The Rules for Modern Weddings

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Many a bride and groom have decided to elope rather than put their feuding relatives or their families' latest love interests in the same room. A wedding lasts an average of six hours but seems longer when Mom has locked herself in the ladies' room and won't come out "as long as that tramp your father married is here."

The typical 21st century wedding can now feature a supporting cast of stepparents, half-siblings, Dad's new girlfriend and her kids, the bride's first stepfather and his new wife, and sometimes even the bride and groom's ex-spouses. The old rules of wedding etiquette don't stretch far enough to cover the shape of these families. A new crop of creative solutions can help.

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Margorie Engel, author of Weddings: A Family Affair (Wilshire Publications), says that couples need to establish who their primary parents are, who will walk the bride down the aisle, who will be seated where during the ceremony, and who will pay — before they announce their engagement. Engel suggests that the primary parents should be those the bride lived with the longest and feels closest to, whether they are biological parents or stepparents. Some brides choose to walk down the aisle with stepfathers, while birth fathers are seated in the second or third row of the church, along with other family. Another bride might choose to honor a birth father and stepfather by having both walk her down the aisle. Or a bride can sidestep the issue by having the groom walk with her or join her midway.

Engel points out that the structure of weddings — a ceremony followed by a reception — actually lends itself well to complicated families. If the mother and stepfather of the bride play hosts at the ceremony, the father and stepmother can be hosts at the reception. (Whoever pays for the reception is the host; that person's name along with his or her spouse's appears at the top of the invitation.) At the reception, each parent should be host at a table. Siblings of the bride and groom should also be hosts of their own tables, so they don't have to be torn over which parent to sit with at dinner. Brides should enlist favorite family members or friends to step in and "baby-sit" a potentially fractious family member or to act as a buffer if there is tension between parents.

Sasha Souza, an event planner in Napa Valley, Calif., says that "the couple sets the tone. If your mother refuses to be in the same room with your stepmother, you just have to say, 'Mom, I'm sorry you feel that way, but it's your choice to not come if you don't want.'" Etiquette dictates that invited family members be allowed to bring a spouse or guest of their choosing to the wedding, whether or not others in the family — including the bride — approve of that person. All of these decisions have to be handled calmly and well by the couple because the first rule of marriage is this: If you can set the right precedents on your wedding day, then it will be possible to celebrate life's other important events and keep the peace.

More tips for tricky nuptials are at