Royal or not, couples contend with family drama in wedding planning: expert

  • May. 16, 2018 9:00 a.m.

A wedding is supposed to celebrate two people being bound together as partners for life, but a couples counsellor says family tensions can threaten to tear loved ones apart on the big day — even if you’re marrying a prince.

The question of who will walk Meghan Markle down the aisle before she exchanges vows with Prince Harry remains up in the air just days before the wedding amid a report suggesting the bride’s father is wavering about whether he plans to be in attendance.

Thomas Markle had been expected to give away his daughter at a chapel on the grounds of Windsor Castle on Saturday, but celebrity news site TMZ cast doubt on the wedding plans Monday when it reported that the retired television cinematographer would be stepping down from his role in the ceremony after suffering a heart attack. He later hinted that he had changed his mind.

The elder Markle reportedly wanted to spare his daughter embarrassment after undergoing intense media criticism over his participation in staged paparazzi photos, according to TMZ, prompting Meghan Markle’s estranged half-sibling to insert herself in the family drama as it played out in the headlines.

Even without the intense public scrutiny surrounding a royal union, Melissa Johari, who owns the Couple Wellness Expert counselling business in Toronto, said the pressures of a wedding can surface tensions both within a family and between soon-to-be in-laws.

“I always say that funerals bring people together, and weddings tear families apart,” she said.

Johari, who specializes in premarital counselling and used to officiate weddings, said she has coached many couples through the thorny family politics of hosting a wedding.

Every couple is going to experience differences in family backgrounds, she said, but the challenge is for both sides to embrace these distinctions for the sake of their loved ones’ union.

“If you don’t have that support and celebration of each other’s differences, then you really have to create some boundaries,” said Johari.

Many couples agonize over how to deal with estranged family members, weighing the risk of someone making a scene during the ceremony against the fallout of snubbing a relative, she said.

In some instances, said Johari, a relative will boycott a wedding to express their disapproval of the union, leaving a “sour taste” for the couple on their big day.

Other family members may not be able to make it to the wedding due to illness or financial constraints, said Johari. She said the milestone can also be particularly hard for a newlywed who has lost a close family member.

“The reason why someone is not attending is a big factor in how it would affect the couple for that day,” she said. “You can’t help but feel hurt if someone makes that decision not to attend.”

Distance between relatives can be a salve for many family feuds, she said, but weddings can force rivals to reunite in an emotionally charged setting, causing “bad blood” to burble up during what is supposed to be a joyous occasion.

Emily Ormerod, a 28-year-old bride-to-be in Calgary, said her divorced parents have not been in the same room for 12 years. As she began to plan her September wedding, she initially worried that her father would rekindle conflicts with her mother and siblings, from whom he is estranged.

After he declined her invitation over issues with the couple’s no-kids policy, Ormerod said she felt a pang of disappointment that her father wouldn’t be there to partake in the traditional paternal wedding duties. But ultimately, his expected absence turned out to be a “mixed blessing.”

“I’m feeling a little sad that it had to be like that, but mainly relief,” she said. “It does take out a huge element of potential awkwardness from the day.”

Between invitations, speeches and seating arrangements, Johari said weddings can be a familial minefield for couples who are eager to please everyone on their guest list.

She said she tells couples not to get bogged down in family politics, but rather focus on starting their new family off on the right foot.

“It’s easy to get caught up in these different dynamics,” she said. “Sometimes, couples lose sight of what the day is all about, which is a day to celebrate them.”

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