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What Wedding Planning Taught Me About Marriage


You would think as the daughter of a marriage and family therapist, professor, and writer of family life that when I became engaged it would not be so startling.  After all, my father wrote a classic piece called “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas…or Else,” describing the hilarious first holiday season with my mom and their fight about tinsel on the tree.  It was about the colliding traditions a new couple experiences, often in unexpected situations (like throwing versus placing tinsel on a tree.)


I even remember when I was very young (age 6 or younger) coming home from visiting friends and describing to my dad how different their family life was.  He commented to me then how young kids have access to families that no adult could ever have because kids are “invisible” in a way, letting parents and families act normal.  After childhood, the only other time you will get full, unfiltered access to another family is when you get married.  But even then it isn’t the same.  There is often a politeness that feels more awkward than with a friend’s family because you’re creating lifelong bonds with perfect strangers.  The intimacy isn’t there but the relationship through their child has been solidified. 


Welcome to the awkward dance of engagement.  The family may not get loose fully for months or years, depending on how well your personality and theirs mesh.  Even today, 5 years into a relationship my husband, he knows, but can’t quite comprehend, how vastly different his sense of humor is from my family’s.


With my entire childhood spent discussing marriage and family life, including family rituals, I was in a rare position to fully understand the transition from single life to married life.  So you’d think the transition would be easy.


It wasn’t.


So what did I learn about marriage through wedding planning that I didn’t already know from growing up with a family therapist father?  More than I could write here, but I’ll give some highlights.


Dating is fun, marriage is work, and wedding planning is even more work because it’s a transitional phase. 


Dating rarely involves parents and you have a pretty low intensity daily life.  But once you get engaged, the upcoming wedding starts to bring parents and others into your inner private relationship.  You’re in the most intense, public eye as you try to merge two families around one big day.  Parents of course have their own range of intense emotions.  Your parents you may understand but you’re probably getting your first look at your future in laws in all their full, emotional glory.  My in laws live halfway across the country so when we visited it was extra intense to spend morning, noon and night with people who didn’t get to see their own son very often.  Welcome to marriage – you’re new, your spouse is their child.  It can feel like a bad case of being a third wheel on a date.


Weddings bring out feelings about extended family and community that you don’t get when you’re just dating. 


Wedding planning is an eye opening view of who is important in the lives of you as a couple and with each set of parents, as everyone figures out who should be on the guest list.  Keep your eyes and ears open since the things you learn about family (the way they talk about them, the stories they share, etc.) are going to continue to impact you in your married life.  The crazy uncle who ruined his sister’s wedding may be sobered up but his family hasn’t forgotten and may reignite the war for your wedding.  I was told by my in-laws which family members might not attend our wedding (or even RSVP) because of family history.  On my side of the family we had to figure out who was expecting an invitation and who was not, since that extended family network was large and all lived near each other but across the country from us.  We didn’t want to step on toes but we also didn’t want to pressure distant relatives from having to attend my wedding.  Sadly I’ve heard more than one case (including in my husband’s family) of a relative planning a wedding on the same day as someone else in the family, forcing the family tree to split and figure out whose wedding to attend across the nation from each other.


Weddings bring out many of

The Family Rules around rituals

(since weddings are one of the BIG rituals of life.) 


It can be startling, especially if you’ve been dating for years, to learn of relatives you’d never heard about but who MUST be invited. You may naturally get annoyed at $50/person when you’re supposed to invite these folks.  But, alas, part of many family wedding rituals is to dig up all the long lost relatives and bring them together.  Weddings, like funerals, are often non-negotiable in families.  You go no matter where, when or how much it costs to get there.  In my case, my husband is from a small town and there is a lot of reciprocity in wedding invitations.  We sent out as many invitations as people we expected (150 invitations for couples/families, but only expected a total of 150 individuals.)  I could have flipped out since we would be over fire code for the reception if too many accepted the invitation, but fortunately my mother in law forewarned me about how many invitations were social only, with no chance they would make it.  Community is especially important in small towns and I knew better than to tell my mother-in-law who she could or could not invite (when few would come anyway.)  The wedding is but one of many, many family rituals you will be exposed to over your married life, but it’s probably the most intense one and occurs at the beginning of your relationship!  If only we could have our wedding after being married 40 years, we’d have a much better lay of the land. 


While my father waxed poetic over the years about how weddings and marriage are ultimately public institutions, it did not hit me until I was planning my own wedding.


You are marrying someone’s child and joining a family – the only other family outside your own (post-childhood) that you get a full-on view, wrinkles, zits and all.  All the sudden your intimate family is introduced to a “stranger” and has to rearrange itself.  If that isn’t exhausting enough, you have to readjust to someone else’s family and their ways of doing things.  Women in particular get the brunt of wedding planning expectations of female family members.  This isn’t easy when the groom’s family comes from traditions you don’t share.  I’ll never forget trying to describe my dress for my in-laws’ small town newspaper.  I was clueless!  I knew, from reading wedding magazines, that it would be called “a-line.”  That’s about all I knew other than it was ivory.  I gave up and let my mother-in-law, who had seen the dress, rewrite the entire newspaper article.  This was important and not something I could ignore or mock even if I was totally unprepared to handle this tiny task.  (Mocking this local custom could have sewn seeds that would grow weeds in my relationship with my in laws for decades.)  We also had my mother in law review our registry to make sure it fit social propriety in her circle and made sense from a practical standpoint (do you get 8 or 12 place settings?)


Finally, what I would never have truly appreciated pre-engagement was how every wedding checklist item is ultimately about your values, about communicating those values with your spouse and about, well, married life! 


Weddings, like marriage, involve hundreds of routine decisions, big and small, involving small and large sums of money, and require a lot of work.  Something like the wedding registry seems at best the most all-American consumer part of the wedding planning, but really underneath it’s a precursor to married life.  How?  Well, what do you register for?  Registries have to do with how you grew up, for example, did you grow up with pretty, expensive things or cheaper, casual things.  They also relate to your vision of the future.  Whether or not you had nice things growing up, do you see yourself owning nice things now?  What about what your family or guests expect?  My family isn’t a fine china-owning clan but my husband’s is, and they were asking what china pattern we had picked out almost as soon as we were engaged.  I eventually came to appreciate what fine china meant to my husband and his family and agreed on a set.  If I had married someone else, I probably wouldn’t have even thought to get fine china.  How do you negotiate cultural differences between the family if one side thinks registering for china is snobby and the other side expects it?  These are issues you’ll continue to face well into your marriage.


Wedding planning is thrilling, exhausting and makes you want to curl up with your spouse-to-be and hide.  Families are difficult, and it’s tempting to want to work around them.  No wonder most of us resonate to the “It’s all about you” message about wedding planning that’s so prevalent in our society.   But I can tell you three years into marriage that wedding planning is just the beginning of a long journey that involves many more public decisions (where to live, when or whether to have kids, how to raise them, who to visit for the holidays, etc.).  My dad was right: marriage is not mainly a private relationship. 


Everyone says that marriage is hard but they are usually vague about specifics.  If they would only say that wedding planning stress is an actual example of why marriage is hard, more of us might make fewer mistakes along the way, and certainly we would avoid thinking that wedding planning is just a time of temporary insanity.  Instead, it’s the first wake up call about being really married.  The great part is that instead of just gaining a spouse, you are potentially gaining a whole new family and support system who will be there for you.  When I gave birth to my daughter this past spring I damaged my heart.  Needless to say it was an extraordinarily difficult time.  My mother-in-law called to say that a group of women in her church were making me a “prayer shawl” to let me know they were thinking about me and wished me good health.  A perfect stranger to me but friends of the family who are now in my life and here to support me through all that life throws at me.  I now have double the support and double the love.   That is what marriage is about.

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Elizabeth Doherty Thomas, is a co-founder of The First Dance, along with Marriage and Family therapist father Bill Doherty. The First Dance is a 2007 Modern Bride Trendsetter award winner for taking on the complex family dynamics of wedding planning. See what engaged couples and wedding professionals are saying about our book Take Back Your wedding. Our entire website is dedicated to offering advice on working through the people stresses of wedding planning as a couple, with your families, and how to strengthen your upcoming marriage through this enormous first task of married life.