When planning a wedding, most people focus on the event. Who is going to be there? What should it look like? How do we want to entertain? In this, they often forget to focus on the relationship.
Weddings, though, are full of opportunities to build the type of relationship you want with each other. You see, your life together does not begin after the festivities are over. It’s already begun. And the way that you navigate your relationship from here on out will impact your sense of security for years to come.
In particular, three important relationship skills get to be sharpened while navigating the planning of your big (or small) event:
- Giving + Taking influence
- Boundary Setting
Give + Take Influence
For decades, John Gottman has studied couples. His research has given us an extensive understanding of what makes some couples succeed while others don’t. One finding is that people who give and take influence from each other do much better in their relationships than those that don’t.
Whenever I write about “taking influence” people will say “what does that even mean?”
The answer is simple: Being able to take influence means that you allow yourself to be the type of person that can be influenced by your partner’s feelings, opinions, and needs. Unfortunately, many couples do not take each other’s influence. Instead, they dig their heels in and stay myopic in their views and opinions.
When it comes to weddings, there are many opportunities to give and take influence.
How big is the wedding? What type of food will you have? Where will it be located? How much money will you spend?
Sometimes, people just “roll over” and agree to do whatever the path of least resistance is. And, at times this works. In reality, it’s good to pick your battles and you don’t always need to be influential.
But when something really matters to you it’s much better to speak up and offer your two cents. Giving influence doesn’t mean that you always win. It doesn’t mean that your position takes priority. It does mean you share your thoughts and feelings in a clear, kind, and assertive manner.
And taking influence means you’re open to hearing the other person’s thoughts and feelings without becoming defensive or trying to “win”.
Let’s take Abby and Nick. Abby really wants a big wedding of everyone she’s ever met and even slightly liked. Whereas Nick wants a small, intimate wedding - “the people who really matter and that’s it!”.
Whenever Nick and Abby talk about the size of the wedding, they argue. Every now and then. Abby sends Nick a link to a big venue - you know the type that provides the catering and the flowers, and has wall to wall “designer” carpet in the ballroom. When Nick gets the link while he is at work he takes a deep breath and types out his response - “No way! I hate weddings like this. Small and intimate is the way to go”.
Abby seethes when she gets these messages. She starts to create imaginary scenarios in her head where she just goes and books the big venue with a nonrefundable deposit. She doesn’t of course, but if her worst self appeared she’d certainly act unilaterally.
The issue here, though, isn’t that Nick and Abby want different size weddings. Even if they wanted the same they will certainly face a strong difference of opinion elsewhere in their marriage. The issue is that they are not willing to take each other’s influence. In both of their minds there is only “one right way” to have a wedding. For Abby the right way is big and for Nick the right way is small.
If I was working with Abby and Nick, I would encourage them to move out of this binary - either can and are right. Instead, I would ask them to slow down on the problem solving and get curious about what matters most about each of their positions.
I would offer that they explore:
- What does it mean to have a big/small wedding?
- Which feelings come up about that?
- What they are both worried about will happen if they don’t get their way.
If you’re currently planning a wedding, I suggest you look at the places where you differ, slow down, and ask these types of questions too. Really try to understand what makes sense about your partner’s desire and recognize their difference isn’t a threat to you.
After you slow down, though, you’ll need to take the next step to create a solution. This means it’s time to move towards compromise.
Planning an event gives ample opportunities for compromise. Compromise is when we take varying positions on a topic and come up with a solution that feels “good enough” for everyone involved. The steps to compromise are:
- Taking each other’s influence by truly understanding the other person’s position and making sense of it.
- Writing down and discussing everything you already agree on
- Writing down 1-2 things that absolutely must be a part of the agreement for you to feel “good enough”
- Coming up with a solution that combines each person’s “good enough list”
While most differences have obvious compromises, many couples struggle to reach them. This is because they struggle to show flexibility and to move out of individualistic mindsets to more collectivist thinking.
A marriage, though, means you’ll need to start thinking and operating together. It won’t be enough to make unilateral decisions that negatively impact your partner or take away their own dreams and happiness. I recognize this is hard. It can be hard to morph your initial idea or plan into a new plan. In fact it might even bring up feelings of grief.
If Nick and Abby decide to meet in the middle - having a small ceremony but a big after party - Abby might have to grieve what she believed would happen in a huge ceremony and Nick might have to learn to embrace a big party. Sometimes compromise brings up hard feelings.
And, if done right both people have a little bit of a win and their outcome doesn’t violate either person.
Speaking of violations, weddings also give us a chance to build strong boundaries in order to protect our relationships. Ask anyone who has ever planned a wedding and you’ll hear about the many frustrating boundary violations that can occur throughout the course of the event:
- Parents who add guests to the list without asking
- Friends who push to bring a plus one or children even though the guest list has reached its max
- Venues that push for you to buy more in your package than you agreed upon in your budget
The list goes on, but I digress.
While you can’t prevent people from being people, what you can do is learn how to protect what Dr. Stan Tatkin calls your “couple bubble”. A couple bubble is the secure space you create around yourselves. This helps you to know that you have each other’s backs and that even when the world is noisy and nosey you can be safe and secure with each other.
When I work with couples planning a wedding, I see two common and unintentional mistakes.
The first mistake is ignoring the violations.
- When the guest list is overloaded, you let it slide even though it creates too high of a cost or breaks the original agreement you and your partner had.
- When someone texts about bringing their 2 year old to your adult only event, you don’t write back
- When the vendor up charges for Speciality Roses Grown In Diamond Encased Greenhouses, you pretend you didn’t see it.
The second mistake is throwing each other under the bus.
- To deal with the overloaded guest list, Abby might say “Mom, I would totally let Aunt Mabel come, but Nick really doesn’t want her there”
- To deal with the friend requests, Nick responds “Hey dude, I totally would let Meg come but you know how Abby is with this whole thing. She doesn’t want kids”
- When the vendor upcharges for said specialty roses, Abby says “Oh well I love the roses but Nick will be really mad”.
So what is a couple to do in a sea of limit pushers?
The third much better option is to use the word “we”.
- “We’ve decided to keep the guest list at 90 people”
- “We’ve decided to have an adult only wedding”
- “We’ve decided on our budget and want to keep to it”
Even if your partner was more influential in the decision, it’s much more important to present a united front.
This is going to be something you’ll need to do in the rest of your marriage - when (and if) you have children, have to navigate a home remodel, need to talk to doctors about your partner’s medical treatment, and so on and so forth.
While a wedding is an event, it’s also a great learning event. You and your partner can look for opportunities to really show up for each other by taking each other’s influence, compromising, and having good boundaries with others. Doing these three things will set you for a secure functioning relationship.