Ask Richmond Proper: On wedding interventions

This week marks the beginning of opening Richmond Proper up for questions and answers. Up first, “What do you do if you think the person your friend is marrying is bad news?” It’s wedding season, and perfect timing for this question — one that’s on the minds of many marrying couples and their friends, no doubt.

This week marks the beginning of opening Richmond Proper up for questions and answers. Have an etiquette question and need some advice?  Email

Dear Richmond Proper,

What do you do if you think the person your friend is marrying is bad news? This isn’t something I’ve encountered recently, but right after we graduated from college and the first round of people got married, I had a couple friends going through that — they wanted to be supportive of their friend, but they genuinely weren’t sure that he/she was making the right decision. Sometimes it was made even more complicated by the fact that they were actually IN the wedding.

It’s wedding season, and perfect timing for this question — one that’s on the minds of many marrying couples and their friends, no doubt. Friends who disapprove vehemently of a wedding can cause permanent rifts and make a couple feel unloved and unsupported on their wedding day. We’ve been raised in a society where thinking for oneself and being opinionated is lionized, but we often take it to extremes. We sometimes think our opinion is the most valuable thing in creation, and that holding it back would be a tragedy for the world at large. Friends, this is not always the case. If your tell-it-like-it-is attitude doesn’t include a healthy dose of tact, you come off as more of a bulldozer than a bastion of truth. But it is possible to get your point across without causing maximum carnage, if you just think before you speak.

First, there are criteria of rank and motivation to discuss.

What’s your rank?

Really, who do you think you are? Imagine a world where it’s acceptable to go around giving marriage advice to perfect strangers (ugh — a topic for another installment, perhaps?). It’s not pretty. So in order to take it upon yourself to intervene, you must be one of the following:

  • A parent
  • A sibling
  • In the wedding party
  • One of his/her best friends. This means BEST friends, as in BFF. Not just somebody who sees the bride at parties now and then, and not just somebody who was really close with the groom years back.  You must be very close and see the couple often. Otherwise, you won’t have seen the day-to-day interactions between the couple, and you really aren’t qualified to condemn them.

If you are not one of those people, intervening would just be presumptuous. Let those who are actually close to the couple point out any misgivings. If you’re concerned that they may not want to rock the boat, talk to a member of the wedding party or a family member. If they feel the same, you may encourage them to say something.

The only exception to this rule would be if you are privy to some relevant information that no one else knows. For example, you found out the groom actually has another wife and family in Arkansas, or you saw the bride smooching someone else. But situations like this are exceedingly rare, unless your life is a Vince Vaughn movie.

What’s your motivation?

If you do satisfy the criteria of rank, the next step is examining your own motivation.  Some questions to consider:

Why have you never said anything before?

Your friend has been dating this person for a while now, and you have not objected. If he was good enough for her to spend her time with before, why not now?

Are you concerned with what is happening between this couple, or what might happen?

If your friend is already unhappy, this question is easy. If you think they might possibly be unhappy in the future, it gets tricky. Keep in mind that:

  • Your assessment of compatibility isn’t fool-proof. Sometimes a couple is a great match and you adore them both, and it still ends in misery. Sometimes a couple seem awful for each other, and end up being blissfully happy together.
  • The length of time a couple has been together isn’t fool-proof. Sometimes a couple dates for two months, gets married, and stay together forever. Sometimes a couple dates for ten years, get married, and get divorced within months.
  • Age isn’t fool-proof. Sometimes a couple gets married at the very “mature” age of 35-ish, and it doesn’t work out. Sometimes a couple gets married as teenagers and stays together for the long haul.

What have your recent relationships been like?

Are you in a great relationship, so that everyone pales in comparison to your perfect mate? Or have you recently been hurt, so that you’re seeing everything through your own bitter lens? Your current relationship philosophy doesn’t apply to everyone, and isn’t a license to be able to predict the future.

  • Are you judging this person based on your standards, or your friend’s standards? Do you disapprove because this guy rolls his eyes every time your friend talks, cheats on her, or makes her cry 10 days out of 12? Or do you disapprove because his level of education, financial prowess, fashion choices, and attendance at “cool” bars and events doesn’t satisfy your own taste? Doesn’t it make sense that you and your friend, being two different people, would be attracted to different types of people?
  • Can you produce a list of specific things you are concerned about? If not, don’t expect this discussion to go anywhere. How can your friend be expected to see things clearly when given only a vague sense of disapproval from you?
  • What would need to happen in order for you to be less concerned? Certainly you wouldn’t go into this intervention without having suggestions ready for your friend about what to do. Are there questions the groom needs to ask his fiancee, or specific changes in her behavior that would make sense? If you are in one of those rare situations where actions will not help and there are fundamental objections to the girl’s character, be ready to walk your friend through the steps of calling the wedding off. If it gets to that point and you were the one to reveal the fiancee’s true character, you can’t just shrug your shoulders and say “Not my problem!”

Truly investigate the answers to these questions. If you can’t answer them out loud without feeling bad, losing your cool, or sounding self-absorbed, give up your quest. If you can, you are ready to speak to your friend calmly and peacefully.

The intervention

If you’ve made it this far, you’re finally ready to speak up.

Make it private.

Put your dreams of a heroic scenario away. As much as you might want to unmask Prince Charming, showing him for a scoundrel in front of a crowd of appreciative onlookers, that is the path of folly. If you’re so close with your friend, you are doubtless involved in the wedding planning and will have plenty of opportunities to talk to her one-on-one as the wedding approaches.

Make it casual.

Why shouldn’t you be able to ask one of the people closest to you about his relationship? A good opener would be to ask a question like “How did you know she was the one?” Once you’re talking in-depth about the relationship, it will be easier to ask questions related to your area of concern, such as “Does it ever bother you that she has a huge collection of firearms?” Do not make him feel cornered or judged. Present your opinions out of a spirit of genuine concern and love for him, or don’t present them all. He will be able to tell what your motivation is, whether it’s sympathy and care or conceit and disdain that are showing through your smile.

Make sure your friend knows your friendship is not on the line.

As a real friend, it’s your job to simply point out what you see — not to make huge life decisions for someone else. Let your friend know that whatever she decides, you love her and can’t wait to support her in it.

Be ready for your friend’s reaction.

  • If he “sees the light” and is upset about having to call off the wedding, push his focus toward the things that need to be done. If it’s still early on, emphasize the fact that all the plans hadn’t been made yet, and help him get ready to tell his fiancee and his family. If you have waited to the last minute to speak up (which none of my dear readers would do, right?) volunteer to assist in calling family members and spreading the word, as well as canceling with the venue, caterers, etc.
  • If he disagrees peacefully, responding to all of your concerns but choosing to go ahead with the wedding, your job is done. You have laid out the facts as you see them, but spending a lot of time trying to convince him not to go through with it would show a lack of faith in your friend’s own ability to make decisions. Say that you are so glad he has explained things to you, and that he’s going into the union with open eyes. And then be happy for him and enjoy the wedding.
  • If he disagrees angrily, diffuse the situation by not arguing back. You said your piece, and this cannot turn into a fight if you do not let it. Reassure him that you just wanted to be completely honest with him, and that you did not mean to seem like you were criticizing. If going ahead with the wedding is what makes him happy, it’s what makes you happy. Then, enjoy the wedding festivities and be the picture of support to your friend. If you’re too against the marriage to do that, see the next section.

To attend, or not to attend

Assuming the wedding is still on after your conversation, you have to decide whether or not to attend. This will depend on whether you’re going to support, or give up on, this couple.

If you resolve to support this couple, do it wholeheartedly. Let go of your concerns and attend the wedding. Your friendship should not depend upon whether you approve of your friend’s actions 100% of the time, anyway. If we held everyone to those standards, we would not have any friends at all.  Cultivate friendship with the bride or groom you previously disapproved of. Remind yourself that whatever happens to this couple in the future is not your fault, or your responsibility. Allow yourself to hope for the best, and to be a part of the happiness in their lives.

If you resolve to give up on this couple and effectively wash your hands of the matter, don’t attend the wedding. As Judith Martin observes, “People who disapprove of a bridal couple, for whatever reason, need only decline the wedding invitation.” We have talked about this before, but it bears repeating: there is nothing wrong with RSVP-ing no. You must decline the invitation if you’re still against the marriage. The worst thing you could possibly do would be to attend the wedding and bring your disapproval with you. You would be choosing to go to a celebration of their union, and then hating on them and wishing them ill at that very celebration. Not to mention establishing yourself as the fakest friend on earth.  So if you respond to all comments about the couple with “Ugh, he’s ruining his life by marrying her!” or “I’m so sorry to see all her beauty wasted on such an undeserving groom,” kindly remove yourself from the scene by RSVP-ing no.  Declining an invitation requires no explanation — it will be assumed that you have a prior engagement or will be out of town. You may still send a gift if you like, but it is not necessary.

The exception to this is that if you are in the wedding party, you should grin and bear it at least until your duties are finished. Ditching out after you have already accepted your position in the wedding party will not only hurt this person you’re very close to, but inconvenience her as well. The proper thing to do would have been to respectfully decline her request to be a bridesmaid in the first place.

No matter what your opinion is, remember your place. Is it really your personal responsibility to allow or not allow any wedding to take place? You can make predictions based on your own experiences and your best judgment, but beyond that, you really have no idea what the outcome will be. How many times has life surprised you in the past? In short, don’t doom this marriage before it starts. It has just as much of a shot at success as any other marriage — and double if the couple expects a real partnership that requires work rather than some fairy-tale version of wedded perfection.

Richmond Proper would love to hear your stories of interventions — how you dealt them or received them.  Comment away!

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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her daughter, Morella.

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