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Wedding in the Family? Why We Should Take Note

Valentine’s Day is one of the most popular dates to propose on, meaning wedding bells may soon be sounding in some of our clients’ material. As psychotherapist Annette Byford understands all too well, the impact of an engagement isn’t always confined to the couple in question. The author of a new book of interviews with mothers of brides and grooms, she explains why weddings present families with a huge adaptive task – and highlights some difficult feelings they may stir up.

If you are working as a family therapist, or with individual clients where family issues dominate the therapy, then it may be useful to take a closer look at weddings. We know that families frequently have to deal with change. Change in families, as in all systems, leads to at least temporary crisis, and the task of adaption can seem very difficult for our clients. Sometimes the change is clearly traumatic, like a bereavement, a divorce or separation, and it presents our clients with problems that they are highly aware of, and easy for us as therapists to see.

Sometimes, however, the change comes about as the result of a joyful event, like the birth of a child or a wedding. The tasks of adaption and the difficulties associated with it may have some similar features, but they are more likely to be hidden. Indeed, there can be a taboo on acknowledging negative or at least mixed feelings.

Weddings have interested me for a while: my daughter got married a couple of years ago, and I was intrigued by my own reactions and those of people around me in the run up to the wedding. I felt that, as a psychotherapist, I was well equipped to explore this in more depth, and started interviewing mothers of brides and grooms about their experience. The analysis of these interviews forms the core of my new book, A Wedding in the Family.

One of the fascinating things about weddings is that they are one of these family events where a change in the family is made visible in a ritual. They mark a point of restructuring and change in the original definition of family in both sets of families. The family of origin is being extended, accommodating a new member – the son /daughter in law – but also processing the fact that there are now overlapping family ties. Their son/daughter is joining another family, and the parents themselves may have to engage in a still to be defined and unpredictable relationship with their child’s in-laws.

There are important things at stake here: just as with the formation of stepfamilies and adoption, a wedding presents the families concerned with a huge adaptive task. Roles, rules and subsystems in a family undergo change, which generates at least a temporary imbalance. Questions of loss, separation, rivalry and inclusion/exclusion are central to this process.

What seems important is that the members of the family system are able to ‘give up the dream’ and fantasy of the new family, and rather acknowledge the reality of the new family – a complicated and often, at least initially, conflicted reality.

How does this impact on our therapy work with clients?

A wedding in the family? These are the things to watch out for:

  • Weddings create pressure on the family to create a perfect event: there is a huge taboo on negative or complicated feelings.
  • Weddings can function as a catalyst for family dynamics that may have been hidden for a while.
  • Weddings are one of the few remaining rites of passage still marked in Western societies. They mark change, mainly of course for the wedding couple, but also for the families involved. This change may prompt feelings of loss and difficulties with separation.
  • Weddings mark a point where another family is stepping forward and will from now on share the claim to be the new couple’s family. Questions around how to negotiate this situation become pressing. Nearly always, there is a subtext about which family is seen to be the dominant family and which family comes second, and how this may predict how things will develop from now on. Issues around jealousy, inclusion and exclusion appear.
  • Weddings point backwards and forwards: backwards to the relationship with the child as it has been, with memories emerging and a heightened awareness of change and time passing; and forwards, in that the wedding hints at the shape of things to come.   

A Wedding in the Family: Mothers Tell Their Stories of Joy, Conflict and Loss, by Annette Byford, is published on Feb 14 by Ortus Press.

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Annette Byford

Annette grew up in Germany where she taught at a secondary school, before going on to study psychology and train as a psychodynamic psychotherapist in the UK. For the past 25 years, she has worked as a psychologist and psychotherapist in private practice and as a lecturer and supervisor in various settings, including universities, the NHS and within the voluntary sector. Annette is a chartered counselling psychologist and a senior practitioner on the Register of Psychologists Specialising in Psychotherapy. She published a paper in the British Journal of Psychotherapy on bilingualism in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, ‘Lost and Gained in Translation: the impact of bilingual clients’ choice of language in psychotherapy’, BJP, Vol 31:3 (2015). A Wedding in the Family is her first book. Annette is married and has two adult children, including a daughter who got married a couple of years ago.

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