Dealing with Divorced Parents

Are your wedding plans being disrupted by parental bickering or step-parent stress? Here's how to keep your happy day from turning into a War of the Roses.

Step-Parent Puzzle

Most post-divorce, single-parent households are temporary: According to the 1990 government census, 75% of divorced singles remarry, approximately half of them within three years. And more "parents" mean more potential problems. "Children of divorce may blame stepparents for the dissolution of mom and dad's marriage," explains New York City psychotherapist Rita Bigel-Casher, Ph.D., author of Bride's Guide to Emotional Survival (Prima Publishing, 1996). So may abandoned spouses.

For Cassie, 30, an advertising account executive in New York City who was married four years ago, getting permission to invite her father's wife was the thorniest part of the planning process. This was the woman Cassie's dad left her mom to marry. Cassie wanted to include her for her dad's sake, but not if it would make the event traumatic for her mother. "Mom believes this woman ruined her life," says Cassie. "She kept saying, ‘How can you do this to me?' I understood why she was upset and I felt like I was being so mean, but my feeling was, ‘How can you do this to me? It's my wedding!'"

In situations like this—when highly charged emotions are causing serious conflict—your best bet is to reach out to your parents in an understanding and reassuring way. Ask for their help in making things better. Cassie may not have said exactly the right words, but they worked: After several talks, her mom finally agreed that Wife #2 could come as long as she kept her distance.

The pain is intensified when one parent is remarried and the other still single. Often the single parent feels like a failure, and doesn't want to face his or her successor or ex. Their self-confidence tested, they may feel lonely at the wedding, which is why Engel encourages single parents to invite a guest: "Both parents should have emotional support at the wedding," she says.

Money Changes Everything

If it's not screaming parents, it could be dueling checkbooks. "Many weddings become an arena for some kind of power game," says Engel. But with divorced parents, the game tends to get uglier than usual. Ex-spouses may use money—or their refusal to cooperate—to exercise control over their ex or to win their child's affection.

When there's a disparity in income levels, the power game is played differently. Allison's wedding experience is a perfect—and painful—illustration. Now a full-time mom in Richmond, Virginia, 32-year-old Allison says that her mother refused to help plan her wedding in Houston five years ago. "Since my father was paying for everything, she said she didn't want to spend his money," explains Allison. Even if it meant leaving her daughter to do everything herself, from long-distance. "She was trying to get back at my father, or make some sort of statement," says Allison. "But all she ended up doing was making my life more difficult when I needed her most."

Happily Ever After

Of course, there do exist divorced couples who give their soon-to-be-married children nothing to worry about—happily sharing wedding joys and expenses. But, sadly, such couples are as common as a friendly divorce. That's why today's brides and grooms must create new wedding customs and compromises that work for them. "If following tradition is going to make you a nervous wreck," says Bigel-Casher, "you owe it to yourself, your fiancé, and your future together to find an alternative." Especially when doing so can mean saving a $30,000 day from divorce-related disaster!

Most importantly, adds Engel, "Don't let your parents' divorce overshadow your wedding. This special event can lose its celebratory spirit if you focus on the limitations. Instead, focus on the possibilities—and enjoy a dignified and beautiful wedding."

Most importantly, brief all your wedding professionals—planner, photographer, band leader or emcee—on who not to force together for a photograph or embarrass with a "special" dance. In fact, during the interviewing process, make sure your candidates have experience with this sort of situation, for smooth sailing on your special day.

Buy the Book: Order Weddings: A Family Affairby Margorie Engel (Wilshire Publications, 1998) from