Rites revenge

My mother hijacked my wedding, and my husband and I now want a "do-over" in Vegas with an Elvis impersonator. Is that so wrong?

By Cary Tennis
Published July 23, 2002 7:17PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My husband and I have been together for 10 years, and in December we'll have been married for four. Everything with our marriage is fantastic, from the way we relate to one another to the sex. I look at the world careening out of whack around me and feel like the luckiest girl alive, knowing I'm his wife.

It's the wedding that's still killing me. A few days ago, I woke up grinding my teeth at some horrible memory of the event. The reason it still pains me is because it was a blatant demonstration of my mother stomping all over my will and my wishes in a public arena. In front of my friends. On what was supposed to be a sacred day for my husband and me.

I am a fairly unconventional chick who wanted a funky but mostly conventional if small wedding. My girlfriends were to stand by me in comfortable yet stylish vintage dresses; the guys would wear suits. My husband and I planned to write our own vows. I wanted to enter to Nina Simone's "My Baby Just Cares for Me." And for the reception, we wanted hors d'oeuvres, cocktails, a mellow trio of some sort. Basically, we wanted a nice party. Well, I didn't get it.

The problem was my very Catholic, domineering mother. I live in Seattle, my husband in Eugene, Ore., and we married in Chicago, where our families live. My mother offered to organize things on the Chicago end for us, and we gladly accepted. Big mistake. She hijacked the entire affair.

First, she bought expensive velvet bridesmaid dresses because "they needed to match." I asked her to take them back; she said they were nonreturnable. Then she charged my friends. Because of this one of my closest friends couldn't afford to be in my wedding party. Nina Simone was banned because it was "club music." (My mother is 70.) The reception was an alcohol-free rubber-chicken affair. She hired a very bad DJ who played disco medleys. We couldn't write our own vows, even though I asked the priest if it was possible. Our photos sucked. I didn't know most of the people she invited. She refused to dance with me because "it wasn't proper." At the end of the day, the only thing I had control over was the dress I wore, and worst of all, guess who paid for the entire thing? Me.

I just found out from my sister that she spoke to everyone, from the priest to the florist, and prepped them as to what she wanted in order to ensure the wedding was "appropriate." She even went so far as to order a throwing bouquet when I told her I didn't want to toss one. "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" was played. I was horrified. But enough with the bitching. Here's my dilemma.

Next year is our fifth anniversary as well as the year my husband finishes his internship and gets ready to defend his dissertation. We've decided to renew our vows, since we've been living 300 miles apart for all these years. No, let me be honest -- this isn't a vow renewal. It's a freaking do-over.

This time we're doing it right: We're going to Vegas, finding an Elvis to do the deed, getting a lounge singer -- or maybe Elvis? -- to croon Nina for us and getting blotto while enjoying cheap lobster and shrimp. It's all symbolic, and my husband pretty much wants to do it to exorcise the bad memories. All of our friends have signed on for the venture a year out, and my man plans on inviting his parents. I kind of have to invite Ma, since the in-laws are going to tell her anyway. And my mother is bound to ask why we're doing this. Should I tell her the truth -- that I'm still angry at her for spending $10,000 of my savings on the kind of wedding I never in a million years wanted? Or should I hold my tongue because she's 70, and I should have known better in the first place than to ask her to help me, her very different daughter, plan one of the most important days of my life?

A Robbed Bride

Dear Robbery Victim,

I hope that one day, after your Vegas do-over has helped you get the bad taste out of your mouth, that you can laugh heartily about that first wedding. I can well understand your distress, because you're the one it happened to, and you're entitled to grind your teeth about it, as long as you tell your dentist. But I must say your description is hilarious in a kind of Hollywood farcical way. You're saying most of the guests you didn't even know? She bought velvet bridesmaids dresses and made them pay for them, eliminating one of your dearest friends in the process? This is movie stuff. I hope that one day when you've gotten over it -- it shouldn't take you more than 50 years or so -- you can laugh, too.

Here's what I think you should do: I don't think you should tell your mother how badly she botched things or how angry you still are. Nothing good could come of that. And I do think you should invite her. The big problem is how you explain what you're doing. That's where your relationship with your mother becomes crucial.

Theoretically, it should be possible for a daughter who has been so sorely abused to simply tell her mother, "Mother, I love you dearly, and though it might seem a little crazy to you, my husband and I are throwing a big party in Vegas to celebrate our five years of marriage. I sincerely hope you can attend. But don't touch a goddamn thing or I'll break your brittle 70-year-old arms like chopsticks." But in practice, certain things are harder to say than they ought to be.

Nevertheless, when she arrives, try to engage her in the fun. Just don't leave her alone with a telephone and a checkbook for even a minute. She might call the local diocese and arrange for a priest. Which would be weird, because you're the one trying to perform an exorcism. It could cause a Manichaean battle: Elvis fist-fighting the pope among slot machines and showgirls in peacock feathers. Who would win? Let's hope, in this case, it's Elvis.

Dear Cary,

I've been married to a wonderful woman for six and a half years. We have two beautiful daughters and everything is great, but I have an ethical dilemma that has bothered me for years. Thirteen years ago, long before I met my wife, I got busted in a prostitution sting. I started to fight the charge but ultimately pled no contest and I received a $1 fine. In my profession, to get security clearances I occasionally have to disclose the arrest and the disposition. Before I met my wife, I was elected to public office in my small town and even though I assumed I would have to somehow publicly explain my arrest record, it never became an issue. My family and close friends all knew about it so I figured I could handle the embarrassment. But that was in 1990 before I even met my current wife.

Having a "dirty little secret" bothers the hell out of me. It could be revealed to her in any number of ways and I would have some explaining to do about why I never told her. Not to mention the guilt from hiding something from my wife. After we met and started to get serious, I figured I would tell her sometime later when she could put it in the context that I'm really not a bad guy even though at one time I mistakenly thought that a $20 blow job from an attractive policewoman was a good idea. But I never told her because she made a remark about how if she were Liz Hurley she would have dumped Hugh Grant in a heartbeat and if I ever did anything like that she would cut my dick off.

I replied that lots of people make mistakes and mumbled something about forgiveness and then she went ballistic about how prostitution was wrong and degrading to women and a bunch of other stuff that kind of precluded me from making a true confession if I ever wanted to have sex with her again. Well, before the subject came up again we got married and started having babies. Even now, if the topic of prostitution comes up in conversation, she goes into the same spiel.

If the tables were turned, I know I really wouldn't want to know about my wife's past transgressions, but if she found out about mine, it would be a pretty big deal. I think she would feel betrayed and wouldn't trust me anymore no matter what I said. On the other hand, does she really trust me now, if her trust is based on less than full disclosure? While I certainly think honesty is pretty important, wouldn't spilling the beans cause more harm than good?

Just Wondering

Dear Just Wondering

I would tell her. By hiding it, you are exposing her and your children to the risk of an upsetting exposure should she or they find out by chance. You are risking your reputation and theirs, and your marriage. You have already demonstrated a weakness for politics; another run for public office might engender a thorough public-records search that would easily uncover your arrest. You should tell her not so much to ease your own conscience but to lessen the risk of harm to her and your children and to relieve the subliminal burden of worry that is no doubt having a subtle but corrosive effect on your marriage.

If this had happened while you were married, the certain harm of telling her might outweigh the potential harm of her finding out unsuspectingly; in that case, you might have no right to tell her. It would be your worrisome secret to live with. But the fact that it happened before you knew your wife is a mitigating, if not an exonerating, circumstance. You did not betray your wife, because you did not know her. What you betrayed were your values, and your respect for the law; let's assume that you have made up for those betrayals by your continued observance of the law since the infraction.

When you tell your wife this, the question of your current views on prostitution will likely arise. It would not be an opportune time to argue for the labor rights of sex workers. Nor would it be wise to denounce the evils of police entrapment. It would be a good time for you to admit that because of how you were raised, and because of your relative youth, you did not perceive the systemic wrong of which illegal prostitution is not only a symbol but a symptom. It's a complex issue bedeviled by theoretical questions such as, What if prostitution were legal? and What are women's rights in the matter? But you are not going to win any theoretical arguments as long as your wife is imagining you in handcuffs.

You can safely assure her that this act in your past is not something the man she married would do. It's something done a long time ago by that other, younger, more callow, less worldly boy-man out of whose chrysalis you were born. You might express some gratitude to her that you met her when you did, after you had time to grow up a little, so you were ready for her. People change. We change each other. When we find out that something might hurt someone we love, we decide not to do it. So if you can reassure her and prepare her for the remote possibility that it might one day be revealed, perhaps she will be grateful to you for your courage. Then again, you might spend a few nights on the couch. Either way, in the long run, I think all concerned will be better off, and you will have done the right thing.

Dear Cary,

I am a 27-year-old male and I have been seeing a 24-year-old woman for about seven months now. We are in love, and things are pretty fantastic. We are also very different. When it comes to arguments, this is a problem. I tend to avoid conflict like the plague. She, on the other hand, has told me that she sometimes deliberately picks fights. She is used to arguments and has been in abusive relationships. I have been sheltered from conflict most of my life. I never fought with my family, and I am not very assertive and don't express anger very well. When we fight, even about stupid, petty things, I get very upset and I resent her for daring to argue with me. I get upset about everything, and I know it frustrates her. Lately I have come very close to breaking up with her on several occasions, just because I can't handle the conflict. She is afraid one of these days I will follow through and actually leave her, and this scares me too. I don't want to leave her. Even worse, I am afraid I will take out all my pent-up anger on her.

On the other hand, her willingness to pick fights makes me very nervous about mentioning certain things to her that bother me. I am always afraid it will start a fight. As a result, I keep it inside. It's not a good situation: She is afraid of upsetting me, and I am afraid of conflict. How can I learn to deal with this, and why do I always want to break up with her when we fight?

Mr. Frustrated

Dear Mr. Frustrated,

I know exactly what you are talking about; you have described a common pattern with admirable clarity. You are certainly not alone in this. I think, since you have the issues so clearly defined, it's the kind of situation a trained counselor could be very useful in helping you to sort out. There are probably triggers, habits of communication, and patterns from the past that are amenable to change with just a little effort in a structured setting. That's what I'd do. I'd consult a counselor or therapist, explain the pattern, and see if you and your girlfriend could spend a few months working this out. I think your chances are very good of seeing some positive change and being able to stick together without ruining everything. The alternative -- to do nothing or hope it gets better -- may well lead to a breakup, which would be a shame if you're otherwise so well suited to each other.

Dear Cary,

It seems I have a problem. Indeed, I'm well and truly spitted on the horns of a dilemma.

I'm married to the most wonderful woman in the world. Far from just being my wife, she's my best friend. We've been married for six years, together for 10, and these past 10 years have been simply glorious. We complement each other perfectly. I love our life together. And the sex is fantastic.

But the best part of our marriage is that we're both completely open and honest with each other. There are no secrets. When we fight (and hey, some fights are inevitable) we try and get the issues out in the open where they can be discussed. Better to suffer the pain of tending the wound while it is fresh than to let it fester and get worse with time. It may hurt more at first, but we never go to bed mad at each other. And when we're at loggerheads over something, I do my damnedest to place myself in her shoes, to see the issue through her eyes -- and if it turns out that I'm wrong, I do my best to swallow my pride and make things right.

And this is where the horns that are spitting me come from. I'm caught in a situation where I can see both sides of the issue, where I can see that both positions have strong merits, and where there is no clear path forward.

I don't like children. Not in the slightest. I have not a single paternal bone in my body. I don't find babies cute, I have no desire to change a diaper, I take no joy in anything associated with parenting. Most of my friends have had children fairly recently, and while each and every one of them sings the joy of becoming a parent, my own observations of them in action tell a far different story -- and serve to reinforce that opinion. I do not want a child of my own.

That's a difficult thing to say. One might as well admit to pedophilia or express an admiration for Hitler. Certainly when the polite inquiries as to when we are going to start our brood start yet again (which drive me freakin' nuts) I feel I have to reply in some vague noncommittal manner rather than express my true feelings on the subject.

With everyone except my wife, that is. With her, I have always been completely open about my not wanting kids. How could I not tell her? Keeping that secret would be a betrayal of the worst sort.

Up until last week, she has also maintained that she wasn't ready for kids. She has a career, I have a career, we don't have room in our apartment and, like me, she loves our life together.

But last weekend, she dropped the bombshell that when her contraceptive prescription ran out, she neglected to have it refilled -- and she further expressed the opinion that she would not have objected had she become pregnant.

I was floored -- not because of the reversal in opinion (I have always expected that this day would come) but because she had exposed us to the risk of becoming pregnant without giving me any say in the matter. I was furious, and she apologized and promised to get her prescription renewed. I'm still seething underneath, partially because I don't think she really feels she did anything wrong (she claims that it takes months for the contraceptives to be flushed from her system, so we were never really at risk -- and I disagree with that risk assessment) but truth be told, I'll get over it. It's not like I've never done anything dumb.

But this incident did lead to a discussion of our future plans re: reproduction, and she made it clear that her maternal instincts have fired up, and that while she's not at the point where she wants a child "right now," she would certainly welcome any pregnancy that might happen.

I, on the other hand, would see a pregnancy as an unmitigated disaster. Any child of mine is, by definition, unwanted.

And here come the horns: I feel very strongly that a child has a basic right to two parents that wanted that child very much, two parents that will happily suck up the burdens and challenges to their own lives that come along with raising a child. I know that I cannot provide that. Oh, if a pregnancy occurred, I would do my duty and do my best to fake it (the child cannot be put back into the bottle and deserves my best efforts), but children are people, and people are not stupid. No matter how good an act I might do, they'll pick up on the fact that I didn't want them eventually, and then my child and a future successor of yours get to have a conversation about how "My father never wanted me!"

I know what that's like. No child deserves that.

But on the other hand, motherhood is one of those major defining points for women. It is (so I'm told) this wonderful experience that all women look forward to. What right do I have to deny my wife that experience? Why should she be cheated of having a child, of raising that child, of watching that child grow to become an adult?

If I give her that child, I make myself miserable and quite probably will make the child miserable as well. If I stick to my guns, I cheat my wife of life's rarest gifts. No matter what I do, I'm a right bastard, and I need some outside insight.

I've tried talking to my friends, but those that have children swear up and down that I'll change my mind as soon as the child is born. That seems like a hell of a gamble. What if the child is born and no magical conversion takes place? Then what? I can't very well take it back.

My wife says that she can happily live a childless life, that she loves me and our life together more than she needs a child. She's sorry and sad that I feel the way I do, but she can live with it -- didn't I mention that she's the greatest woman in the world? But I don't want her to be sorry and sad. I want to give her what she wants -- I just don't think that I can do so without making myself miserable and ruining the life of a child.


Dear Gored,

The horns of your dilemma are not as pointed and deadly as they appear. The picture you paint is quite vexing and painful, but reality needn't be so colored by the brutally sharp distinctions you draw. Your life will not be ruined if children come along, and you, having shown yourself to be careful, thoughtful and compassionate, are not likely to ruin the life of your child. If kids did come your way, as your friends suggest, you would probably rise to the occasion. People do.

So if your wife really, really, really wants to have kids, I think you should try to open your heart to the possibility. I'm not saying you should have kids, but you should try to open your heart to the possibility and see how far you get. Work at it with a sharp chisel. See if you can pry it open just a tiny bit. You don't have to love children in general; all you have to do is try to imagine doing what's asked of you by life -- if life should come calling. Fatherhood, should it arrive, might be surprisingly upsetting, emotional, difficult; it might call forth fears and pains you thought had gone forever. It might call forth shame and anger. But I think it is unlikely that you are doomed to be a terrible father; anyone who can write so piercingly of his own feelings, and who has such a strong relationship with his wife, is probably capable of adapting to the possibility. Life would go on. It might even, at times, be mildly amusing.

In thinking the matter over, it would be helpful to come up with constructive methods by which you could, in a fair and ethical way, pare down your fatherhood duties to something you think you could handle. For instance, how much help could you afford to hire? In your case, the more the better. Do you and your wife have family who would help with the raising?

One thing troubles me -- your allusion to knowing what it's like to be an unwanted child. Were you an unwanted child, or do you feel yourself to be? If so, your past experiences may be bearing on your current feelings to a greater degree than you are aware. At such a crucial juncture, even though you display an almost virtuosic command of marital communication, it really couldn't hurt to get some counseling, to find out if maybe there are issues inside of the issues.

Oh -- one other thing: what your wife did. It wasn't really a great thing to do, but it sounds like a very human thing: to passively acquiesce to desires that have caught you by surprise. So it's very good of you to forgive her, however much of a start it must have given you!

Cary Tennis

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