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What Do You Do When Your Parents Don’t Like Your Fiance (e)?

Maybe they think he could be a snazzier dresser or have a better haircut. Maybe they’re not crazy about his family, his paycheck, his car. Or maybe they fell in love with the football captain you dated in high school and feel no one else will ever compare.

Whatever the reason, and despite how happy you are to be engaged, your parents have yet to embrace their future son-in-law (though at this point, you’d settle for an acknowledgement of his existence). In this situation, the hardest part of planning your wedding may be the one thing you can’t control: your parents.

While it’s true that some parents fight the good fight before they eventually surrender, others never leave the battleground. I know, because my parents fought long and hard against my marriage. Eight years later, my husband and I are still scratching our heads, trying to figure out what all the fuss was about. Some have suggested that my parents developed a severe case of separation anxiety.

Others contend that because their own marriage was less than perfect, they thought ours would, by association, suffer the same fate. Regardless of their motives, my parents managed to wreak considerable havoc during our engagement. In fact, as my big day drew near, I lost, in short order, my wedding party (my sisters all bowed out under pressure from my mother); my escort (my dad decided not to walk me down the aisle); and financing (they wouldn’t pay for what they didn’t support).

It got worse. On the day of my wedding, my parents showed up—late. My mother sobbed audibly through the entire ceremony. And then, they bolted. No photos for the wedding album. No toast for the happy couple. No father-daughter dance for old time’s sake. Tragic? Yes. Embarrassing? You bet. But my husband and I got through it, and salvaged some wonderful memories. (More good news: We have recently begun the slow process of reconciling and joining my new family with the one in which I grew up.) While I hope this scenario is not familiar to you, you may indeed be encountering some upturned parental noses. If you find yourself at odds with the folks, help is only some careful planning and a positive attitude away.

First, Foresight
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.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.”

“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.

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