Weddings have a tendency to bring out the best in people but unfortunately, too often they can also bring out the worst. Just ask any married friend or bride-to-be, and chances are they’ll have at least one tale of childhood friendship strained by the lead-up to the big day or a family member left upset by a perceived slight. A friend once told me, wryly: "When you get engaged, everyone will have an opinion." And the more weddings I attend, the more it seems like she had a point. It seems even the most chilled parents, lifelong friends and thoughtful colleagues are capable of losing their cool when it comes to wedding bells and matrimony.
A recent callout about this topic on social media brought forth a flood of replies. One simply stated poignantly: "The wedding was eight months ago and I’m still not over it."
From the couple whose decision to elope caused such a serious strain with their in-laws that it started to dissolve their own marriage, to the bride who uninvited her maid of honour after a colossal falling out that means they still don’t speak now – these stories were shared with brutal honesty, frustration, good humour (now it's behind them) and sometimes, copious lashings of heartbreak.
At a time of life when joy and happiness is supposed to be front and centre, the reality – with its complex human relationships, weighty expectations and others' sense of entitlement – can threaten to overshadow the big day and leave a bitter taste that hangs around longer than the rose petal confetti.
For Layla*, on the day when her childhood friend should have been stood beside her as her maid of honour, supporting and celebrating this momentous time, a series of events leading up to it meant that the invitation had been binned and the two weren’t even talking. "I was excited to have her as my bridesmaid, we’d been friends for over a decade," she recalls. "Things were normal until she shared something with me that I was apprehensive about."
It turned out her friend was involved in an affair and Layla was concerned: "I was worried she was being used and would have her heart broken." It wasn’t until the hen do, though, that the friendship really started splintering. "Nothing really happened for a long time and then she texted to say she didn’t have time to organise it. Someone else had to step in to plan it. I felt really hurt but was still okay with her...until she said she couldn’t come to the hen party because it was this guy’s birthday."
Enough was enough and Layla struck her off the invites for the hen and wedding. Although she now wishes they had both handled it differently, she stands by her decision to cut ties. "We haven’t seen each other since and I’m not sure we will... I don’t think I have the space for her – not in a mean way – but as I get older, the more I just want to spend my time with people I really love and enjoy."
In Sasha’s* case, it was her and her now ex-husband’s decision to have a child-free wedding that caused sparks with a close family friend. "She was so angry," remembers Sasha, describing how after first furiously declining the invite, the friend then changed her mind and came to the wedding but behaved in such a way as to leave her in tears. "She didn’t say anything to me or my husband the whole time she was there and I think she left before dessert was served."
"People go crazy over what they feel entitled to at somebody else’s wedding," she says in frustration, explaining how the friend had also assumed her young children would be bridesmaids, despite the fact that Sasha is close with her numerous siblings and wanted the focus to be on them. "She was like a sister to me and this has massively impacted the entire family friendship. We wouldn’t even consider them friends now, it’s sad really."
Newly married and full of joy, Heather and her partner were excited to share their news with their respective parents. After much consideration, the couple had decided to elope, taking a small group of their closest friends on a surprise trip to a beautiful UK location close to their hearts. "Neither of us were particularly keen on spending money on a wedding. People say the average cost is £20,000 and we didn’t have that. Neither of our parents had that money either, and we wouldn’t have ever wanted to put that pressure on them."
"We thought it was quite romantic," recalls Heather of the day, which still holds fond memories for her, although she and her husband are now divorced. "It’s still probably the best day of my life."
"The plan was that once we were married, we’d invite family members and have a big celebration with a more informal party," she explains, describing how they excitedly rang their parents after the wedding to reveal they’d got hitched. "My parents reacted well, they were excited and really happy but his parents were very angry... They immediately took offence and the idea of having a party afterwards was instantly dismissed."
She says that although she understood their disappointment at not being there on such a significant day, she had hoped that after the initial shock, her in-laws would come around. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case and a month or so later, at the next family gathering, they refused to refer to the wedding or to her as their son’s wife, continuing to use her maiden name and showing no interest in looking at photographs of their day.
"They didn’t acknowledge that we were married and it was very upsetting for me. It knocked my confidence quite a lot and I felt immediately shut out by them [despite knowing them for over a decade]. They shut out my husband as well. I don’t think, to this day, that they’ve seen a single picture from the wedding."
She says it subsequently put a strain on her relationship with her husband and although she notes that there were many issues at play in their eventual break-up, the rejection by his family and the difficulties it caused were, in her eyes, a serious contribution to the breakdown of the marriage.
It’s very common for weddings to bring tensions to the surface, agrees London and Surrey-based luxury wedding planner Emma Joy. "In fact, I can't think of a wedding where there hasn't been some kind of tricky situation that I've needed to help my clients navigate. Planning a wedding is stressful; there's a lot to think about and a lot of emotion involved."
Being clear about who the decision makers are early is key, as is coming to terms with the fact that no wedding comes without testing family and friendship hurdles, according to clinical psychologist Linda Blair. "It’s almost inevitable, and so to be surprised that it happens is the mistake, not the fact that there is some upset. Weddings are an emotional event so our logic is secondary."
In Blair’s view, the best way to minimise issues is to put the wishes of the bride and groom first. "You will get hurt feelings, because you can’t please everybody, but you’ll get easier decisions and things will run more smoothly."
"Often difficult situations are related to family dynamics and relationships, which can usually be resolved by thinking carefully about the seating plan or who does what during the day," explains Emma. "I advise my clients to give family members small tasks and responsibilities, like helping choose the wine or addressing invitations."
"On the day, think carefully about your group photos and try to be as inclusive as possible. If you're worried about certain friends feeling left out, just have your photo taken with them," advises Emma. "Everyone loves some time with the happy couple."
Sitting and reflecting on her own wedding day, Heather toys with the idea of how she’d react if her future children were to follow in her footsteps and get married in secret: "I suppose it was selfish but then at the end of the day, marriage is about two people... Just because they [the family] weren’t there for the official signing of the bit of paper, that wasn’t the point. We wanted them there forever, not just for the day."
*Names have been changed for anonymity