Some of my brides and grooms struggle about what to do with their separated or divorced parents at their wedding. The goal, obviously, is for everybody to have fun and avoid any potential drama. As a wedding planner, my goal is to help minimize it so the bride and couple can really enjoy their wedding. To do this often requires some thought and planning ahead so you don't have to make any decisions on the fly and risk an awkward situation.
If your parents have been divorced a long time and have a copacetic relationship, you might not have anything to worry about. I've seated plenty of divorced parents right next to each other - sometimes even with new spouses all in the same row - and everybody behaved appropriately.
The most difficult situation to handle is a recent breakup or divorce - especially if one parent wants to bring their new partner to the wedding and the other isn't seeing anyone. It can feel like a total slap in the face to the unescorted parents. In these situations, we often suggest that the "single" parent ask a good friend to be their formal escort. It doesn't fix everything, but it gives them somebody to dance with and they won't feel like the odd person out.
On several occasions, we've had crazy drama because of moms who just couldn't handle the whole situation. The emotional stress of their daughter or son's wedding day on top of seeing their ex is hard enough. But when she has to attend the wedding alone and bitter, and he's there with his new lady friend or wife, it's like a knife in the back. Sometimes, they compensate with alcohol.
For just that reason, I know of several couples who have asked all parents to leave the dates at home so as to avoid any controversy. Especially when it's something rather tacky like Dad and his secretary having had an affair that ended the 30-year marriage. The request may cause drama when it's made - and your parent may have to deal with a shit fit from his new love - but if you let them know early enough that you don't want them to bring that guest, there's time for everybody to cool off before the big day arrives.
I've had a lot of conversions with inebriated Mothers of the Bride stuck in this sort of situation. They tend to stand, very obviously, apart from the group, or overcompensate by being loud and joking about their ex's date. When Dad brings someone like the home-wrecking secretary mentioned above, Mom is DYING because the little twit who broke up her marriage is getting a seat of honor next to the man with whom she was supposed to spend the rest of her life. We had one Mother of the Bride get drunk before the ceremony and spend cocktails publicly begging the bride's father to reconcile. She had to be taken back to the hotel by the bride's brother in hysterics before dinner.
A couple of moms have fought back, going after men at the wedding to show they haven't lost their mojo. I don't care what they do to torture the other wedding guests (except that it embarrasses their children terribly), it's actually kinda funny to see these cougars stalking prey that went to college with their kids. But when they go after my husband or my staff, it ceases to be cute. Don't make me ask you to stop touching somebody after he's already asked you to keep your hands off. That's just plain tacky. We're the help.
You need a plan to keep the unsteady parent on solid ground on your wedding day, or through your wedding weekend. Their best friend is your best bet - and talking to your parent's bestie about your concerns about drama in advance will help them understand you're asking them to take on the role of babysitter on your wedding day. The bride and groom don't have time and really, we're trying to avoid making bad memories that no one will ever forget.
Also, make a point to ask your friends to ask your parents to dance, especially the single parent. A little extra attention from the guests is warranted if it will boost their spirits and keep them distracted.
Plan ahead for the logical questions that come up when handling divorced parents:
-Who will be walking the bride down the aisle?
-Where will everyone be sitting?
-Who should sit with the bride and groom at dinner?
-Who makes the toast on behalf of the bride or groom?
There are simple answers to these questions, but knowing what you're going to do in advance makes all the difference.
Walking down the aisle
If the bride wants both of her divorced parents to walk her down that aisle, that's her prerogative. She might not have planned to do that before her parents were divorced, but if she feels like it's appropriate given the circumstances, she may do whatever she likes. If she wants her mother to walk her down the aisle while her father sits and watches, that's okay too. But it's a good idea to let dad know ahead of time so he won't be surprised and disappointed when it happens. Lots of girls stick to tradition and walk alone with their fathers.
How to Seat Divorced Parents at the Ceremony
If they don't like each other and prefer not to be in each other's company, seat the mom in the first row and dad in the second row. That's what etiquette dictates. It doesn't matter if they have dates or not, they don't have to be seated together. Just fill in the row with their own immediate families.
How to Seat Divorced Parents at the Reception
Unless your parents really are good friends post-divorce, don't try to seat all the parents at a "head table" with the bride and groom. Just give each set of parents (however many there are) their own tables to host and fill them in with your friends who know them and their friends they invited. That way nobody has to awkwardly tread on egg shells through dinner conversation.
Toasting the Bride and Groom
Traditionally, the fathers toast at the wedding, but that's not really what happens anymore. More often than not, both parents make the toast together, if they're still married. When they're divorced, each should be given the opportunity to make a toast. If they decline, that's fine. But let them decide if they want to offer their own best wished. If one says "oh we can just do it together," be sure to check with the other one first before assuming anything. Do this ahead of time so nothing embarrassing happens at the main event.
A word of caution: You have to look out for well-meaning (or pot-stirring) family and friends who may introduce uninvited drama into your wedding. My half-sister tried to cause DRAMA at my wedding reception back home when she informed me that our father wanted to dance with my mother. My parents had been divorced 10 years but it was still very acrimonious. When my sister told me about it, I thought it sounded hinky. So I told her I'd check with my mom. Mom said "are you kidding me?" and I told my sister to tell our father not to ask my mom to dance. Problem solved. Five awkward minute delay in my fun, but nothing bad happened. Funny thing is, when I asked my dad about it a few months later, he said he'd never said he wanted to dance with my mom. He'd gotten his licks in by bringing his housekeeper to the reception as a date just to tweak my mom. It worked. So why was my sister messing with her? Hmmm.
Have a plan for how to handle all the usual things - know if you're going to take full family photos or do separate sets with both sides of your family. Yes, these things do come up and it's better to be prepared with an answer to the question when it's asked. If you can clue in the photographer ahead of time about the potential for tension, they can be more sensitive. Make sure your wedding planner is in the loop. If the coordinator at the church is handing the seating, have a private discussion ahead of the wedding rehearsal. An ounce of prevention is worth the peace of mind you can have on your wedding day.