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Avoid Giving Step-Parents the Shaft at Your Wedding

The politics of divorce often come into play when it's time to have a wedding. Even if your parents have been happily apart for many years, the traditions surrounding weddings force everybody involved to declare, more or less, their position in life relative to the bride and groom.
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The politics of divorce often come into play when it's time to have a wedding. Even if your parents have been happily apart for many years, the traditions surrounding weddings force everybody involved to declare, more or less, their position in life relative to the bride and groom.

If the bride hasn't lived with her father in 20 years, and they aren't close, the tradition of having the bride's father walk her down the aisle puts some young women in a tough position. Her stepfather may very well be the man she thinks of as dad, while her birth father definitely considers her HIS daughter and would expect to have the privilege.

I've sent multiple brides down the aisle on the arm of their adoring stepfathers, on two occasions when the birth fathers were at the wedding, but not included in giving the bride away. I've never known exactly how that worked out, I just made sure that all involved parties knew the game plan before we walked into the wedding rehearsal to avoid any embarrassing drama. That's one of the biggest pitfalls I try to escape in wedding planning -- letting anybody be made to feel unimportant in the grand scheme of things. More often than you would expect, brides and grooms don't make allowances for the fact their step-parents are, in fact, de facto VIPs at their weddings, whether they particularly like them or not.

The whole world got a warm fuzzy in September when pictures went viral of a "real father" inviting his daughter's stepfather to help him give the bride away. In interviews, he said that sharing the privilege of walking his daughter down the aisle was the best way he could think of to thank her stepfather for helping raise her. He revealed that their relationship hadn't always been chummy. The whole scene was really touching, although probably not realistic in most relationships and families.

Sadly, more often than not, stepmothers and stepfathers get the shaft at wedding time. I don't believe it's intentional, I just think that in the midst of their own almost-wedded bliss, couples forget that there are other people's feelings involved in the decisions they're making. Nobody means to hurt anybody, it just happens. It's less a case of intentionally hurting someone, and more about brides and grooms not making the extra effort to be sure they don't hurt someone in the process of creating their "perfect" wedding. Generally speaking, thoughtlessness is the culprit. I'm not saying that everybody is supposed to get equal billing all the time, but figuring out how to accommodate all the players and make everybody feel included should be important to the guests of honor.

I came across a blog about a stepfather who backed out of paying for his stepdaughter's wedding, and it got my attention. I read it, expecting to think the guy was the world's biggest jerk. Instead, when I finished, I felt sorry for the stepfather and disdain for the bride and her mother. This guy wasn't even married to the girl's mom -- they just lived together for 10 years -- and he'd helped raise the bride, including paying her college tuition and buying her a car. Her father had never contributed financially ever. After the stepfather committed to spending $40,000-plus on his not-really-a-stepdaughter's wedding, she put her "real" father's name on the invitation and announced to the world that "he's back" and he's going to walk her down the aisle. Hold up, wait a minute!

Usually, I don't endorse parents holding the wedding budget over their children's heads -- but this is a special case. Both the bride and her mother are unemployed and live gratis with the stepfather that she's dissing. She asked him to pay for her very expensive wedding, but put her birth father's name on the invites. She's made him a part of the wedding planning, in that he hasn't been able to escape the madness in his own home. But when the big events started happening, she shut him out completely and made him feel unappreciated and unloved. And he didn't really hold the wedding budget over her head, he simply took it away. He had no obligation to pay for her wedding and after the way she treated him, it's hard to disagree with his decision.

I cheered when I read that the stepfather called all the vendors and got his deposits back. Although I'm certain the wedding was ruined because both the bride and her mother were unemployed, I didn't have much sympathy (probably wrong of me as a wedding planner). I just can't condone that kind of rude and thoughtless behavior.

It didn't have to happen the way it did. Some of the hurdles would have been difficult to overcome -- since her "stepfather" isn't really her stepfather, I'm not sure how he could have been put on the invitation if the birth father was included. It certainly wouldn't have been conventional. But with that said, what's conventional about having your mother's boyfriend shell out $40,000 for your wedding? Nada.

When the bride realized that her absentee father was going to resurrect himself as a family member for her wedding, she should have talked to her stepfather about it. Ambushing him at a table full of people was the wrong way to go, no doubt about that. Not only did she hurt his feelings, she humiliated him and made him feel like an "ATM" -- his words, not mine. And it seems very obvious that his girlfriend was in the loop about everything. Ouch!

How can you fix a situation like this? I doubt that you can. It sounds like the mother's boyfriend finally realized that he didn't have an actual place in their family, and put the kibosh on being taken advantage of any further. Because he's not married to the bride's mother, it's easier for him to get angry and walk away. Somebody who is a legitimate step-parent, married to your mother or father, doesn't have that luxury. Just because their stepchildren treat them badly doesn't give them an escape route. If they've always been treated like second-class citizens by your family, it will only be worse for a wedding.

Don't forget to get flowers for your stepmom, stepdad, and step-grandparents. Make sure they're all seated with at least one person they like to talk to at the table. Realize that they will be in all your family photos, except maybe a few with just your parent (their husband or wife) and your siblings. Anytime you want to feature both parents in a photo, plan to include both parents' spouses as well.

Even if you don't feel the same way about your step-parents as you do your real parents, you need to treat them with equal respect at your wedding events. Your stepmom or stepdad already feels completely out of place, if this issue is really a consideration for you. If you were close, none of this would even come up. Attending your wedding might actually be very, very challenging for them but they're going to be there to support their spouse and wish you good luck in your marriage.

If your mother has a problem with your stepmother, try not to let that be your problem, too. Same goes for dads and stepdads. If your step-parent has been good to you, and has been a part of your life for a long time, they probably love you very much and want you to have the most stress-free wedding possible. On the flip side, if you have always had an acrimonious relationship with a step-parent, you don't get to cut them out of the wedding to be spiteful. They're still married to one of your parents, and you still have to include them as though you like them. Only in the most extreme of circumstances should you conduct yourself in a manner that says you don't want them there, such as a history of getting drunk and obstreperous at family events in the past. If you're worried they will embarrass you, talk to whichever parent they're married to and express your concerns. They'll likely have a quiet word with their spouse before the wedding to make sure that behavior is not repeated.

Step-parents can't help feeling awkward at their stepchildren's weddings. They're not sure if they should be volunteering to help, or staying quiet and in the shadows. As one of your parent's spouses, they should be front and center with their husband or wife for everything. Even if their birth-parent counterpart isn't happy about it. And that leads me to my final thoughts on this.

Even when a bride and groom realize they have to be extra careful not to hurt feelings, that doesn't guarantee that their birth parents will behave appropriately towards the person who is, in fact, their replacement for their ex-spouse. Especially in situations when one parent is remarried, and the other is still single, but doesn't want to be. Those are the times when the bride and groom have to be more sensitive to everybody, but make sure things don't get out of hand.

I'll never forget one girlfriend's wedding where the much-loved mother of the bride recruited all of the bridesmaids to be mean to the new "stepmonster." The stepmother was pushy and overstepping quite a bit, but that may have been a reaction to the overall vibe coming at her from the entire wedding party, and the bride's mother's family (of which there were many). She made it easy for everyone to be nasty to her because she wasn't a very likeable person. She was as ice cold as the bride's mother was warm and fuzzy. When she felt defensive, she became visibly brittle and came off as a nasty person. The fact that the bride's father had left her mother for this woman didn't help matters, as many of the guests who had never actually met her had already formed negative opinions. Now that I'm older, married, and have adult stepchildren of my own, I can see what kind of horrible pressure we were putting on the stepmother. I still don't really like her, but I do feel a little bit sorry for her. She never had a chance to win, so she probably shouldn't have been trying so hard. Her fate was determined long before that wedding was planned. Her best bet would have been to keep her mouth shut.

So do you see what I mean about how weddings force people to establish their official presence in the bridal couple's life? Everybody might have been getting along just fine in their separate worlds until an engagement forced them all together in the most uncomfortable way possible. As the bride and groom, it's your duty to treat everybody kindly and respectfully, and do your best to avoid creating uncomfortable situations. The rest of it is up to your parents and step-parents. But if you take the lead in smoothing things over, you might be surprised how much your efforts are appreciated. It will be reflected in how much everybody enjoys your wedding day, including you.

Good luck, and happy wedding planning from Sandy Malone Weddings and Events!