Writer and broadcaster

I fear my squabbling brothers will ruin my wedding. The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

My partner and I plan to marry next April. We will have been together 20 years, have two children and wish to celebrate with a small wedding, consisting mainly of immediate family. We plan not to announce our proposed marriage to our families until about a month beforehand.

Over the past five years, two of my brothers have had problems and ongoing conflict on and off with each other and with my mother and my father (my parents divorced more than 30 years ago) and have proved to be quite difficult and argumentative. The worst altercation was a near physical row with offensive and abusive language at a get-together we hosted at Christmas five years ago. 

My partner and I are forgiving people and do not wish to exclude anyone from our special day (especially as I will be the first of six siblings to marry). Also, we have been told by one of my sisters (to whom I’m very close) that we are both central to our extended family as we don’t hold grudges and always offer a warm welcome to family members to visit and stay. We want family members to get on with each other and feel upset when there is unresolved heartache and conflict. I am not naive, however, and realise that after years of thinking I could help, I cannot fix people. What I’m trying to say is that I would hope my brothers could put aside any animosity and keep their behaviour in check on the day.

I believe I am right in thinking that things between my brothers have calmed down over the past few years and feel hopeful that things will run smoothly at our wedding. But my partner and I are concerned that underlying tensions may tarnish our day. On a positive note, we have had some trouble-free family gatherings fairly recently. How do we do the right thing but also ensure a relaxed and fun celebration on our special day? 

This letter is deceptively complex because the one thing you want to do, you can’t. You just can’t control who will accept your wedding invitation and you can’t control how they will behave. I also think one month’s notice is lean if you want people to be free. What if they have prior engagements? Why such short notice?

It sounds as if the potential variables on who might argue with whom – your brothers, your brothers versus your parents, your mum against your dad, one brother versus your mum etc – are many. I can see why you’re concerned, though, and no, you absolutely must not exclude people. That’s how family feuds are reinforced.

The explosive Christmas row seems to be behind a lot of your worry. But Christmas gatherings are quite different to weddings. First, they are usually held at someone’s home and there is at least one person there simmering with resentment and ready to blow (“I had to do all the cooking” – “I had to do all the travelling”). Plus, unless the family is religious, there is no focus and people usually come with their own individual expectations. This can lead to disappointment and rows.

Weddings are different. First, they are usually on neutral territory and the attention is rightly on the bride and groom. Someone would have to be stupid, selfish or drunk to ruin a wedding and make it about them. Such people do exist, of course, but given the good sense and manners you seem to possess, I am hoping that none of your kin could be that renegade.

There are tactics you could try. You could appoint “spotters” to keep an eye out for trouble brewing. You could seat older people/children near to your brothers (people tend to behave better when in such company). I wouldn’t recommend that you restrict alcohol as that can make people even angrier. But I wouldn’t serve too much alcohol before people have eaten, either. And remember, it’s hard to be angry in such situations when you are full of good food. Most obviously: would you feel able to gently ask your brothers – individually – to reassure you that they would stay calm and enjoy the party?

This is your wedding – it sounds as if you’ve been the fulcrum and the peacemaker in your family and this day is about you having fun, not worrying about everyone else. If your brothers do kick off, there will be plenty of people to step in and it does take two to make an argument, so even if one combusts, hopefully the other won’t take the bait. Do a little bit of prepping, then step back and enjoy yourself.

This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 17 October 2014.