Ask Polly: I Thought My Mother-in-Law Was Going to Kill Me at My Wedding

wedddings Dear Polly,

How can I put away the fact that when I got married ~1.5 years ago, my now-estranged mother-in-law’s unchecked borderline personality disorder detracted from the whole event?  

I’m not a wedding person. I never was. My partner, The Boy, and I got married for health insurance after I successfully defended my thesis in 2011. Sounds cold, but we’d been living together for several years at that point and were completely happy continuing our relationship that way. We were both fried from my grad school experience, during which everything up to but not including actual physical assault occurred. I had to play an absolutely horrifying game of being the bait, allowing bad things to happen to me so I could report them. (I’ve been working with a kickass therapist for a few months, and we’ve made massive leaps in slaying those grad school dragons.) After that, I was incapable of planning anything, let alone a wedding, and I was jobless—hence the importance of health insurance. 

Eventually, my rather traditional father was all, “Your grandmother won’t be around forever.” They wanted a Wedding, and ain’t no guilt like Jewish guilt. Also, my grandma is the most amazing person ever, and my family has its weirdness, but at the end of the day, they party hard, and everyone wants everyone else to be happy. So The Boy and I got weddinged.  ~1.5 years later, people are still raving (in a positive way!) about the party.  

The Boy’s therapist suggested a book on growing up in a family with a borderline mother, and it is one long checklist of his whole family’s behavior. The Boy is the fucking champion of the world for handling them all, with whom we maintained a relationship for the sake of interfamilial peace during the wedding prep. It took a very long time for my family to truly believe what The Boy’s family did; I suspect some still don’t entirely grasp how destructive they are. I won’t share the full compilation of The Boy’s family’s horror stories, but they range from simply not showing up at the rehearsal dinner they demanded to trying turn my mom against me, emailing The Boy that I was a manipulative bitch and a horrible person, being ridiculously late for pictures, walking out of our ceremony, and the list goes on. I got good at turning the other cheek, but there’s a part of me that deeply regrets never just starting a brawl and beating the shit out of them. (No, I will never ever actually do that.)

This is a good place to note that I am not by nature a passive person. As a fencer, coaches described me as a consummate fighter (I wasn’t technically pretty to watch, but even when I lost, I would always give my opponent, no matter good they were, a very hard run for their money). After I got out of grad school and epically failed at finding a normal job, I started a company. I’m good at the kind of shit that makes running a tiny tech startup feel perfect: improvising, solving problems, and turning bad stuff into good productive things are my jam.

So, I wasn’t prepared to feel regretful about our wedding. I worked like hell to stay focused on the good bits. We were good at compromise while not giving up on the very meaningful things. For instance, we found an officiant with a joyously pro-love liberal philosophy that gave us warm fuzzies who also happened to be a rabbi, which gave my mom warm fuzzies. They were just problems to solve. The thing that keeps popping up is that throughout, I was afraid that The Boy’s mom was going to take his father’s gun (yes, the man carries a piece on him at all times everywhere they go even if it’s illegal) and shoot me at some point during the ceremony or reception in the name of rescuing her son and being a good mother. I didn’t say anything to anyone at the time. The Boy was managing his own feelings about interacting with them, and I felt like a needy wretched asshole complaining about what I was feeling. My parents would’ve brushed it off, told me I was being silly, and that I needed to get a hold of myself. My friends—well, I just felt like a lunatic, like The Boy’s mom’s crazy was somehow rubbing off on me, so I didn’t talk about it. My solution was to have my dress be something that would be easy for paramedics to cut off and to do my hair in such a way that if I had to run or fight, it would stay out of my face.

The most I can figure out is that I had to compromise on how I presented myself out of fear, and I can’t square that away. Finding a dress was not fun. I just went quietly, by myself, had a dress made (it was lovely and professional and fit perfectly), and I think the incredibly nice talented ladies who made it thought I was a total fucking weirdo because I wasn’t super into it. Now, though, I find myself looking at wedding dresses, and for the first time thinking, “that would look amazing on me,” sans fear, then I feel sad because I already got weddinged (which I didn’t even really want), then I hate that I’m being a soppy moron, since I never looked at wedding dresses with anything other than complete ambivalence (because fuck the patriarchy, yet at the same time, feminism means choice). So why do I suddenly care, and WHY THE FUCK didn’t I say anything at the time? Because my friends who I tell now are all, “Oh, wow… yeah.  Yeah, I could totally see her shooting you,” and according to that book The Boy is reading, borderlines do have complete lapses of morality and kill people, including their own children. I’ve been bargaining with myself, like, “Hey, I get to wear whatever I want for the rest of my life, so fuck that bullshit. Also, I’m alive!” And when The Boy and I have talked about it, he says he thinks about it in terms of having to go through all that wedding-related horror so he could get to a place where he could cut them off, and we get to have a peaceful balanced life together. He’s right, it’s completely true, and so I feel like a selfish whiner because while I’m sitting there thinking, “What about my experience?” he had to actually grow up with these intensely toxic parents.  

So, yeah. Is there a good way to think about all of this so I feel less bad? Do I just need a slap in the face?  

I Might Just Need A Slap In The Face

Dear IMJNASITF,

Weddings are made to be ruined. If your borderline mother-in-law doesn’t ruin your wedding then someone or something else will. Why do brides even wear white, when none of them are actually virgins? Because that way something red or purple or green can get spilled all over their fucking $5000 dresses and ruin the whole day.

I was determined to be low-maintenance about my own wedding. I was 35 years old, not some blushing baby. I got engaged in December, went off the pill immediately (because I figured it would take months for me to get pregnant), and got pregnant immediately. I was glad to be pregnant, but I felt like a severely queasy, perpetually exhausted wreck while I was planning the wedding. I couldn’t plan the menu because everything sounded disgusting. Fish and sauces and meats, and all of it so pointlessly expensive! My brother and I, who live in LA, decided to have our weddings a week apart so our family could fly out once instead of twice in the same year. This meant everyone was a little strung out by my wedding, and many aunts and uncles left town after my brother’s, and missed mine.

But there were countless little missteps and mishaps along the way. I decided at the last minute that I looked like a fat kid in a nightgown in my formerly-elegant-looking empire-waisted gown, so I ran out and bought a pretty terrible gigantic white wedding dress the day before the wedding. It was like some kind of viral infection: out of nowhere, I wanted to look LIKE A BRIDE. A cliché, rotund, queasy bride. My husband’s family gasped when they saw me at the hotel. My husband had somehow forgotten to mention to any of them that I was pregnant, so I had all of these “My god, it’s a shotgun wedding!” looks to navigate for hours. (Yes, my husband is not all rainbows and moonbeams, trust me. He is one spaced out motherfucker with absolutely no sense a lot of the time.)

It was 105 degrees in Palm Desert the day of the wedding. I was wearing a dress the shape and weight of a comforter. The lower half of my body was swimming in a hot tub of sweat. I was in the dysentery phase of my pregnancy. My hairstyle was fucking atrocious, and the three friends I’d enlisted to guard me against atrocious hairstyles left to eat lunch because the stylist was taking too long. So I started crying big, salty tears all over my shitty, caked-on, professional make-up, and my friend’s photographer husband, the one person who’d stuck around, started shooting photos of me crying, probably because he sees himself as a true artist, god bless him and also, fuck him.

The last thing I told my husband before the wedding was, “Make sure the microphone is set up. Don’t try to do this thing without a microphone.” But it was 115 degrees in the sunshine, so they moved the chairs to the shade and the mic cord wouldn’t stretch. About 15 people could hear the ceremony. I looked out at the crowd when I was saying my vows, and the first two rows were crying. The next 7 rows were looking at me like, “Huh?”

At dinner, my mom stood up and said, “Well, my son’s wedding was last week, so we’re all a little tired of weddings.” I laughed out loud, among nervous titters. My husband’s family looked stricken. It was like a scene from The Office. I appreciated the honest dread my mom was feeling, which just goes to show how deeply warped I am or how warped my family is or maybe how warped weddings are in general.

On your wedding day, everything is amazing and also completely fucked. Everyone is incredibly generous and good to you and except for that one person who is so fucking selfish and bad. You are so in love and also so full of fear and dread over the years and years you’ll spend with that dude right there, who is so handsome and special and also one spaced out motherfucker with absolutely no sense.

It’s strange that I’m writing about this right now, because it’s my eighth anniversary TODAY. I seriously just remembered that a few minutes ago for the first time all week. I had to stop and call my husband and remind him, because my brother agreed to babysit the kids last week, and we’re supposed to go out to dinner in about two hours. I have to say, I’m not really in the mood to go out, either. See how it is?

SO: Your wedding sucked in many ways, possibly because you suspected that your mother-in-law might kill you. I would imagine that having even the faintest sensation that someone might kill you could really wreck any old day, let alone a wedding day, and give you severe PTSD to boot. You sound like a very tough sort of a person, so maybe this is what PTSD sounds like, coming from you. Maybe what you’re trying to tell me is, “I am suffering now because I went into survival mode and brushed this off then.” I totally understand that.

I don’t think you need a slap in the face. I think you are someone who needs to be careful not to put things in black and white terms. You need to be careful to be gentle with yourself. I’m even going to tell you that you should try to present yourself in a softer way, so that people realize that you’re pretty sensitive, actually, and not the rough and tumble soldier of fortune that you present to the world, with your swashbuckling and your jousting and your threats of beating people up. Some part of you wants to be treated with more care.

The details of the wedding, through the lens of PTSD or some kind of lesser traumatic reverberation, make perfect sense to me. But when you say stuff like “I wasn’t super into my dress” and “I would’ve done this differently” and “Why didn’t I handle that differently?” and “I wish I could have that day back, and do it all over a different way!”? Well, those things are the things that every single human alive says about their wedding. I think we have to try to separate the trauma from your standard wedding ambivalence, which is universal.

OK, fine. Some people have magical, perfect weddings. They say things like “OH MY GOD, THE WHOLE DAY WAS AMAZING FROM START TO FINISH, I WOULDN’T CHANGE A SINGLE THING!” But those people also say shit like “It’s all good” and “No worries” and “Life’s a beach” and “They grow up so fast, don’t they?” and “I love the Dave Matthews Band soooo much I get chills whenever I hear one of their songs playing.” The rest of us, though, have mixed feelings when we think of our weddings. By my wedding night, I was so relieved and so thankful and so in love with everyone, my husband, the whole world. But as I was getting ready to walk down the aisle? I was thinking, “I cannot fucking believe I had the bad taste to engage in THIS FUCKING HETERONORMATIVE THREE-RING CIRCUS. WHAT THE FUCK WAS I THINKING? WHY? WHY DID I DO THIS TO MYSELF?” When friends wandered in to help me fix my terrible fucking hair and say “Ooo so exciting!” I just grimaced. I was sweating and cramping and I looked like Tracy Turnblad in “Hairspray,” except with panic and queasiness where the bubbly vivacious personality should go. I was hating everything and it was such an EXPENSIVE and PUBLIC way to feel shitty.

And of course we all think we should’ve worn something else! Oh god, anything else. ANYTHING. Of course we should’ve handled every single thing differently. I’ll bet I was awful and embarrassing. I usually am when the stakes get very high.

So let’s try very hard to take that part of things, the built-in ambivalence and the built-in dread and fear and horror, and the catastrophic nature of weddings in general, and let’s separate that from the truly dreadful particulars. Can we do that? Let’s admit that everyone has a semi-disastrous wedding, it’s just a matter of where on the Richter Scale yours happens to fall. OK? There’s something inherently fucked about a wedding, that’s all. Big white dress, write your own stupid vows, be overly jokey or overly earnest or overly typical or overly eclectic or all of the above, serve lukewarm chicken breast stuffed with some shit that is way worse than a bad restaurant would serve but costs $30 a plate? Uch. Terrible mix CDs, terrible DJs, terrible bands, bad weather, accidents, wine stains, shitty hairstyles, ugly bridesmaid dresses that everyone’s really fucking pissed about wearing, selfish friends who do crazy acting-out shit because they’re not the center of everything for one fucking minute of their narcissistic lives? These things are de rigueur. They define the modern nuptial experience.

Murderous mother-in-laws are different. Whether that threat is real or imagined, you felt it. And clearly that experience was influenced strongly by your grad school experience, in which you had to be the bait and basically invite physical assault to prove that it had occurred already. The way you sped over that, glossed right past it, made it tough to understand. I’m sure you have your practical reasons not to want to go into it. But clearly there’s trauma there, and confusion and a desperate need to get some distance, to put it in the past, to make it blurry, to appear tough and beyond the pull of those events. Your experience in grad school and your experience on your wedding day are clearly linked and each one is exacerbating the other.

You need to talk to your therapist about that. This wedding day thing isn’t just coming up JUST because it’s a good story (although you do love a good story). It’s coming up because you sincerely, genuinely want to cry a river over the fear of physical injury there. You don’t think that YOU, a tough woman, a bad ass, should feel so fragile about these things. But you do. Some part of you wants permission to feel fragile and afraid. You want to cry, and be weak. It’s ok to do that, in general AND with a therapist AND with your husband.

So do that. But when it comes to fixating on the WEDDING part of this, the fact that it wasn’t quite right, it wasn’t comfortable, it wasn’t a celebration, it was just nerve racking and terrible? Well, you CAN have another wedding if you want to. But Christ, who wants that? I would encourage you to dig deep into the threat of physical violence and its ill effects on your worldview and your nerves, but leave the wedding-specific regrets aside. The wedding regrets maybe break your heart in retrospect. But you CAN get over our collective heteronormative viral infection, can’t you? Because weddings are totally great and awesome and also totally terrible and horrid at the same time. Anyone with a working brain and the capacity to have mixed feelings agrees.

You’re very good at compartmentalizing, which is usually not a great, healthy thing. Use it to your advantage now, though. Put the wedding stuff, the dress and the not-quite-rightness of it all, and stuff it in a suitcase and throw it off a tall cliff. Weddings, whatever. What can you do? Life’s a fucking beach. They grow up so fast, don’t they? I love the Dave Matthews Band so much I want to staple live crickets to my face right now.

You love The Boy. You married him. Your life is good. Go to your therapist and talk about fear and pain and vulnerability. Learn to cry about this without feeling shame over it. Talk about toughness and bluster and sometimes putting that anger away and just admitting that some things are sad. Some things are just disappointing. Sometimes you don’t want to give your opponents a run for their money. Sometimes you just want to lay down on the ground and look up at the sky and feel sorry for all of it. Some things are just very, very sad.

And some things are fucking exquisite. Some things are miraculous and crazy and meant to be. Eight years ago today, on my wedding day, I married the greatest, most lovable, most patient, most resilient, most spaced out motherfucker with absolutely no sense I’ve ever met. Here’s to imperfect weddings and imperfect spouses and imperfect lives. Here’s to all of our glorious misfirings and messes. What luck, to be here! What incredible, improbable luck.

Polly





Do you want to know precisely whom to marry? Write to Polly and get that settled today.

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses.

Photo by Ben Husmann