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Whose Wedding is This Anyway?

From the family rabbi to your best friend, everyone wants a say in your day. Here's how to avoid being pulled apart at the tulle-lined seams.

After being a maid of honor for the fourth time last summer, I had seen enough ugly wedding drama to know that I wanted to do things differently. So when my boyfriend recently asked me to marry him, I pleaded my case for a 30-person ceremony in his parents' Bridgehampton backyard: immediate family and the few friends who would have been our attendants, were we to have attendants (which we agreed we wouldn't). He smiled, nodded enthusiastically, and I thought, That's that.

If only.

"Weddings today have the potential to turn into a major life crisis," says the Reverend Laurie Sue Brockway, an interfaith officiant and co-facilitator of the New York Bridal Survival Club, a free monthly gathering of brides-to-be who vent, swap strategies, and pick the brains of industry pros. (Apparently, emotional distress from wedding planning runs so rampant in this town that brides now need a support group.) "Even the most centered, loving, focused brides have issues to deal with," insists Brockway.

I'd like to think I'm one of those centered, loving, focused types. Still, just weeks after I said yes, I found myself struggling with a disgruntled aunt who was "beyond hurt" that she wasn't being invited to the ceremony, a friend who couldn't afford a hotel room in the Hamptons, a future mother-in-law who wanted a twelve-person processional (which, my fiancé tried to reason, would leave only eighteen guests in the seats), and a sister-in-law-to-be who requested that our engagement party be postponed until the spring - after she'd had her baby. In the end, the size and simplicity of my backyard nuptials hadn't prevented a thing.

Even in the face of hurt feelings, cold shoulders, and tsk-tsks, we decided to go forward with our small ceremony. After all, the details of that special day will matter far more to us than any of our family or friends. "Brides who cater to everyone else's desires are the crankiest on their wedding day," says Brockway. "They've put so much effort into making sure that others are happy that they don't enjoy their own festivities." So, to be sure you're crying tears of joy and not frustration, skip the martyrdom and follow these tips to planning the wedding you want - stress- and conflict-free.

Get your stories straight.
The first step toward minimizing conflict is to align yourself with your affianced, so you can work together as a team. "Resolve any problems that you have with your beloved about how to go about things," suggests Brockway. "Make a list of the issues that need addressing - religious differences, the guest list, the bridal party, the deeper family tensions - and discuss them openly and honestly from the beginning," says Brockway. You'll have a much better chance of having the wedding you want if the two of you present a united front.

Be wary of Bridesmaidzillas.
"Avoid choosing attendants who think everything is about them," warns Andrea Mattei, author of the just-published The "I Have a Life" Bride's Guide. "Your bridesmaids are supposed to be there to support you during your wedding, not to add angst to your life!" It's also important to be clear on your expectations, says Brockway. "If you pick a maid of honor who travels every week for work, and you're expecting a shower and a bachelorette party, can she really handle it?"

Focus on the big picture.
Though your instinct will likely be to try and control every aspect of the wedding, Mattei suggests focusing on the more important elements instead - the food, music, photography, atmosphere - and compromising on the details, if necessary. "Once you realize how fast it all goes by," she explains, "you'll find that the little stuff isn't very consequential. Don't argue about what table people are going to sit at or refuse to take a limo if that's what your parents have always imagined. Those are the times to give a little."

Share the load.
One of the first lessons of stress-free wedding planning is that you can't do it alone. To drum up more enthusiasm from a less-than-enthusiastic husband-to-be, have him do something that will seem more like a pet project and less like work. "If your guy's a math whiz, let him keep track of the budget," suggests Mattei. "Or, if he's the creative type, turn him loose to invent some clever wedding favors." Celebrity caterer Serena Bass suggests assembling any other decision-makers - over good food and even better wine - to analyze what people really care about. "Once everyone is together in a relaxed environment," she says, "dividing up responsibilities feels less like a power play and more like a game."

Avoid financial strain.
When others are helping to foot the bill, they'll probably feel they have a say about how the money is spent - or how much money is spent. "I often see the bride and the groom go way down the planning road, then the father sees the total, and he says 'No way,'" says Bass. The best strategy for minimizing financial conflicts is to foot the bill yourself. "To maintain control, pay for the things that really matter to you whenever possible," says Brockway. "When someone else is paying, they're like the producer of your wedding. You have a certain responsibility to put actors and scenes in the show that they want."

Give a nod to God.
"People find religion when they're getting married," explains Brockway. "Suddenly they begin to explore their beliefs, and their guilt - especially with regard to interfaith marriages, which we have plenty of in New York." To smooth over any resulting spiritual strife, look for ways to celebrate the religion without making it heavy with dogma. Ask your mother to say a prayer during the ceremony, for instance, or incorporate symbolic rituals, like breaking the glass in a Jewish ceremony or lighting the unity candle at a Catholic wedding.

Look out for No. 1.
"If you don't take time out for yourself, you'll end up feeling like a slave to your wedding," warns Mattei. "The details are always there - waiting to be taken care of. It can be exhausting." Brockway suggests putting away your bridal binder once in a while and taking time out for baths and movies and walks with your fiancé. She doesn't need to tell me twice. Shortly after talking with her, I hired a Pilates instructor and booked a late-spring getaway, during which my fiancé and I have agreed to not speak of anything even remotely bridal.

From the Spring 2005 New York Wedding Guide