Wedding etiquette for exes

It's only uncomfortable, if you make it awkward.

It’s only uncomfortable, if you make it awkward.

When we think of etiquette, we may think first about thank you notes and formal table settings, topics any basic etiquette class covers. The real meaning and value of observing rules of etiquette, however, is that it promotes good behavior, which is never more important than in a difficult situation. When exes are in the same room, everyone fares better if they’re on their best behavior. Wedding etiquette for exes is important, even if it’s the last thing on everyone’s minds.

The grandmother of doing things right, Emily Post, wrote her first authoritative missive on etiquette in 1922. Even though her legacy continues and her guidelines updated for us by her descendants, they fail to give enough support for the blended families of today. Few couples planning a wedding are fortunate enough to do so without considering the often invisible but ever-present exes. It may be an encore (second or more) marriage for either or both the bride or groom. There may be children from previous unions. One or more of the couple’s parents may be divorced, in the process of divorcing, remarried, or separated from a spouse. Or the divorce of a sibling or close friend may present delicate issues. The resulting number of potentially tricky scenarios is nearly endless.

I have been the encore bride, the stepmother of the groom, and the mother of the groom whose stepmother was also an honored guest at the wedding. I have a little experience with this, but not enough to claim expert status. There are two women who do have that title, though. Jann Blackstone-Ford and Sharyl Jupe earned their credentials the hard way. Jann married the ex-husband of Sharyl in 1989. The two women, their children and spouses spent several miserable years before they flew a white flag and began to work cooperatively for the sake of the children and the peace of their families. Eventually, Jann, a professional mediator, and Sharyl formed a nonprofit for divorced parents and their families and went on to co-write Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After a Divorce or Separation. Ex-Etiquette for Weddings followed.

Jann and Sharyl have 10 rules for wedding ex-etiquette, the first of which is to “remember whose wedding it is.” This, and the remaining nine, can be summarized neatly by my own advice, which is to “behave yourself.” Of course, that is much easier to say than to do.

“Using good ex-etiquette,” Jann and Sharyl write, “will enable you to interact productively with people with whom you have a painful or worrisome past.”

So what are some of the stickiest situations and strategies for overcoming them? Let’s explore.

Encore Weddings
When the bride or groom have been married before, but there are no children from a previous relationship, the considerations are relatively simple. The size and formality of the wedding, who’s paying for it, if showers are appropriate and whether to invite ex-inlaws are the most common concerns.

An encore wedding in which the bride and groom have both been married before is usually paid for by the couple themselves. If it is the first time for either, then there is more likely to be participation from parents.
The size, formality, reception style and shower questions are a matter of personal preference. My opinion is to refer to Ex-Etiquette’s rule number one: It’s your wedding. You can have what you want to the extent that you can afford it. Invite people who will be happy for you and who genuinely want good things for the future of this new family. Do your best to leave the critics and spectators at home.

Whether or not to invite any of your ex-inlaws is a difficult decision that is best answered by the question “How will this make my ex-spouse feel?” If the answer is anywhere near “not good,” I’d think long and hard before doing it. Ex-etiquette requires us to have empathy for the former spouse we have loved.

Children of Encore Weddings
If there are children from previous unions, there will be many concerns. If the children are younger, whether to include them in the ceremony and even planning the wedding to correspond with the visitation schedule are all important considerations. Perhaps the most helpful advice I found in “Ex-Etiquette” regarding this scenario is to communicate productively with your ex.

Jann and Sharyl make the most powerful statement to exes who have children that I have ever heard: “It’s never over. Not if you want to do it right.”

“If you are remarrying, or your ex is remarrying, that remarriage will certainly affect the children,” Jann and Sharyl also write. “Whatever affects your children is the business of both you and your ex.”
Begin by realizing that whatever has happened in the past, you both love your children and want what’s best for them. Hold on to that positive thought, the thing you can agree on, and let it be the foundation for everything that follows.

One of the most important recommendations they make, in my opinion, is that you inform an ex-spouse of the upcoming event rather than have him or her hear it from the children. Honest and thoughtful communication sets the stage for a better transition. You are not responsible for how it is received, but you are responsible for letting go of the past and doing your part to move forward in a positive manner.

Adult children of an encore couple should be considered as carefully as those still living at home. They often have as many or more concerns about a parent’s remarriage as young children. From feelings of displacement and torn allegiances to concerns about inheritance and everything in between, adult kids have adjustments to make too. Communicating with them clearly and from the beginning of the engagement will go a long way toward giving them the reassurance they need.

Couples Who Are Children of Divorce
A wedding should be a joyful time for everyone involved, but for brides and grooms whose parents are divorced, unfortunately it can be a nightmare. Years of bickering and being in the middle can make what should be a happy occasion absolutely dreadful. From Ex-Etiquette, here is advice for the couple getting married:

Don’t be the intermediary or the referee. If you’ve been in these positions for years, this is a great time to bring that era to an end. Politely and positively encourage your parents to coordinate their efforts for your wedding. And when dealing with step-parents, remember that when you honor them, you honor your parents, too.

Divorced Parents of the Bride or Groom
Jann and Sharyl are clear about this: “You and your ex will need to get along to make your child’s wedding day the best it can possibly be.”

There are no acceptable excuses for bad behavior. Parents of the bride and groom are responsible for their actions. Find neutral ground and be cordial to each other, to ex-family members, and all the other guests at your child’s wedding, they advise. If you do, you’ll be following all the rules of good ex-etiquette.

Other scenarios
Dozens of true-life examples of how to apply the rules of ex-etiquette are explored in Jann and Sharyl’s book. Guidance is given for more combinations of potential conflicts than I’ve ever even imagined and some that, frankly, make the lives of all the people I know seem tame. For instance:

“My second husband, John, and I are divorced and I’m getting remarried. Although we never had kids together, he is the only father my son from my first marriage has known, and he is also good friends with my fiancé. My son and my fiancé would both like John to attend the wedding. I’m OK with it, but my mother will never forgive how he treated me (he was unfaithful), and she has threatened to make a scene if he attends my wedding.”

Can you see why I have no desire to be an ex-etiquette expert?
Jann and Sharyl bravely tackle this and much more. They help solve the dilemma of who’s invited, where to seat divorced parents and their new spouses or love interests, who gives away the bride, whether the children should be included in the honeymoon, what to do with treasured family heirlooms from previous relationships, whether to give flowers to step-parents and step-grandparents, who is included in photos and where everyone should stand, what to include in the wedding program, how to word invitations, how to include half-siblings and step-siblings, how to honor step-parents, having ex-in-laws as attendants, and dozens more tricky predicaments that may make you want to consider eloping.

Ex-Etiquette for Weddings,is an amazing resource for a concept whose time has come. We owe it to ourselves and our families to embrace good behavior when dealing with the aftermath of divorce.

Joyce Beverly

Former publisher of Fayette Woman, Joyce Beverly spends her time now helping others realize their dreams by writing and editing books and helping families preserve their legacies through story-telling.