"It was utterly exhausting," recalls Steph* of the run-up to her wedding to her partner of four years back in 2013. But it wasn't securing a venue, pinning down the perfect caterer or nabbing the dress of her dreams that distressed the 36-year-old. Rather, it was the prospect of her divorced parents coming to blows and a family row overshadowing her big day.
When Steph's mum fell in love with another man 15 years ago, breaking up her parents' 30-year marriage and eventually forcing her dad to sell the farm that had been in the family for 250 years, their relationship was unusually civil – her dad even helped her mum move out. But in the decade that followed, "anger and resentment" began to build on both sides and by the time of their daughter's nuptials, Steph says, the emotional temperature had reached boiling point.
My mum told me it would be "the worst day of her life".
"I spoke to them both beforehand and asked them to try and put up with each other’s presence for the day," Steph remembers. "My mum was very put out that we were having a marquee in the field at my dad’s house – she described it as an 'extremely selfish' decision – and told me it would be 'the worst day of her life'," which, Steph admits, was "upsetting and really coloured the whole day for me."
At the time, Steph's dad was in the honeymoon phase of a new relationship with an ex-colleague of her mum's – which didn't help matters. "He was totally over the top – hand-holding with her at the engagement do, and more – causing my mum to cry and making everyone feel deeply uncomfortable."
On the day itself, Steph had specially arranged the seating plan with their frosty relationship in mind: each of the couple's four parents was placed at the head of a separate table (despite her fiancé's parents still being happily married) to keep the warring parties apart. When the time came for speeches – another moment of potential awkwardness or hostility between divorced parents, along with walking down the aisle – Steph allowed her dad to take the lead. "My dad was pretty graceful in his speech and talked on behalf of both himself and my mum, including her in a nice way."
The bride and groom also enlisted their friends to chaperone and appease Steph's mum throughout. "I asked them to give my mum as much attention as possible – she loves attention – and take her for a spin on the dance floor. It was okay in the end but definitely not the best day of my life."
Amanda White, 30, an NHS team administrator in Corby, Northamptonshire, has similarly tainted memories of her wedding to her boyfriend of seven years, James, last June. When her parents divorced in 2001, when Amanda was just 12, she recalls an amiable end to 15 years of marriage – but their relationship soured soon after. "My dad started dating again immediately after their divorce, but my mum worked so much she didn't have time for a relationship. Things became very tense and have been ever since."
I made sure my bridesmaids and close friends were on high alert.
Amanda took precautions to avoid flare-ups between her mum and dad and their new partners on her big day. "My parents and their new spouses were supposed to meet for drinks for the first time a few weeks before my wedding, but unfortunately that never happened," which added an extra (substantial) item to her pre-wedding to-do list. "I made sure my bridesmaids and close friends were on high alert and mingled with my parents, to avoid the four of them being left alone together."
Like Steph, Amanda also based the seating plan at the wedding around her parents' icy relationship, particularly her mum's wishes. "I specifically put them on different tables because we couldn't fit six parents on the top table – my mum, stepdad, dad, stepmum, mother-in-law and father-in-law – but also because my mum specified who she wanted to sit with, and that did not include my dad or stepmum," Amanda recalls.
Aided by copious amounts of alcohol, she says "the day went very well [and] there was no arguing, nor did I pick up on any negative vibes." Nevertheless, the whole undertaking made Amanda "feel awful". "I had enough to worry about, I didn't need the extra stress of managing divorced and remarried parents. I was told the table plan is the hardest part of organising a wedding and I totally agree – family politics add stress and drama that you just don't need when planning a wedding.
"The point of the wedding was to celebrate me and my new husband, yet I was regularly preoccupied with managing my parents’ relationship," Amanda concludes.
However, reuniting divorced parents at an occasion as emotional as a wedding can sometimes be uplifting and cathartic for families previously scarred by a messy relationship breakdown. "My parents decided to go as each other’s date, wanted their seats next to each other, walked me down the aisle together, and they even danced together to their wedding song," remembers Emily Powell, 21, a rehab nursing technician in New Hampshire, US.
There were lots of jokes — and curiosity — about my [divorced] parents being intimate on the night of my wedding.
When her parents, who had been married since 1988, divorced in 2004, Emily admits she was "relieved because of how horribly they fought all the time" and describes their relationship as "toxic and unhealthy" towards the end. Both parents have dated and been in long-term relationships with other people over the years (and met each others' partners), but their friendship with each other has "only gotten better with time and it’s a beautiful thing," their daughter says.
"We started celebrating holidays together and now it’s at the stage where my parents will get dinner together and call each other just to talk – they probably see each other more than I see either of them myself."
Their close friendship and levelheadedness meant that Emily didn't have to waste valuable emotional energy at the expense of enjoying her wedding day. "There was no stress at my wedding, and there were lots of jokes – and curiosity – about my parents being intimate on the night of my wedding. They talked about how our wedding was the best weekend of their life for months after the wedding." Seeing them so happy together made Emily's day even more special, she adds. If only all parents followed their example.
*Name has been changed