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What Do You Do When the Father of the Bride Is a Bad Dad?

For people with emotionally abusive fathers, weddings can be difficult events to navigate — especially when he’s the asshole bankrolling it

Alice, a 28-year-old Australian, married her wife in 2017. Overall, it was a lovely day, a low-key occasion with only very close friends and family. But there’s one thing she’d do differently if she were to do it all over: She wouldn’t invite her father.

She describes him as “emotionally manipulative” and “not a good dad.” “I thought about [not inviting him] a lot, but I didn’t want to disrupt the family too much by doing that,” she tells me. “I didn’t think my family could handle that level of fallout, plus we were already making waves by, you know, being lesbians.”

As it was, Alice (all names have been changed for privacy) minimized her father’s involvement, having her sister vet his speech and eschewing traditions like the father walking the bride down the aisle, which he put up a fuss about. “It was already a nontraditional wedding because we couldn’t legally marry [at the time] and there were two brides, so we weren’t doing anything like walking down the aisle,” Alice says. “He kept calling and asking who was walking me down the aisle, and I kept repeating, ‘No one, we aren’t doing that.’ After finally getting it, he started telling all my siblings he was going to vote ‘No’ in the same-sex marriage postal votes.”

For people like Alice who have shitty fathers, weddings can be difficult events to navigate. The traditions tend to emphasize the role of the father: He “gives away” his daughter by walking her down the aisle, toasts the new couple with a speech, partakes in a father-daughter dance and acts as host throughout. But when a person’s relationship with their father is tense or the two are estranged, this raises difficult questions. For instance, how involved should the father be at the wedding? And should he even be invited?

For Melissa, a 34-year-old in Ohio, opting not to invite her father to her wedding last year wasn’t a difficult decision. “He was physically abusive during my childhood and emotionally abusive my whole life, and I learned as a teen that he’d been essentially cheating on my mom nonstop their entire relationship,” she explains. “Every single good thing had strings attached, and eventually, I cut contact in my mid-20s, which was more or less a decade ago.”

Even though she knew there was no way she wanted her father at her wedding, she faced pressure from her family to invite him anyway, something that’s common for people in her position. “I knew that I’d get shit for it from my siblings, which I did,” she says. “I’ve gotten several ‘He’s changed!’ talks over the years, usually followed by ‘You won’t believe what awful thing he did’ a couple of months later, so it was a guilt trip I was prepared for.”

Melissa says her husband was “great” about her not inviting her father, but he was initially perplexed by the state of their relationship. “He comes from a very loving and close family, so during the beginning of our relationship he didn’t really grasp how family can be a source of pain rather than one of comfort,” she continues. “He got it eventually, though.”

Shitty fathers can make wedding planning extra involved, because some variation on the traditional format becomes necessary. For Marie, a 26-year-old in Massachusetts who is estranged from hers, this meant having her mother walk her down the aisle and eschewing speeches and formal dances. Kat, a 25-year-old in Washington State who has “absolutely zero” contact with her emotionally abusive father, is planning a simple courthouse ceremony, because a traditional wedding would be too “nerve-racking.” And McKenzie, a 27-year-old also in Washington State, considered having a dry wedding so that her “horribly abusive alcoholic” father wouldn’t ruin the event. In the end, she decided to serve alcohol but asked her father not to drink. She also vetted his speech. “He actually stayed sober, so that was good,” she says. “It was the one event in my life he stayed sober for.”

Another awkward factor is that it’s traditional for the bride’s family to pay for the wedding, and if a shitty father has pitched in toward the cost of the day, brides can feel even more guilty and conflicted about minimizing their roles and are unlikely not to invite them. “My dad paid for my dress and a couple other vendors, so I felt obligated to invite him,” McKenzie explains. “I’m very bad at standing up for myself so I don’t think I would have uninvited him. Ideally we would have eloped or had a small wedding, but my mom took over and made it a huge event. If they were less involved, I could have gotten away with not having him there.”

Whether or not you have a shitty father, it’s not uncommon for weddings to be hijacked by overly involved family members, who insist on certain invitations (or disinvitations), criticize the menu or dress and complain about the way the day is run. Plenty of people end up having less than dream weddings for this reason, and they could learn something from people with shitty dads about how to set boundaries. “[My husband and I] had been to so many weddings that we both had a good idea of what was possible, what we enjoyed and what we thought was unnecessary and not for us,” Melissa says. “As long as the legal stuff is taken care of, there’s no rule saying that X must happen for it to really be a wedding.”

Alice agrees. “Life is too short to not have the wedding you want, and you’re never going to please everyone with it either,” she says. “I don’t talk to my dad now, so if I were doing it all again, he wouldn’t even know.”