Harm and Accountability and a Wedding

Recently, I served as the officiant at my child’s wedding.  After the ceremony, the wedding photographer approached me, not for a picture, but to share an insight.  While she had worked at hundreds of weddings and seen many beautiful and moving ceremonies, she had never heard an officiant speak so directly about the fact that sometimes in relationships you hurt one another, and you must find a way to talk about what to do when that happens. As she walked away, she said, “People need to hear that.”

A wedding scene with the bride in gown holding flowers standing before the groom in a suit and the officiant all smiling on a sunny day.

A member of the wedding party, having experienced love and loss and all the challenges that go with both, shared how they really appreciated hearing “it like it is…because relationships are hard.”

Another guest recounted a morning argument that was unresolved as they arrived at the afternoon celebration—and how the prompt to acknowledge the hurt you have caused and commit to a course of change, healing, and rebuilding, led them to a post-ceremony conversation that was much needed.

The experience of officiating at our youngest child’s wedding is one I will hold dear always. As someone who is often overprepared, I had spent hours with the couple and with myself choosing just the right words. I was completely unprepared for the deep love and deep joy that I felt as I spoke to Michael and Katie and all the family and friends who had gathered to witness their ceremony of commitment. It is a profound intergenerational experience to stand at the center of past, present and future relationships, to offer words of encouragement and possibility, to guide pledges of commitment, and to draw in a circle of community in support of a strong and healthy relationship.

This intergenerational nature of weddings made it seem only natural to include a few words about what to do when things get hard. Amongst those attending were those in long-term and loving relationships that have stood the test of time by adapting, growing, and changing. As with most wedding guest lists, there were also people whose intimate partner relationships had foundered, but who had built independent relationships with the young people who were part of those now reconfigured families. There were folks who had been married just weeks before, and folks who had yet to (and might never) consider a long-term intimate partner relationship to be a necessary step in their lives. I do not imagine there was anyone who has not struggled with what it feels like to be hurt by someone you love, or to be the one who is responsible for doing the hurting.

So, I included some words about harm and accountability in my address to the couple. The language of “harm and accountability” is very present these days in the work to end sexual and intimate partner violence. The evolution of this movement has called on us to consider how we expand our focus on safety and healing for survivors to include safety and healing for families and for communities. One way we do that is by talking about how to practice accountability within an intimate relationship. Someday children will grow up seeing this modeled in their homes, in their schools, in government and amongst their friends. That day is not here yet—and so maybe we talk about it at weddings? I certainly felt compelled to do so, especially because I was addressing two young people whom I love and whom I want to see succeed at learning and growing and building a strong relationship together.

My words about accountability might have taken about one minute out of the thirty-minute ceremony. Those words became the topic people most wanted to speak with me about for the remainder of the evening. One conversation is going to stick with me—and I hope it also sticks with the young man who was sharing, even if he was a tiny bit inebriated when we spoke. He passionately described how he has known this all along—it is not enough to say, “I’m sorry,” when you hurt someone. You must listen to them and try to understand how they are feeling, and you must change what you are doing, and you must understand that it may take a while before they trust you again. I think he felt validated. I think he also felt a spark of hope—there can be a way back from the hurt. 

Three people at a wedding smiling at the camera in the evening.
Kristi, Michael, and Ruth celebrating at Michael and Katie’s wedding

There is much that we should think about when we consider marriage and weddings and their role in a healthy and just communities. Which traditions do we carry forward and which do we lay to rest? How do we value and embrace all the many configurations of family that are part of thriving communities? One simple thing we can do right now is normalize speaking about harm and accountability when we speak about intimacy and the work of healthy relationships. Weddings seem as good a venue as any!

I share below the words I included in my address to Michael and Katie—and to everyone present:

In addition to all this love and sword wielding fights for justice, you are also going to face adversity, disagree with one another, and even, at times, hurt one another. You may not be surprised to hear that I have to say this next piece: when there is harm, there must be accountability.

Be accountable to one another.

What does that look like? Take time to stop and see each other when there is pain. Make time for deep listening, understanding, and acknowledging the hurt you have caused. Make a solemn and true commitment to learn and to grow—to not repeat the harmful words and behaviors, to hear how you can help to heal wounds and rebuild trust. Then commit yourself to that course of change, healing, and rebuilding—for the sake of yourselves, for the sake of each other, and for the sake of a world that needs each and every one of us to get better at this.

Kristi VanAudenhove is the Executive Director of the Action Alliance, and throughout her 30 years at the Action Alliance, she has been a parent/grandparent (aka Pepper), with her wonderful and much beloved partner, to four awesome people and their partners and children. She is filled with delight and appreciation to Michael Magnant VanAudenhove and Catherine Hope Ford for asking her to officiate at their April 2022 wedding.

Read more news

Find Support Near You

Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Agencies

  • Start Typing Locality