Q: Ever since I can remember, my little sister and I have had a strained relationship. We’re only sixteen months apart so one would think that our age difference (or lack thereof) would bring us close. Wrong. Oh so very wrong.
As we grew up we grew even further apart. Through high school, my sister left a long trail of heartache and bad decisions. She would run away from home, often with abusive older teens. She would physically attack members of my family (sometimes with weapons, sometimes not), including me; I have the scar of a bite mark on my forearm to prove it. She was a manipulative liar even over the simplest of things, and yet she wasn’t very good at it.
Through all these years, there have been many, uncountable ups and downs. Plenty of them. Too many fights, sleepless nights, tears, and angry words to count. I hardened to it over time, but my mother with her unfailing love of her daughter, has had her heart broken time after time from hope and despair. My sister goes through cycles of being involved with family, then ghosting, lying, and being downright spiteful toward all of us.
During my engagement, she had begun to be more active in the family, actually talked to me and video chatted so my niece and I could interact. I let myself get hopeful for the first time in years, with no skepticism, and I asked her to be a bridesmaid. Then she up and left my family in the middle of the night and ignored us for the next six months; she was thirty minutes away visiting our estranged father on Christmas and didn’t come see my family at all, not even her grandparents who’ve done nothing “wrong.” Until she decided she was filing for divorce; now she’s back in. It went unsaid that she was no longer a bridesmaid and the subject was never broached by her or me.
Now that the wedding is less than three months away, I’m being forced to face the reality of what my day will be like with my sister present. For years I had imagined what family drama would ensue with her absence, how it would make me feel, but I had never imagined how it would feel to have her there. I just didn’t envision a future where she’d be “active” in our family enough to warrant an invitation.
In an already emotionally charged day, I’m not quite sure where to go when it comes to her. Our brothers are groomsmen, so how do I explain my sister isn’t a bridesmaid? Do I get her a gift? How does it work because the bridesmaids and my mom and I are getting our hair and makeup done? How do I deal with my mom and bridesmaids getting ready together and my sister, as terrible as it sounds, not really wanted? She brings so much drama with her, even on her good days.
I hope I don’t sound conceited or self-entitled. I know it will be hard for my mother; her daughter is getting married and is having the wedding day my mother didn’t get with my sister (which is an entirely different topic). Any time my sister comes up, it’s very emotional for my mother (understandably so), and with my wedding, her high-stress job, and two teenage sons still at home, I don’t want to add another thing to her plate. She already doesn’t sleep well or cope well with stress. I don’t want to exclude my sister but I don’t know how to include her when I’m so guarded.
—Rachel Getting Married
A: Dear RGM,
You don’t sound conceited at all. It’s difficult to welcome whatever sliver of a relationship someone is willing to offer without making yourself vulnerable. It’s tough to know how to keep strong, necessary boundaries while being open to the possibility of someone changing. This is all valid and heartbreaking and doesn’t make you entitled at all.
But we can make it at least a smidge easier on you by chopping off a couple things that are not your responsibility. First, you don’t owe anyone an explanation about your sister’s role. If anyone asks why your sister isn’t a bridesmaid (rude), answer with a vague, “We decided to honor our relationship other ways,” and leave it at that. (To be clear: you don’t have to do jackshit to honor her, but they don’t need to know that.)
Also, you cite a lot of concern for your mom (understandably so). But, she’s a grown woman. As long as she knows your sister is coming, she’ll be able to handle her own stress levels as she always has. Think about it, if your sister wasn’t coming, that would be a different type of stress for your mom, right? Because ultimately you’re not the one causing this stress for her. Your sister is. It’s not your fault and it’s not your responsibility. So give yourself a pass here. Your wedding isn’t the cause of this problem, and handling it in just the perfect way (whatever that could even be) will not be the solution.
With those things off your plate, focus on you. Your boundaries are well earned, so only invite her to what you’d like, in the ways you’d like. You know all too well that a special day doesn’t change the people we love. So a wedding with your sister (just like any other day) means opening the door to whatever drama she brings with her. With that in mind, I’d think you’ll want to relax and not be anxious during the getting ready time. I’d skip on having her join you for that. Since she’s not a bridesmaid, she shouldn’t expect to be included, anyway. But buying her a gift does seem a nice gesture that won’t leave you vulnerable. That could be nice. Only if you want to.
Basically, you already are being the bigger person by inviting her to this wedding; anything else you choose to do for her is pure generosity. No matter what you do, you won’t be able to control your sister’s behavior. Don’t trick yourself into believing there’s a magic combination to make her act like a human. The best you can do is hold firm on the boundaries you’ve created for yourself without apology, and more importantly, don’t beat yourself up for having them.