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My fiancé and I called people the first few days after our engagement. We wanted those closest to us to know all the details before broadcasting a general We’re engaged!!! over social media. No one we called was particularly surprised about our news. We’re one of those couples who have been together so long everyone mistakes us for already married.
The lack of surprise didn’t mean a lack of enthusiasm. After a few excited questions several of my close friends initiated some version of this back-and-forth:
Friend: “So, is anyone from your family going?”
Me: “Why would they?”
Friend: “What about aunts? Uncles?”
Friend: “Your parents?”
Me: “Of course not.”
Friend: “Do your parents even know you’re engaged?”
Me: “How could they? We haven’t spoken in over a decade.”
Friend: “But you’re engaged.”
Me: “They’re alcoholics. They’re not invited.”
Friend: Long pause. “Well, the wedding is going to be wonderful anyway.”
I’m planning a wedding none of my family is invited to, and so I’m planning a wedding that will be wonderful anyway. My engagement announcements were my first realizations that weddings turn people into greedy bastards.
Watching two people in fancy duds swear life-long companionship and devotion to each other isn’t enough. Guests must see all the love. They want to watch a couple slow-dance while listening to the bride’s mother describe singing silly made-up songs nightly to the bride when she was but a child. People want the father-of-the-bride to joke about how much the wedding costs before tearfully admitting he started saving for the big day when his little girl was born.
Interactions with the groom’s parents are necessary, too. Weddings are performances but not just of couple-hood. Weddings are demonstrations that multiple sources give each individual unconditional love, and this evidence of unconditional love assures the viewer from the cradle to the grave no one is ever alone.
Wedding guests must see family. They must see familial love. Oh, and they must have cake.
Like I said, weddings make people greedy.
If that’s the kind of wedding my guests need -- one involving family and cake -- my guests are going to be disappointed. I don’t have a relationship with anyone from my family. I haven’t had one in years, and I’m not interested in manufacturing one to fill my wedding’s bridal kinship void.
This isn’t the first time I’ve run into awkward social situations because of my nonexistent familial bonds. Admitting I fled my dysfunctional family suddenly makes people eager to defend their parents, their homes, even the idea of family in general. But they’re your parents, some have lectured me. Other nuggets of wisdom I’ve gotten: That’s so tragic you must be devastated. Everyone needs a mom. (Another version of that: Every parent makes mistakes, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love their kids.) You’re going to regret this one day, and it will be too late then.
There’s one that really gets to me: I’d give anything to have my mom/dad back again. I wish that for them, too. Growing up I had friends with divorced parents, friends with step-parents, friends with single parents. Those adults weren’t always perfect. They might snap or yell or serve too much junk food. But my friends always knew those adults loved them. It was in the way they set down their child’s glass on the dinner table, or the way they tucked their children into bed after arriving home from a late shift. Parents can demonstrate their love in ways too numerous to count.
My parents demonstrated other things to me, most of which involved their serious commitment to alcohol and utter disregard for my emotional and physical safety. They were angry, daredevil drunks. They would lose their tempers over things that only made sense to heavily intoxicated brains. They each drove drunk, and when either passed out behind the wheel I knew we were close to death.
My parents’ behavior didn’t improve as I grew up. Since alcoholism often runs in families, my other relatives weren’t any better. I could blitz you with anecdotes. Drunks start funny stories about their alcohol-infused adventures with "I can’t believe I managed to…" Adult children of alcoholics end their stories about childhood with "…and I had no idea how strange any of that was." I didn’t. It was all I had ever known.
I wish I could say I stopped talking to my parents because I realized they were the unhealthiest aspect of my life or because I realized I deserved love. The truth is my alcoholic parents raised me to take care of them. I tried to even after I went to college, but they became increasingly erratic. I couldn’t call them; they called me. We might go three months without talking and then they would call five times in a row at 2:30 in the morning. If I picked up they might be jovial or sobbing. They might be manipulative (Send money or we’ll be homeless. Stay on the phone with your mother or she might hurt herself) or, because of some dank, unknowable pit of anger, they might explicitly threaten my own physical safety.
The truth is they frightened me. I was scared, so I realized I had to take care of me. I changed my phone number. They didn’t have my address.
They did have an email, and probably still do. I waited for them to send a message apologizing -- about any or all of it, really. I waited for a message saying they missed me, they loved me. Both sent a message or two chastising me for not loving them enough, explaining how good my childhood had really been -- that sort of thing. I never responded.
Ending communication with them is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My life isn’t tragic. I’m not devastated. In the years after our relationship ended I got to experience new emotions -- joy, confidence, ambition, and contentment. I even went to graduate school, and toward the end of my masters program I met the man I’m now engaged to.
If I had still been in contact with my family, none of it would have been possible. I would have been too afraid, too untrusting.
Until my engagement, it had been a long time since I had to regularly see how uncomfortable people are about my lack of parents. Even my friends need to see my parents at my wedding. One guest confirmed her attendance with the assurance she’s thrilled to finally meet the people who raised me if only to give them a piece of her mind. Her expectation suggested a cultural belief: People need their own families in order to make a new one with their partner.
Wedding vendors sure believe that. A bridal-gown sales consultant found out my two dress shopping companions were my fiancé and his mother. When the sales consultant didn’t see my own mother in the vicinity she rubbed my arm and looked at me as though I had just told her I had four days to live.
It only lasted a few seconds, but the message was obvious: Without family I was broken.
I get it! I do. Weddings are supposed to involve family according to every wedding tradition ever made. I know what people expect, but I can’t explain to every vendor, guest, and acquaintance all the reasons why it’s best I don’t interact with my parents. That would be emotionally untenable. Even if I did, most wouldn’t understand. They’d say something along the lines of You’re getting married! It’s time to be an adult and forgive.
No. That’s not how forgiveness works. Forgiveness isn’t about imposing a standard on survivors. Do this or you don’t deserve sympathy. Forgiveness is about making peace with what one survives.
I’m at peace. When I stopped interacting with them I started actually taking care of my parents. Addicts need to feel their actions are normal, and my co-dependent behavior helped maintain that fiction. Even though ending our relationship didn’t end their alcoholism (nothing anyone does can control an addict’s behavior), it set a healthy emotional boundary that did end my guilt-ridden contributions. Inviting my family to my wedding would be my personal endorsement of their alcoholism, and I would never do that to anyone.
I recognize my wedding will make people uncomfortable. I recognize I’m designing it that way. I’m not interested in substituting other mentors and friends for the roles my parents might have played. No one is giving me away. There’s no parent(figure)-(almost)daughter dance. In my opinion parental substitutions would ultimately be insulting for two reasons.
One: I don’t want to compare people who actually do love and care for me with others who so utterly failed me.
Two: I didn’t have parents who loved me, and that fact is a big part of who I am.
My parents’ mistakes set me on a road to become a person emotionally capable of a life-long relationship. It’s not a path I would have chosen on my own, but it’s what happened. It’s part of who I am.
My family-of-origin was selfish, abusive, manipulative, and they disregarded my emotional and physical well-being. I rejected all of that.
I am a person who is deeply committed to equality, communication, trust, and support. And that’s what I think weddings are all about.
It’s at least what mine will be about.