Insight Is 20/20

Exploring the pervasive, and unperceived, patterns that govern our lives

Weddings: Why They Cause Conflicts Among Family & Friends

Weddings inevitably bring tension and arguments.

With the arrival of June also comes high wedding season—and an awful lot of stress for those involved with planning the wedding. In my clinical work, I find that weddings inevitably become more stressful for the bride, groom, and their families and friends than anyone ever expects. You’ve probably got your own stories of wedding disasters and dysfunction, and it often comes down to infighting among friends and family. So, why do weddings tend to start so many arguments?

Let’s start with the money—and we’re talking about serious money when it comes to the wedding industry. According to XO Group Inc., which owns two top wedding websites (TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com), their Real Weddings Survey surveyed nearly 18,000 US couples married in 2011. According to the survey, one in five US couples in 2011 spent more than $30,000, and 11% spent more than $40,000 on their weddings. For some context, think for a moment about the national minimum hourly wage. With small fortunes involved, the stakes are high for the families or wedding couple who pays for the wedding. But the expense of weddings, the major factor which causes so much anxiety and tension, isn’t just limited to hosting the affair. The expenses extend, as well, to the guests.

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The guests typically must spend money getting to the wedding, staying there, and finding the perfect gift. In addition, those in the wedding party are asked to purchase and wear clothes they often don’t even like. In fact, just writing about weddings induces a little anxiety in me, but that may be because I’m scheduled to be in one in a few weeks, and I’m pretty sure some choppy social waters lie ahead.

Most conflicts that arise within the wedding process occur between family: between the partners getting married, and between the partners and their respective parents and siblings. Family fights, of course, can get dirty, with name-calling, cursing, and storming out of the room par for the course. When things go wrong and the family starts fighting, it often has to do with one’s status within the family: Who is most loved and appreciated? The dynamics that start fights at weddings are old, as petty arguments expressed during the wedding process mask resentments that have been snowballing for years. Weddings can cause so much anxiety that the individual’s defenses are  overwhelmed, making the individual vulnerable to regressing like a small child. Ever heard an adult say, “Hey, that’s mine!” or “I didn’t get that when I get married—why do you?”

An additional fight-starter is another pesky negative feeling: feeling left out. Someone is always left out of something, which causes frustration, anger, or even tears. Feeling left out is a powerful negative feeling, one which often triggers memories of having felt left out in the past as an adult, teenager, child, or even toddler. Part of what makes everyone so susceptible to feeling left out at some point in the wedding process is the fact that the actual wedding ceremony is so public, which means that any omissions unintentionally serve as a public humiliation. When you're not chosen as a bridesmaid, or you weren't asked to do a reading when when it seems like everyone else was chosen for something, the sting is much worse because the slap in the face happened in front of the entire wedding crowd. Weddings become bastions of image consciousness and insecurities, and it’s often only the alcohol served at the reception which helps to relieve the stress when arguments start.

The period of time surrounding a wedding is not the time to address resentments, and family and friends need to work harder to make sure they have any personal issues in check that might possibly trigger a fight at the wedding. The kinds of longstanding resentments that cause divides should be discussed in a neutral environment – not one where so much time, energy, and travel have been invested.

Weddings are supposed to be loving and inspiring ceremonies, and most weddings live up to that description. The goal is to reduce the amount of tension behind the scenes, so that the wedding couple, wedding party, and guests are free to revel in the day, with good company, good food and a good prognosis for the newly married couple.

 

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

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