Covid and Control: Weddings in the Pandemic

Annette Byford is the author of A Wedding in the Family which offers a fascinating insight into the wedding experience from the mother’s point of view.  Her book will not so much help readers to avoid wedding stress, but rather help them make sense of it.  Here, she thinks about weddings during the pandemic and the interesting emotional consequences that can arise in the planning stages.

The pandemic and the subsequent restrictions on social interaction have affected us all, and for many they have found themselves in a state of limbo.  Life hasn’t, and isn’t, moving on in the way people have expected. 

One particular event that symbolizes change and moving on in families is a wedding. Weddings are one of the few remaining rites of passage in Western society, not only for the wedding couple, but also for their families.  Weddings have grown in size, become more elaborate, and, on average, now cost a lot more than they did a few decades ago. 

But, all this has come to a sudden halt in the pandemic. Weddings have been subject to severe restrictions – at times they have not been permitted at all, at other times they have been allowed only with limited numbers of guests. These restrictions themselves have changed continuously, which of course makes it very difficult for couples and their families to make plans.  Most of us have had to get used to not making too many plans, but in the context of weddings this is of particular significance.

When researching my book “A Wedding in the Family” I was struck by the length and detail of the planning process – most weddings go well beyond being simply a ‘large party.’  It became increasingly clear to me that weddings stir up particular anxieties in all participants, as families are faced with a ritual that symbolizes a profound change for all involved. The wedding couple make a public commitment to each other but their families have to process a significant stretching of their boundaries. They have to welcome newcomers into the family and to negotiate new or changing relationships. Parents have to learn to step back and accept in the ritual, and to fully accept the adult status of their child. Weddings can be joyful events, but loss and conflict are often close to the surface.

 All this can create anxieties and, as psychotherapists, we know that a classic way of dealing with anxiety is to attempt control. Planning guest lists and invitations, seating plans and orders of service  allow us to distract ourselves and to hold on to (at least an illusion of) control. Not being able to plan interrupts all that. It may feel like a relief on a practical level, but on an emotional level it has deprived many people of their main coping mechanism. Couples and their families have had to deal with a large degree of uncertainty without the mitigating chance of planning, or, even worse, planning and having their plans cancelled repeatedly, thus shattering any sense of control.

Some couples have cancelled their wedding plans all together, others have adjusted to the new format of being allowed a limited number of guests, between 10 and 30 at different times. As a result, a different problem arises immediately: who to include and whom to exclude? This question stands at the heart of many conflicts around wedding planning, guest lists and seating plans being top of the list. What is at stake here are questions of power balance between the two (or more) families and the important issue of who is at the core of each family, who matters and is included and who is not. In big weddings this question can often be evaded by just adding a couple of guests, but with a severe cap on numbers that isn’t possible, and hard decisions have to be made that will affect family members and their relationships with each other.

There are couples and families who are clearly delighted to have discovered a more intimate and less elaborate format for their wedding. There are others who are bitterly disappointed and plan the big party to follow the small wedding in due course, the pandemic may even mark the end of big weddings! However, its immediate impact has been of a very specific emotional nature.

A Wedding in the Family: Mothers Tell Their Stories of Joy, Conflict and Loss is available now.

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