Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I recently got married, and have not been able to move past feelings of anger and resentment toward my mother-in-law that surfaced during the wedding weekend.

Before the wedding, she and I had a close and very positive relationship. But during the weekend, she refused to talk to me and caused me great distress. To make matters worse, she collapsed during the party, which cut our wedding short. An ambulance had to take her to the hospital; my husband and I thought she was going to die, and spent our wedding night crying and in complete shock. She was discharged the next morning. The cause is still unclear, but she seems to be doing fine.

I feel like she ruined my experience of my wedding. After a couple of months, I decided to talk with her about what happened, particularly how she treated me before she got sick. She has since apologized for everything that happened, but she says she has no memory of how she treated me. I desperately want to move beyond this, but I can’t escape the feeling of having been robbed of what was supposed to be one of the most special days of my life. I’m torn between wanting to move on and being stuck in the trauma and sadness I now associate with my wedding.

How can I move on without repressing everything that has happened?

Anonymous
Chicago


Dear Anonymous,

I’m so sorry that things happened the way they did, and I see why you feel angry with your mother-in-law. I think you’ll feel less “robbed” of the experience of your wedding, though, if you can separate what went wrong with the event from what went wrong with your mother-in-law. So let’s take a closer look at the wedding.

For starters, this might feel less traumatic if you’re able to recognize that you’re hardly alone in having your wedding not go as you’d hoped. Ask people about their weddings, and more often than not, you’ll hear of mishaps ranging from merely irritating to outright disastrous. A wedding is a ceremony in which two people who love each other become legally married, but for many, weddings are also expected to be a perfect day. Yet given what goes into them—the expense, the planning, the stress, not to mention the inherent unpredictability and lack of control over everything from the weather, to vendors, to friends, to two sets of relatives —this expectation is often utterly unrealistic.

That said, of course you’re angry about your mother-in-law’s role in screwing things up—and you’re entitled to that anger, as well as your disappointment and sadness. Repressing those feelings won’t help you move on—in fact, trying not to feel something often makes the feeling much bigger, turning it into a giant emotional monster from whose grip you can’t escape. I wonder, though, if those painful feelings can coexist with others so that your experience of the wedding isn’t completely negative. Begin with your feelings about the days leading up to the wedding, when you say her lack of warmth, which seems central in your mind, caused you “great distress.” I’ll bet that at the same time, many people were showing great love and support for you, and I wonder why that goodness got erased by just one person’s behavior. Your mother-in-law is taking up so much emotional real estate that even now, thinking about her prevents you from experiencing any of the weekend’s joy.

Similarly, while the drama at the party was truly unfortunate, I’m not sure that the whole wedding was “ruined.” For instance, was the ceremony, which seems to have gone off without a hitch, meaningful to you and your husband? Did you have fun being surrounded by other family and friends? What about your own parents? If you make room for the entirety of the experience, you can probably come up with a dozen positive things that happened at the ceremony—and also at the party before your mother-in-law collapsed. Try to let those feelings in without clouding them with what went wrong. They’re as real and true as your feelings of anger and resentment. Let those associations accompany the others, so you don’t stay trapped in the tyranny of all-or-nothing.

Now, about your mother-in-law. At least right now, she seems to believe that she treated you just fine before the wedding, and that while she’s sorry for disrupting the party, her collapsing was out of her control. She doesn’t seem ready to consider whether any underlying internal conflict might have contributed to what happened. For instance, maybe she felt left out during the wedding planning. Maybe she’s extremely lonely (you don’t mention her spouse), and feeling that her son is leaving her led to an intense reaction. Maybe her own wedding was a disappointment, and she had an unconscious desire to make her son’s a disappointment, too. None of this would excuse her behavior, but it may help explain it, which will be important as you address your feelings with your husband.

Note that I said with your husband. You don’t mention whether the two of you have talked about your wedding and how he feels about what happened. I don’t know if he shares your sentiments or perspective, or what his relationship is like with his mother. Remember that the goal of the day was to get married to the person you love, which you two accomplished. Now comes the part that’s far more important than a single weekend or party: the rest of your marriage.

The silver lining here is that you two will learn a lot about each other as you work through your respective feelings about his mother and her role in each of your lives. You’ll discover things about their relationship that will help you understand him better, and he’ll discover things about you that might help him be more sensitive to your reactions to her, not just during the wedding weekend, but also going forward. You’ll learn how you can support each other even if you have different views of the same incident or person. You’ll learn about negotiating boundaries, such as the role outsiders like in-laws play in your marriage, and where those lines are drawn. You’ll learn to wrestle together with messy and conflicting emotions. And finally, you’ll see that there are ways to turn lemons into lemonade—something you’ll need to do when facing life’s inevitable challenges—and getting practice early on will make you stronger as a couple.

How you two handle this now will set the tone for what you both signed up for that day. Changing the narrative around your “ruined” wedding will change the narrative of your marriage, so that not too long from now, you might find that your wedding becomes a hilarious story repeated again and again at dinner parties and family gatherings and, maybe later, at your own children’s (and their children’s) weddings. It will be a story not of ruin but of resilience, humor, and deep love. What a wonderful legacy you and your husband can begin creating together.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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