Wedding planning is categorically stressful for at least two reasons: It’s expensive (especially right now) and it can bring out the worst in family dynamics. Those fortunate enough to have parents who can pitch in for costs (which, according to surveys, is about half of couples) might be less concerned about the first problem, but that only exacerbates the second — parents often expect a bigger role in the wedding if they’re footing part of the bill. Is it worth the strife?
For Marisa, a 38-year-old attorney from Chicago, accepting a check from her dad for her wedding became especially fraught when he left her mom for another woman shortly thereafter. Here, she talks about the power struggles involved with her dad’s money and why she regrets taking it in the first place.
My fiancé and I got engaged last year. A little before that, my uncle passed away. He was my dad’s brother, and they were very close. In the months that followed, my dad started acting strangely, but we all chalked it up to grief.
Last spring, when my fiancé and I started planning our wedding, my father became adamant about giving me a check for $40,000 to help pay for it. He sent it to me in the mail. I held onto it for a few weeks because I didn’t even want it. At the time, I didn’t fully realize how much weddings cost, and I was like, “There’s no way we’re going to use all of this. It’s too much.”
I was also pretty committed to paying for our wedding ourselves. My fiancé and I are in our late 30s, with established careers. I said to my parents, “I appreciate your love and support during this process, but we don’t need financial help.” And my dad just wouldn’t hear of it. He kept asking me to deposit the check and was very insistent about it.
So I finally deposited the check and started putting it toward deposits for the venue and caterer. And shortly thereafter, my dad sat my mom down and said, “I’ve been having an affair and I’m leaving you.”
I’ve had pretty limited interaction with him since then. Whenever we do talk, he says things like, “What do you need for the wedding? Do you need more money?” He’s always been like that because I think, at the end of the day, that’s his currency. Paying for things is his way of expressing love. But it does feel transactional. He made this huge gift, so I feel as though I owe him something. And he has made it very clear that he really wants to walk me down the aisle. But his participation that day is going to be tough on everyone.
I’ve thought about returning the money. I mean, at this point, it’s long gone — we’re getting married next month, so there’s no going back. I now understand that weddings are more expensive than I ever imagined, and I wouldn’t be able to have the wedding I wanted without this contribution. Our wedding is costing more than double what he gave us, and we’re paying for the difference ourselves. I’m very grateful that we can afford it and that we’ll emerge from this process debt-free. Without the money he gave us, we would have been on a much tighter budget or I would have had to dip into my long-term savings. But the bigger issue, even if I could give him the $40,000 back, is how hurt he would be by that gesture. It would be harmful in a way that doesn’t feel right.
If he offered me money for anything again in the future, I wouldn’t accept it. I don’t think he expects the money to let him off the hook for what he did. But he operates in a way in which he thinks it bypasses the need to have a difficult conversation. Instead of having a hard talk with his kids, he’s like, “I’m going to take you to dinner; I’m going to write you a check.” He has clearly been programmed that way. It’s disappointing and sad, but it’s almost like he doesn’t have the tools to behave differently.
Another thing that’s hard is that my mom and I have a really close relationship. And I feel guilty that my dad just wrote me this huge check, and she’s trying to figure out how she’s going to make her life work on her own. They are working on their divorce agreement, and my mom’s life is going to look very different now. My dad is a doctor and made significantly more money than my mom did in her nonprofit career. A theme throughout their lives was that he always treated their money as his money, even though it was marital. So it’s hard for her to see him act like, “I’m giving you this gift; I’m doing this for you,” when in reality, that was their marital money when he sent it to me.
I know my mom wants me to make my own decisions and doesn’t want this dynamic to affect my wedding. She wants that day to be as stress-free as possible. But there’s no getting around the fact that it will probably be very triggering for her, and I don’t feel good about that. It will basically be the first time my parents see each other since my dad left. My siblings haven’t even spoken to him since then. Same with a lot of other people who will be there — my mom’s siblings, some of their friends. It’s very stressful to think about. It means that my wedding is no longer about my fiancé and me — it’s about how everyone is going to experience it with my dad. In many ways, I just wish it were over so that I didn’t have to worry about that anymore.
Right now, I’m leaning toward walking down the aisle by myself. But I’m having a hard time getting up the nerve to tell my dad. I recognize that it means a lot to him, and it does feel like I’m taking away the one thing that he wanted. I think I’m going to explain that going by myself is how I can ensure that the moment is about me and my fiancé. And that is the truth.
The Cut’s financial advice columnist Charlotte Cowles answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org