What to Do if Your Parents Don't Like Your Fiancé

You found Mr. Right, but your parents think he's all wrong. Here's how to plan a wedding to the man you love, when your parents say they never will.

First, Foresight

Alternative Etiquette 101

If Mom and Dad aren’t on your team in the wedding etiquette game, you might just have to break the rules—or at least bend them a little bit.

• Invitation wording. Who’s footing the bill? If the parents are paying (even through their pouting), traditional wording will do. If not, you and your fiancé are hosting ("John and Anne request your presence at their wedding…"). The wording should reflect whomever is hosting.

• Seating arrangements. Chances are, your parents’ comfort level will be low to nonexistent anyway, so consider asking them where and with whom they’d be happiest sitting, both for the ceremony and the reception.

• Aisle walk. If Dad’s not up to the task, ask a brother, grandfather or close male friend. Or, walk it alone, maybe meeting your fiancé halfway.

When Caroline Harrison*, a 32-year-old financial analyst from Chicago, decided to take the plunge, past experience taught her to defuse emotional bombs before they began ticking. Because she had witnessed the trouble her parents stirred up for the weddings of her three older siblings (each spouse-to-be was subjected to frosty, you're-not-good-enough-for-our-child treatment from Caroline's parents, and it was years before her parents finally warmed up to them), Caroline headed her folks off at the pass. "When we announced our engagement, I made it very clear that we weren't going to tolerate a repeat performance from them."

Playing hardball, Caroline says, meant being up-front about her and her fiancé's expectations from the get-go. "I told my parents that we would like them to be part of our day, but that their involvement was their choice." She also wanted them to let her know whether they were in or out—and stick to that decision. Her insistence on a parental code of behavior took the focus away from her parents' irrationality, and put it back where it belonged: on her and her fiancé.

"Weddings do make people irrational," admits Louisville, Kentucky-based therapist Jane Kendrick-Lites, Ph.D., often generating a fair share of stress—not just for the bride, but her groom, in-laws and, in some cases, guests. That's no excuse for the parental shunning of a perfectly sweet fiancé, but it is a somewhat comforting notion to keep in mind. "It was stressful for sure," remembers Geoff Miller, a 35-year-old San Jose, California-based computer programmer. When Geoff proposed to Kathryn, her parents voiced their disapproval loud and often. "At first, I was a bit thrown by their response," Geoff confesses. "I'm a straitlaced, dependable kind of guy, and I was obviously crazy about their daughter. So of course I was disappointed, and a little hurt, by their efforts to chase me away." But instead of buying into his future in-laws' negative assessment of him, "I reminded myself that it was Kathryn I'd fallen in love with, Kathryn I wanted to marry—not her mother or father." Finally, Geoff concludes, "The friction caused by her parents had a positive effect: It made us take a close look at ourselves as a couple and why we wanted to be together."

Geoff and Kathryn's decision to respond in a proactive—rather than reactive—way to Kathryn's parents helped the couple keep things in perspective. By flat-out refusing to fuel the fire, they were able to savor all that was good about their wedding day.

As a Louisville, Kentucky-based wedding consultant with over 30 years of experience, Theresa Murphy has seen plenty—including tons of parental disapproval. And if there's one thing she's learned, it's this: A little foresight goes a long way. So before disaster can strike, Murphy and her prospective bride and groom troubleshoot the unthinkable. What if Mom and Dad withdraw financial assistance? No problem. A back-up budget, based on what the couple can comfortably afford, can be pulled together fairly quickly.

Or what if Dad decides not to escort you down the aisle? That's what happened to Linda Wallace*, a 28-year-old San Francisco, California-based advertising executive. A practicing Catholic, she tried to accept early on that her parents disapproved of her Protestant beau. So when Linda's father refused to walk her down the aisle, this brave bride made the long walk alone, proudly and confidently. Which brings us to step two.

Keep Your Chin Up

A positive attitude will be your best defense against your parents' snide comments or chilly indifference. Before these things make an ugly dent in your earnest enthusiasm, develop a motto with the staying power to get you through. Repeating a mantra, something that keeps you calm and focused, can be the quickest way back to sanity. Make yours brief and memorable. If you can concoct one with a splash of humor, so much the better. ("Fee, fi, fo, fum, let's say ‘I do' and get this done" helped me through some rough patches when my parents' unsavory behavior took its toll.)

"You need to maintain a positive attitude," affirms Joyce Smith, president of Weddings Unlimited, Inc., in Cincinnati, even when your parents don't. And while their lack of support can really sting, don't let it ruin your wedding. After all, Smith says, "It's your day. And it's just the beginning." Besides, what better way to silence the naysayers than to launch a successful marriage, head held high and heart intact?

*Name has been changed.