Major rites of passage can pose an etiquette dilemma for divorced couples, their family and friends. While there are few social strictures nowadays relating to the rituals surrounding births, marriages and deaths, it is important to exercise discretion, and ensure that your behaviour does not cause offence.
These critical stages in our life’s journey can bring the breakdown of a marriage into sharp relief. For some couples they offer a chance to reposition, yet find a role for, divorced spouses. For others, these occasions simply reinforce the separation, and there is no desire to integrate divorced spouses into proceedings. There is no right or wrong way of dealing with major rites of passage; whatever the choice, however, divorced couples should do their best to communicate openly and to behave in ways that have been mutually agreed.
If you have managed to maintain civilised relations with your partner during the divorce proceedings, you might find yourself invited to the christening (or naming ceremony) of his/her baby with a new partner. Your ex-partner may be inviting the children from his/her first marriage and feel that it is appropriate to include you in this family celebration.
If you receive an invitation, clinically examine your own feelings about the new baby. If you are forced to admit to yourself that you see this new child is an interloper, liable to supplant your own children, then you are nursing feelings of animosity and bitterness that you may find yourself powerless to conceal on the big day. It might be best to politely refuse the invitation – simply write a short note, thanking the hosts for their kind invitation, and explaining that unfortunately you are unable to attend. You don’t need to explain your refusal. If you want to mitigate the impact of your non-attendance you can always send a small christening gift.
Even if you can’t face the prospect of the christening, accept that your children may be very excited about their new half-sibling, and do everything you can to ensure that they are able to participate.
If you decide to go, take a back seat and don’t upstage the parents. Wear a discreet outfit, don’t thrust yourself into the front row for group photographs, don’t make a performance of your good relations with your former in-laws. Behave impeccably, admire the baby extravagantly, and make sure you don’t get drunk and embittered.
Traditionally ex-partners weren’t invited to remarriages, but social customs have become more fluid, and you may find yourself on the guest list. If the whole notion of the remarriage makes you feel ill, politely refuse the invitation (no explanation needed).
If you do attend your ex-partner’s wedding it is imperative that you act impeccably. Don’t attempt to upstage the bride or groom. Don’t drink too much and turn maudlin or aggressive. You might be wise to tip off friends to look out for you and make it their job to escort you home as soon as they see your social façade begin to wobble.
It is understandable that the bride and groom will want children from previous relationships to be involved in the celebration of their new marriage. Children are often happy to play a special role, such as being a bridesmaid, pageboy, or even best man, but they should always be consulted in case they wish to stay in the background. The couple must discuss these issues at an early stage, both with the children and with ex-partners.
If you are embarking on a second marriage, it is advisable to acknowledge previous marriages if this prevents children, friends, and even ex-in-laws from feeling confused or rejected.
When children are in attendance it is quite appropriate to refer to them and therefore to a previous marriage in the speeches – keep any allusions wry, affectionate and light-hearted. Behave as if you are embracing the past, not obliterating it.
If you are hosting or attending the wedding of one of your children from a previous marriage, remember that it is your son’s or daughter’s big day. Whatever their wishes, you must accede. Behave in a civilised manner, without a hint of bitterness.
If there is abiding antagonism between you and your ex-partner, make some simple provisions. Plan the seating carefully to avoid conflict between the different ‘sides’, but close enough to appear unified.
Split wedding duties. For example, the natural father could walk the bride down the aisle and the stepfather could give a speech. At the reception you could opt for three ‘top’ tables. Each of the separated parents can host their own table, leaving the bride and groom to sit with bridesmaids, ushers and friends.
Divorces don’t necessarily terminate relationships with the ex’s family. Many people find that their quarrel is with their ex-partner only; they feel nothing but affection for their ex’s parents, siblings and so on and may well continue to see them regularly.
In cases like this, it is only natural for divorced partners to want to attend the funerals of former in-laws, and it is quite socially acceptable to do so. But beware, no matter how warmly you feel towards your former family, you are no longer officially part of it, and you should not make assumptions about your inclusion. You should not, therefore, head for the family pews at the front, or walk behind the coffin at the end of the service.
The possible exception to this rule is when you are accompanying your small child – perhaps to your ex-father-in-law’s funeral. In this case, your relationship to the deceased’s grandchild may entitle you to ‘family status’. If in doubt, discreetly ask a member of the family where you should sit.
Finally, never upstage the blood family when it comes to displays of grief. Your divorce has necessarily placed you at one remove, and you should maintain a tactful and dignified distance. People will understand that you have come to pay your respects and appreciate your discretion.
If your ex-partner has died and not remarried, you may find yourself and possibly your children unexpectedly playing a central role in the funeral. Put the travails of the past behind you and behave with dignity – your children will need all your support.
If your ex-partner has remarried and subsequently died, you may face another set of dilemmas. Even if you are invited to the funeral be prepared to find yourself and your relationship airbrushed out of the eulogies.
Alternatively, you may find yourself completely excluded by a new partner. Resist the temptation to turn up at the funeral as an uninvited guest; it will only increase everyone’s distress, especially if a scene ensues. If you feel absolutely compelled to pay your respects, do so discreetly – slip into a back pew just before the service starts and melt away once the main mourners have exited.
Unfortunately, it is the prerogative of the current partner to make the funeral arrangements, even if they are petty and vindictive. If you have children with your former partner, you could explore the option of holding a separate memorial service, with their full participation.
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