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Laura Hunt

Relationship Guide
October 2003: Step-parents and Wedding Arrangements
by Claire Hatch
Claire Hatch, MSW is a licensed social worker and mediator who specializes in working with couples. She counsels people by phone around the world and in person in her Seattle area office.

file:///D:/BRO Web/sf_vendors/caterers/MelonsCatering_pic.htm Claire will be happy to answer your relationship questions in this column. Please send them to or call her at 425.823.2273.
Want more relationship help? Then The Bridal Sanity Workbook is for you. Claire shares wisdom from her pre-wedding counseling experience and her work with troubled marriages.

BRO received this question, and we asked our counselor, Claire Hatch, to respond.

"My stepson of 15 years is marrying a very nice woman who comes from a good family. I also was brought up in a good family where things were done properly and by the book. However, my husband's first wife, the groom's mother, lacks a bit in this aspect. I know that this wedding is going to be a very formal affair, and I want to be appropriate to the occasion but not to outdress the groom's mother. She and I have a decent relationship; she has grown to accept me over the years. However, she can be offended rather easily, so I want to steer clear of that. I don't want to ruin a special day for my stepson and his future bride. I do want to follow proper etiquette at the rehearsal dinner, which I will be paying for half of it, since I am the breadwinner in our household. I prefer not to do things out of conformity with proper etiquette. How do I get these feelings across without setting the mother off? How do I wear something appropriate without outdoing her? I really want to get along through this whole thing but yet hold to my values. Help!!!"
Stepmom in distress

Dear Stepmom,

Counselors often call step-parenting "the world's hardest job." This is because so often they find themselves in situations where they have values that conflict with those of the biological parents. The biggest conflict is this: step-parents have relationships with their step-children and care about them, yet they do not have the same authority that the biological parents do. This means that usually they play a lesser role in decision-making than the parents, but often they are equally affected by the outcome.

There probably is no situation where this is truer than at a wedding. In your situation, I see your values as: Proper etiquette, proper dress for yourself, and peace and harmony at the events. You are concerned that you may not be able to have all of these at once. I think that if you step back and consider what is most important, it will be peace and harmony.

The best way to achieve this is to see yourself as a support and helper to the bride and groom. I can almost guarantee you that their top priority will be a dinner and wedding where everyone gets along and is civil, so they don't have to worry about their parents, and they can just focus on the experience of making a commitment to each other.

If your stepson and his bride are concerned about etiquette, then consider how you can help them. It is difficult to make a plan for dealing with "etiquette" in general. You would need to consider the specifics.

Regarding your dress, I think your goal would be to be appropriate and understated. Again, you have to ask yourself what your priorities are. Clothing is very personal and you naturally want to dress in accord with your tastes and sense of what's appropriate. But think: If your stepson's mother behaves in a way that makes him uncomfortable because she feels outshone by you, will it be worth it?

You have a particularly difficult situation in that you are the provider for your family and you are paying for your family's half of the dinner. It is natural to feel that the dinner will be a reflection on you and to want it to be done correctly. And it would be nice if you were acknowledged for going above and beyond the stepmother's typical role!

I think the best way to look at the situation is this: Your priority is that the bride and groom have their events the way they want them. If they are unhappy or there is some unpleasantness, that is what people will remember, rather than the proper etiquette. I work with some couples who have resentments toward their parents and stepparents for years after the wedding! I don't think that's what you want. If you show the bride and groom you are on their side, and you make it your job to help them have the wedding of their dreams, you will be remembered fondly for years to come.

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