Getting engaged, planning a wedding and preparing for life with your favourite person is one of the most exciting and joyful times of your life, but it can also be fraught with family conflicts, budget disagreements and the need to make many compromises. However, every challenge you face while planning your wedding is an opportunity to improve your relationship, strengthen your bond and deepen your communication skills as a couple.
“Defining your shared values, navigating conflict, getting on the same page about finances, deciding to spend time in relationships outside of our primary relationships – any number of topics that come up during wedding planning need to be continually negotiated,” says Jennifer Uhrlass, licensed marriage and family therapist at Modern MFT in New York City. “There needs to be an ongoing and open dialogue that is really preparation for the ongoing negotiations that will take place throughout the relationship.” Next, Uhrlass talks about how this crucial window of time – the engagement period – can be an opportunity for couples to strengthen their relationship and build new skills as partners.
Communicate and compromise
Every aspect of your wedding is about the two of you as a couple, which means you’ll both need to compromise to create a day that appeals to your two different personalities. Sometimes it’s easy: Maybe one partner doesn’t care for signature cocktails or the other partner doesn’t have a preference for the reception exit. But when only one partner is determined to have a destination wedding, or wants a religious ceremony, or doesn’t want to cut down on the guest list, the middle ground can be much harder to find.
The key, says Uhrlass, is to make sure you take the time to fully listen to and process your partner’s wishes – and express your own – so you can come to an agreement you both agree on. “Do you really, truly hear and understand the other person’s point of view, or do you just gloss over things and move on without understanding?” she says. “There are times when you can miss the other person’s message – the message sent is not always the message received. Recognize the importance of slowing down the interaction, making sure you hear and understand what your partner has said, and making sure you can come to a mutual understanding.”
Get into a discussion – or several
Arguments over wedding details – whether it’s your partner’s desire to torpedo the guest list by adding three tables of frat brothers or your own insistence on a certain type of music – are precursors to future conflicts in your life together. How you approach and resolve these conflicts helps lay the groundwork for healthy and productive disagreements in the future. “It’s essential to learn how to effectively navigate conflict with your partner,” says Uhrlass. “You need to be able to do this well with each other, because problems will be perpetual.
You will always need to navigate and negotiate ongoing issues throughout the relationship.” Today it’s about the guest list and cake flavors; tomorrow it could be about where to send your kids to school or how to spend your year-end bonus. “Often partners tend to get caught up in the content of a disagreement, when it can be much more productive to focus on their engagement process when it comes to a particular conflict,” says Uhrlass. “What’s important is learning how to navigate that conflict effectively; not so much trying to avoid conflict altogether, but recognizing that conflict is a healthy part of a relationship.”
Set Family Boundaries
Weddings can bring out the best in your family, but there’s no denying that they can also bring out the worst. Explaining to your parents that you won’t be getting married at your childhood church, telling your mother-in-law that her entire bridge club wasn’t included on the guest list, telling your siblings that their little ones won’t be invited to the reception: these family conflicts (and many more) have the potential to put you and your partner on opposite teams. As you prepare for the wedding, it’s important to remember that you’re also developing a new team of your own. “One of the natural challenges around the topic of marriage is that there is change: You used to be part of a family unit and now you’re cultivating a new family unit in your relationship with your partner,” says Uhrlass. “Going through this identity change can bring a lot of conflict and a lot of emotions.”
Use this time to set collective boundaries as a couple, understand each other’s family history, and prioritize your partnership. “It’s possible to work through this through dialogue and understanding each other’s perspective,” says Urhlass. “‘Your mom wants this, but for us, weigh this and this,’ – you want to make sure you’re on the same page so you can make decisions together as a unit.”
Talk about money
How you choose to finance your wedding is a microcosm of the larger financial decisions you’ll make in the future: How you’ve put together a budget and whether you’ll stick to it; whether you’re willing to take on credit card debt or loans, or accept money from either set of parents; whether your individual income and spending patterns cause unseen conflicts. Deciding whether you want to splurge on a band or spend less on a DJ is a precursor to future conversations about which house fits into your budget, whether you’ll spend a vacation on your credit card, and how often you need to upgrade your TV. “Navigating finance issues is a common point of contention,” says Urhlass. “It could bring up difficult emotions like fear or feelings of inadequacy. There can also be significant power differences; in a relationship where there is a disparity in income, this can negatively impact a couple’s ability to address issues in a productive way. If partners haven’t reached a place where they feel comfortable, there may be a lot of unpacking to do there. If you let them fester in the background and don’t really address them, then they will tend to fester or remain unaddressed, which can lead to contempt later on.”
Give each other space to destress
Every major change in life brings a heightened period of stress, and you and your partner will need to know how to take care of yourselves – and each other – to get through it. “Learning to take care of yourself through the very difficult wedding planning process is, I think, an essential element to navigating life effectively,” says Uhrlass. “If we’re stressed to the max and not taking care of ourselves, not exercising, not sleeping properly, not feeding ourselves or spending time with friends, it will have a major impact on how we approach topics, conflicts and disagreements. It’s really important to take a step back and stick to routines that help us manage stress effectively.”
This could mean planning your meal tasting around your partner’s weekly round of golf, making sure you have enough money set aside for weekend trips (instead of putting all travel on hold until the honeymoon) or keeping your Friday night date night – no wedding talk allowed. “Set aside time to have space with each other,” says Uhrlass. “Spend time with each other nurturing your relationship, as opposed to talking about your wedding to-do list.
Define your shared values
A shared vision for your big day can also help you define the elements that will become your family’s values in the future: How closely will you follow religious traditions? How often will you see your parents and siblings? What constitutes a worthwhile financial investment? How do you, as a couple and as individuals, define and deepen your relationships with your friends?