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More Wedding Woes: When Parents Want Too Much Control

Dear Sugar Radio
Courtesy of WBUR

Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

In today's episode, listeners ask about what to do when a conflict over wedding plans instigates bigger problems with the rest of the family. Here, Daddy's Girl No More thinks her rejection of her father's control led to her family falling apart.

Dear Sugars,

I'm a 25-year-old woman and I got married last year. My husband has been a part of my family for years, so I always thought that our wedding would be a joy shared with my parents and sister. It wasn't. Our wedding started the collapse of everything I've ever known to be true.

I've always been close to my dad, but when we were planning our wedding he was so controlling that I had to step in and say no. He stopped talking to me about five months before my wedding. I tried to reach out to him, but he never responded. A month before my wedding, I sent him an email asking if he was even coming to the wedding and if he'd be walking me down the aisle. He didn't respond, but he did tell my mom that he wouldn't be there, which broke my heart.

Much to my surprise, he showed up at the wedding two minutes before I was meant to walk down the aisle. I plastered a smile on my face, but on the inside I was screaming. I didn't want him there. I felt betrayed and bombarded. It was like he had hijacked the day. He told me to have a nice life and left at some point during the reception. I haven't seen him since and have barely heard from him. That was over a year ago.

To make it all more complicated, two weeks before my wedding he left my mom. They tried to patch things up, but just last month he said he was filing for divorce. Since then, he has said terrible things about and to my mom. He claims that she ruined his life and badmouths her to my sister and all of their friends. To be honest, my mom is probably better off on her own.

I know that I didn't cause my dad to act like he did, and that my parents have probably never had a perfect marriage — the past year of therapy has helped me realize that. But I am the catalyst. My mom stood up for me when he was trying to control my wedding. He says she "betrayed" him when she did this, and that after she stepped in, their marriage was done. I wish I could say there is more to the story, but as far as I know there isn't.

Sugars, I can't come to terms with the guilt that I feel for causing this. At times it consumes me.

On top of the guilt, I feel so betrayed. My life has revolved around my dad for as long as I can remember. I have been a good, loyal daughter. Almost every decision I made was to make my dad proud. I have apologized for whatever he thinks I did wrong many times, but he can't forgive me. He has said that I am disrespectful, ungrateful and a monster.

What do I do Sugars?

Daddy's Girl No More

Steve Almond: My reading on the letter, to be honest, is that this is a dad who has been self-involved and controlling and probably has a narcissistic personality disorder or something, because the emotional world of his daughter and his family has revolved around him from the beginning. But what's clear to me, Daddy's Girl No More, is that for a long time you have been putting your dad's happiness before yours. And it sounds like that's been a pattern since long before you got engaged and planned a wedding and had a wedding.

And the sad truth is that this wedding is really the moment that is revealing that that is profoundly unhealthy. That doesn't offer a solution, but it is at least a clear diagnosis of the fact: You didn't do anything wrong here.

Cheryl Strayed: You didn't. I really do think we're dealing with somebody who clearly has some mental issues. A normal, rational person does not behave this way in response to his daughter saying, "I want to plan my wedding."

Steve Almond: You've defined yourself as this good, loyal daughter. That's such a paradigm — especially if he's a guy who's sort of self-involved, and by that I mean weak and needy — where you're always sort of guarding that secret weakness.

Cheryl Strayed: And I think, too, Daddy's Girl, think about a couple of things. The first is that, it sounds to me, when you decided to plan your own wedding and not do everything your father told you to do, it might have been the first time you really defied him. And you defied him also at this moment that — I know this is a kind of patriarchal, ridiculous way to view it. But part of the reason that fathers who are close to their daughters have problems at their weddings, or are emotional at their weddings, is that it marks this time where — in metaphorical terms — you're leaving his home for another. And he's in some ways handing you into the world.

I don't adhere to those values myself, but I think that a lot of people feel that in their bones. So, your dad behaved badly at a time of greatly heightened emotions. And then, in this year after the wedding, he's in another bad time. He's getting divorced; he's not at his best right now. And I think: Don't feel guilty, don't take responsibility for what is not yours. But make room in your heart to be generous, to sometimes let bygones be bygones. Who knows if he'll cross that bridge, but if you at least build it, it's there. Daddy's Girl, I actually think keep doing what you're doing, maybe just keep the faith a bit longer.

Steve Almond: Right, it's a moment of crisis, it's a kind of acute moment in your relationship. And there's going to have to be a kind of reckoning from his side as well as yours. And the bridge for you will be forgiveness and understanding and patience. And for him it's going to have to be recalibrating and recognizing that the way that he has related to you is not healthy.

It's too bad that the trigger was the planning of the wedding and it played out at the wedding, but as we know from our letter-writers, that cathartic event is where a lot of the hidden grievance and dysfunction and unhappiness inside of people suddenly explodes into view.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. This week is the second in a two-part series on wedding drama. They further consider this letter from Daddy's Girl No More, and hear some horror stories from the ultimate witness to wedding drama: Lois Smith Brady, the founding columnist of the Vows section in The New York Times.

You can listen to Dear Sugar Radio on iTunes or your favorite podcast app.

Copyright 2016 WBUR