hail from different regions, or even if you do not, you can run into difficulties later on if you do not talk about nitty-gritty matters such as wedding registries, attire, and cash bar versus open bar. People have very strong feelings about matters like this, based on what is proper and expected in their part of the world. Bridal chat rooms on the Internet are filled with queries from brides asking for help from others in different parts of the country. For example, a bride from New England wanted to know what in the world a “dollar dance” was, something she was expected to do at the reception. It seemed bizarre to her that guests would pay a dollar for the privilege of dancing with her, but her fiancé took it for granted. What’s a reception without a dollar dance? In fact, the key to understanding the importance of regional, cultural, and family assumptions about weddings is knowing that everyone will ask: What’s a wedding without….? The problem is that different groups have different practices without which the wedding would be a bust.
Now is the time to put all of this on the table so that you can make decisions based on good information, rather than discover later that your Georgia in-laws would be greatly offended to have to pay for the alcohol at their son’s wedding reception in California, or that your Texas relatives will feel embarrassed to show up in Texas wedding attire at a black tie Boston wedding. Table 3.2 contains differences that can vary by region (as well as by individual families). It’s just a starter list. You would be wise to interview people in the other clan to find out what they think is essential for a wedding to be a real wedding in their neck of the woods. Internet chat rooms can be another more objective source of information about differences across the country. Then let your friends and your side of the family know what you end up deciding.
Sometimes it’s not for you to decide, but just to accept what the other family and set of friends will do anyway. In some parts of the country, people mostly give cash gifts, while in other regions that is considered lazy and insulting. Some folks consider learning about your wedding registry extremely helpful, because then they know what you would like. Other folks think it’s grubby and rude. No problem either way—unless the communities of the bride and groom see things differently. Now’s the time to find out.
EXAMPLES OF REGIONAL DIFFERENCES
Gifts versus cash
Whether to do seating assignments at the reception
Cash bar versus open bar
Types of registry items (heirloom quality vs casual)
When dinner is served at the reception (early evening versus late)
Type of attire
Reception fun (dollar dance, chicken dance, etc.)
Post-wedding bar hopping
TALKING TOGETHER ABOUT YOUR IDEAL WEDDING
Before reading this section, make sure you have filled out the priority worksheet. Make sure you each do it alone so that you think independently. In the next chapter we will talk about handling conflicts and disagreements over wedding decisions. Here we will offer some ground rules for talking in a way to put both of your expectations on the table.
Read first, then talk. Look over each of your lists before picking out a particular item to discuss. It’s a mistake to pick on the first item that hits your eye because you disagree with it. The conversation will get derailed and you may not realize how much agreement you have in other areas. Respectfully go over the whole list. Get the big picture of your partner’s hopes, priorities, and kind of involvement he or she hopes for in the decisions. If your partner starts talking before you have finished reading, gently ask for more time.
This is time for sharing ideas and ideals, not for big decisions. People are more open-minded when they don’t feel that a big decision is pending at any moment. You may need time to investigate your options or to reflect on differences that come up in your conversation. You can remind yourselves that you are having an exploratory conversation right now, to surface your ideal fantasies, rather than locking in anything.
Be open-minded and curious. Ask your partner for details beyond a simple statement of wanting the wedding to be “fun.” Have them paint a picture for you of what the ceremony or reception would look like. This may stimulate your own thinking and you could come up with a shared idea.
When differences surface, note how big a priority the issue is for each of you. This is where the “priority scale” can be helpful. The groom might have written down his ideal location on the beach near his favorite volleyball site, while the bride favors the 200-year-old Cathedral. For him, it may be a low-priority lark of an idea to get married on the beach. He may decide to drop it when he learns that hers is a number one priority on her list.
Even if you agree on something, make the decision tentative. As we said before, wedding decisions interlock in complex ways. It’s best to make sure you understand all the implications before you make a decision final. If you lock in on the reception hall before learning that you will have to use a church 45 miles away (because your first choice in churches was booked), you will have created complications for yourselves that you might have avoided. Sometimes you should talk to your families first, because their input is essential.
Make sure the groom gets a lot of airtime in the conversation. We want to avoid stereotypes here, but what if the groom does not have much to say about his ideals for the wedding? What if he wants to defer to his bride about all the decisions? Our answer: don’t let him off the hook. Every man (and woman) we know has opinions and hopes for their wedding, but some have trouble articulating these opinions and hopes. Sometimes it’s just knowing what they don’t want, such as a stiff country club reception or a hoedown in a barn. For each item on the list you discuss, it might be best for the groom to go first in sharing what he has written down and what his priorities are. The bride might ask for elaboration (“tell me more,” “give me a for instance”) before she shares her preferences.
After they got married, Bill (co-founder of The First Dance) and wife, Leah, learned to do this on the topic of Christmas presents for his family. When they initially would discuss these presents, Leah had lots of ideas right away and Bill would say “fine with me,” leaving Leah responsible for his family and without access to Bill’s own ideas about what they might like. Then they developed a procedure where Bill would go first and Leah would hold off on her ideas until Bill had come up with some on his own. This created a better partnership on gift giving, with each feeling better about it. The same kind of thing can work for brides and grooms where the groom may need more time to articulate his hopes for the wedding.
Don’t make all your priorities the highest priority. If a temptation for grooms is to say that nothing is a big deal (when some things are), the temptation for many brides is to see everything as a big deal, from the ceremony to the centerpieces. This does not make for good partnership and open negotiations. One way out of this trap is to ask yourself what is the core value underneath an urgent priority. For example, if you feel you must invite all of your wide network of relatives, friends, sorority sisters, and fellow townspeople to your wedding, but costs are going to run up higher than your groom is comfortable with, you can ask yourself whether your underlying value (to have a true community wedding) can be met by an alternative plan. Perhaps you can have a special party for the townspeople after the honeymoon, but not invite them to the wedding and reception.
Talk about the main players and what to expect of them. If you know that your mom is going to want to be heavily involved in the wedding planning, now is the time to bring it up. If you are concerned that your divorced parent may fight it out over the wedding, put it on the table. If one of your families is wealthy and likes extravagant weddings, mention that too. One groom we know did not mention to his bride the fact that his mother has a social phobia (very shy around strangers). The bride was quite distraught when his mother bailed out of the wedding shower at the last moment. She would have preferred an honest conversation many months prior, so that she could have prepared herself for his mother’s no-show.
Understanding your ideals, expectations, and priorities is the crucial first step in the wedding process. Write down what you have agreed on thus far, knowing that some of it may change over time. You are then prepared to talk with relatives to get their perspectives, learn about what is feasible, and prepare to make loads of decisions. You will know not only what you hope for, but why and how strongly you want it. You will know how you want to share leadership along the way, and who is going to take major responsibility in different areas.
Remember this is the first test of your relationship as a married couple. How you work together, work with your families and friends, how you plan a large, public event while planning for your “happily ever after” is going to test how well you know each other, communicate and how intentional you can be as a couple to never lose sight of why you’re going through all the stress in the first place – to celebrate your marriage and to join your two families for one important day.
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