‘Here’s what you could’ve won!’ A classic Bullseye catchphrase and precisely how it feels when you attend a wedding as a newly separated person, a divorcing person, or a divorced person.
Choosing to go to someone else’s wedding can be immensely stressful when your own marriage has just broken down. It’s not that you don’t want to go for them – you would probably love to go for them! You just don’t want to go for you.
Watching someone else walk down the aisle towards their significant other, love in each of their eyes; hearing them speak the words that should last until death parts them; committing their lives to one another’s care, love and affection even in the hard times; this can be agony. These are words you spoke yourself; the way you looked; the commitment you made, yet they now seem to be nothing.
Even more painfully, these are words your ex spoke to you. Maybe they meant them at the time, you looked at one another in this exact way and put every ounce of meaning you could into the syllables. Maybe you still feel like this now, like nothing but death will part you and you are still fully committed to the words you spoke before God or before the congregation. Whatever has caused your marriage to end, this is the last place you expected to find yourself on that day, so watching another couple confidently commit their lives to one another can create a feeling that your own wedding was a lie, or that marriages aren’t really built to last, that their hope and confidence is misguided. Getting though this perspective is difficult, especially if other marriages around you are also experiencing difficulties, and deciding whether to go is another minefield too.
Because this is the one occasion you will get to witness this, it can feel there’s an obligation to attend a wedding despite your own pain or misgivings or inability to cope. Declining an invitation is acceptable. It’s wonderful to be invited yes, but chances are the couple will understand if you just can’t manage it. The closer you are to the couple, the more likely it is you may wish to go to be a part of their day. But if you’re not as close, it’s okay to say you can’t attend. You could send a card and a heartfelt congratulation to them, acknowledging the generosity of their invitation, but being kind to yourself and understanding your own limitations at this point is healthy and wise. Feel free to say no.
It might be that you don’t want to say no, but can’t face a day of small talk. Deliberately choosing which elements of the wedding to attend is a great halfway step. If the ceremony feels too raw, join your friends for the celebration. If the small talk, joyful atmosphere and necessity to be joyous yourself will be too overwhelming and challenging, go along to the ceremony and give yourself a rest afterwards. This way you don’t feel you’ve missed out on this special event, as you do want to celebrate your friends, but don’t make demands of yourself that are unmanageable with how you’re feeling.
Consider which elements of the day are likely to be the hardest and face those mentally head on beforehand. If the vows bring back memories, take time to read them in advance. Reflect on the words, pray or think over your own vows and then those of the couple about to be married. Consider your own wedding and mourn over it; the grief you feel may not be lessened but the rawness of the wound might be.
If you’re concerned about the service elements, the songs and music that might evoke memories, ask the couple to see the order of service ahead of time. It may seem a strange request but explaining that you want to enjoy their day and rejoice with them, and wish to prepare yourself for any difficult memories or similarities to your own wedding in advance is unlikely to provoke a hostile reaction. Promise to keep the details a secret, and do so! Another strategy may be to visit the location beforehand, particularly if it will evoke memories, such as if you got married there yourself.
Attending a wedding is hard, and being honest about that is helpful too. But when we attend, we can try to find a glimmer of hope. Amongst divorce and the devastation of marital breakdown, hope and belief in marriage continues. We can never know what life holds after a wedding, but we can support and uphold the hope of these couples in their married life together. So when that save the date comes through the door, or an invitation takes pride of place on your shelf, be kind to yourself too. Your wedding was a special day in your life, it will be a special day in theirs, and your experiences bring your own set of challenges to the day.
Focus on marriages around you that you know are strong through having weathered the storms. Ask these people for honest and frank opinions on how they’ve stayed in their marriage, and how they’ve made it through the hard times. A refreshing acknowledgement that marriage isn’t easy can help us to rejoice with the start of this marriage we’ve been invited to witness, without being bogged down in the Disney fairytale dream that it’s all good from here on in.