With wedding season looming, our thoughts turn to true love, togetherness — and worst-case scenarios:
What if Aunt Jane insists on reviving the great feud of 1997? What if cousin Fred gets drunk and cold-cocks the caterer? What if the mother of the bride refuses to be seated in the same room with "that tramp who broke up my marriage?"
You do have good options if you sense a family fight is looming, therapists say. And though these blow-ups are not exclusive to weddings, these major and often stressful events can serve as excellent case studies.
Whatever the situation, this is a time to tread very, very carefully.
Do a quick and clearsighted analysis of your power over those involved, suggests William Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. If you’re the grandmother of the bride, odds are you have major clout and the potential to make the situation better. If you’re the best man or a peripheral cousin, it’s probably time to retreat.
"It’s the old thing that if people aren’t asking for help, chances are you can’t help — unless you’re in a position of power," Mr. Doherty says.
If you are going to step in, try to do so in a calm, neutral, and noncontrolling manner, says Linda Rubinowitz, an assistant clinical professor in the psychology department at Northwestern University.
If you’re the mother of the bride and the bride is planning on inviting some first cousins but not others, a move likely to cause a painful rift in your family, you might say, "I have some thoughts that I’d like to pass along: What is this going to do to our family in the future?"
Note that the concern is phrased as a question, rather than a command. Your goal is to achieve discussion and collaboration, not to make anyone defensive.
Similarly, if you’re the parent of two feuding adult daughters, you might talk to them separately and gently remind each that the bridal shower is not the place to explore their differences.
Mr. Doherty suggests saying, "I expect you to bring your best self to this shower. I know you and your sister have been struggling, but I’m asking you to just come and have a good time."
If you’re planning an event, you probably know who should be seated at separate tables, who tends to drink to excess, and who is likely to pick a fight. If you have parents or other guests who are divorced and feuding, you may want to talk to each separately beforehand, and feel them out on how close they want to sit.
If you’re a bride who wants her divorced parents photographed together but they’re uncomfortable with that, you might want to back off, Mr. Doherty says. "The photo is not going to look that great and if you try to push that, who knows what you’re going to ignite?"
Similarly, it’s important not to give in to blackmail or ultimatums, Mr. Doherty says. If your mother says she won’t come to the wedding if your dad brings his date — aka "that tramp who broke up my marriage" — be clear that you’re not playing that game.
"I’m not going to accept that ultimatum," Mr. Doherty suggests saying. "I’m inviting my father, and if he chooses to bring his girlfriend, that’s up to him. I’m also inviting you, and I’d be sorely hurt if you didn’t come, but that’s your decision."
Most families have a few loose cannons — the drinkers, the drama queens and kings — who may spark a fight in an unpredictable way. One solution, Mr. Doherty says, is to have a family member discreetly shadow a big drinker. Ms. Rubinowitz likes giving "little jobs" to trouble-prone guests.
What if, despite all your careful planning and preparation, a heated argument does break out in public?
"The sooner you intervene, the more likely it is that you’ll prevent something from really getting out of hand," says Scott Geller, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech.
If the speakers aren’t listening to each other and their language is negative and emotional, you might ask the question, "Can we talk in a more civil way?"
Mr. Doherty, once again, doesn’t recommend acting unless you have significant clout: "The best man can be 6-foot-10 and 300 pounds — and when it comes to the dynamics in a family he’s not part of, he’s a wimp."
If you are part of the inner circle, you might say, "Let’s settle down, everyone cool your jets, go to your separate corners. This is not what this event is about."
Taking someone aside and addressing the issue privately is preferable to a public confrontation but not always possible.
The good news: People generally seem to pull themselves together for major events and avoid the big conflagration that their relatives fear, Ms. Rubinowitz says.
"[And] if there’s preplanning, you have a better chance of it working out."
DON’T MAKE IT WORSE
There are plenty of things you can do to head off or defuse a big family fight ... and a few approaches you probably shouldn’t take:
- Don’t interfere if you don’t have real influence over the key players. You could make matters worse.
- Don’t take sides. That just fuels the fire.
- Don’t get upset yourself. Your family needs a calm grown-up right now, not another overgrown child.
Source: William Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota