"We have become more open about talking about these things," said Cindy Post Senning, the great-granddaughter of Emily Post and a director of the Emily Post Institute. "Families are more open about trying to figure out how to work things out."
In fact, ex etiquette is a subject that's increasingly being covered in hospitality and event-management programs at local colleges. Ira Rosen, an adjunct professor at Temple University's School of Tourism and Hospitality Management, said the topic started showing up in courses about eight years ago. Due in large part to the ready-to-share attitudes of Gen X and Y adults, interest has steadily climbed ever since.
That kind of intimate honesty - on display every day by tell-all bloggers - has helped motivate parents to confront the ex factor at their children's celebrations.
"When I first started my business, if the parents were divorced, it either wasn't discussed or the parents didn't talk, period," said Mark Kingsdorf. His company, Queen of Hearts Wedding Consultants, based in East Falls, began with one wedding in 1999; this year he and his staff will handle more than three dozen weddings.
Kingsdorf recalled the rehearsal for the wedding of one of his first clients, where the mother of the bride and her new husband seated themselves in the front pew. Then the father walked the bride down the aisle - at which point his ex-wife blocked his entrance into the pew. Then she yelled at Kingsdorf about seating arrangements, unprintable adjectives included.
"She was paying for the wedding and she was sitting in the place of honor," Kingsdorf said. "She wouldn't budge. The father didn't know whether to climb over her or walk around the front of the pew and slide over - or just sit in another pew. I had to have a 'come-to-Jesus' meeting." Now, Kingsdorf and his staff ask about family relationships up front.
Though weddings possess inherent drama, events for teens - Sweet Sixteens, graduations and bar mitzvahs - can actually be more painful to plan and manage when dealing with ex-factors. In these cases, children would have witnessed the separation.
"Divorces are more recent and the feelings more raw," said Post Senning. "What you are really trying to do is focus on the celebration for the kids. If the parents do not speak, they should consider doing separate events where they won't have to be seated together."
Judy Moore, who runs JP Event Design based in Bensalem and was formerly the catering director at Cuba Libre, sometimes creates stand-up food stations at teen events, a tactic that eliminates awkward seating arrangements and makes it easier for parents to remain separate.
Yet seating is only part of the problem. The bigger concern is trying to ensure that everyone behaves civilly. If people don't, even experienced planners like Moore can run into trouble. At her own wedding, her mother sat separately from her father, who had arrived with his new fiancee. All was well until her father took his fiancee onto the floor for a spin, at which point her mother made a beeline for her ex. Luckily, Moore said, a friend of hers stepped in and invited her mother to dance.
Now, she says, "I always advise people to nominate one friend to keep an eye on sensitive situations. If the parents don't get along, I ask a friend of the family or the maid of honor to be alert." And while she always discusses these situations with the parties ahead of time, she also puts the bartenders on guard. "I ask them to keep it light on the alcohol," she laughs.
Kingsdorf recommends that hosts lean on a planner to help negotiate seating, behavior, and other sticky issues. In the absence of a planner, he suggests involving the officiant, who generally is familiar with the family dynamics. After all, says Kingsdorf, "It's all about knowing the dynamics."
Emily Post eventually did address the rules of ex etiquette in a later edition of her book. But in the absence of any rules, her great-granddaughter recommends that families apply the principles of respect, consideration, and honesty to fraught situations. "Etiquette," she says, "is the combination of [those] fundamental principles and manners."
And if that doesn't work, says Moore, everyone needs to remember that "this day will probably be on video for the rest of their lives."