Can My Sister Still Ruin the Wedding If I Don’t Make Her a Bridesmaid?

And am I a monster for not making her a bridesmaid?

by Liz Moorhead, Editor, Ask APW

white appliqué clutch, crochet hook, and fuchsia kate spade shoes

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.

—Liz Moorhead


Liz Moorhead

Liz is an illustrator and writer who paints custom stationery and types up impassioned opinions about weddings, etiquette, feminism and motherhood (usually while shaking a fist and mumbling expletives around mouthfuls of cheese fries). Her spare time is spent sipping bourbon with her husband and playing Don’t Throw That in the Toilet with her sons.

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  • Zoya

    One small thing: if it “went unsaid” that she’s no longer a bridesmaid, has she actually acknowledged this? Or could she plausibly believe (or claim to believe) she’s still in the bridal party? If the latter, you might need to steel yourself for an awkward conversation ASAP.

    • Emily

      This is what I was thinking too… Without having had a real conversation about her role in the wedding, I am concerned that the sister will turn it around on the bride, probably the morning of the wedding.

      • Zoya

        Yeah, that’s the scenario that comes to mind for me too.

    • Amy March

      Yes I think it might need to be said.

    • Lurker

      I’m normally not much of a commenter, but… I went back and re-read the letter, and I’m wondering if the answer missed the real question. What if she’s really asking “how do I explain [to my sister] that she’s not a bridesmaid?” The letter, and the fact that she’s no longer a bridesmaid “went unsaid” makes more sense with this reading. So the letter writer is really asking how to tell her sister something that may be hurtful to her.

      • Zoya

        The more I think about it, the more I think the letter-writer could use two Liz-scripts: one for telling her sister she’s no longer in the wedding party, and one for asking her mom to back her up on that.

      • penguin

        So her question also went unsaid? :) Not trying to be snarky, that just struck me funny.

    • Sarah E

      Yeah, I mean LW knows her sister best, and maybe not saying anything is the best option, but I can totally see, with a history of manipulative behavior her sis randomly inviting herself into all bridal party things there are on the day of, without any preamble in the months/weeks ahead.

    • Yeah, people have such varying expectations on what being in a wedding party means, I think being clear that she’s not is a conversation that maybe needs to be had.

    • I’m feeling like 3mos out from the wedding, dresses have probably been ordered, lots of logistical stuff has been figured out, sister probably knows that the bridesmaid wheels had continued turning while she was gone. But it definitely never hurts to clarify something foggy, that’s for sure.

      • CMT

        I bet the sister knows that, but is she going to act on that? Or is she going to show up and want to still be a bridesmaid?

  • Jess

    Pretty much everything Liz said – decide what *you* are comfortable involving her in and giving her and leave it at that.

    If she comes barreling in on the day of your wedding with her stuff, repeat in your head as often as necessary, “She is choosing to act like this. Although it hurts that she’s choosing this, nothing I did prompted this. It is not my job to control her. Nobody will judge me for what she’s doing. I am going to choose to keep celebrating the way I want to.”

    This is essentially what I say every interaction with my mom. It sounds silly to repeat a bunch of phrases like it’s a spell against your emotions, but… it helps calm me down and refocus on what I *want* that day to be, while still acknowledging that her choices hurt me.

    Good luck, and I hope your wedding is uneventful and she is well behaved.

    • Her Lindsayship

      This is such a thoughtful and helpful comment!

  • penguin

    Are there any friends or family (not your mom) that can be on sister duty that day? Just to keep an eye out and step in if necessary? Goals should be to minimize scenes and keep her away from you and your new spouse day of, and have her removed if necessary. If there is security or venue staff that take care of that, give them a heads up ahead of time.

    I also focused on the “it went unsaid that she’s no longer a bridesmaid” thing – if it went unsaid, how do you know that she isn’t still planning on being a bridesmaid? I’d get that said ASAP.

    • PAJane

      Bouncers. This calls for bouncers, to be deployed as necessary.

    • Lisa

      Seconding putting someone on “sister duty.” I might even let Mom know that Cousin Jenny or Aunt Sally will be hanging out with sister all day and that she shouldn’t worry about checking in on her because Mom might feel like it’s still her responsibility to take care of the other daughter. Drama siblings have a way of sucking up the spotlight like that.

      • Caitlyn

        Having a family member “hanging” with the sister is a great idea. And THAT person deserves a present :)

        • Ali

          Yes! I’ve been on mom duty for a friend before, at a wedding where I was not a bridesmaid. She got me the same gift as the bridesmaids (custom earrings!), which was not necessary but definitely made me feel very appreciated.

  • sofar

    As for the getting-ready stuff, you just make the appointments for you, mom and bridesmaids. You say nothing to your sister. If she finds out and asks, “So what about MY hair?” you say “You’re welcome to make an appointment at the salon.” If she finds out and shows up the day of, that would be awkward, but then you say the same thing, “Hey, you didn’t make an appointment, sis.” But then maybe let her hang around and drink the mimosas in the salon/getting-ready suite, if that seems like the thing to do.

    If you are comfortable, you might reach out and say, “Hey, the bridesmaids and I are getting ready at Salon X/having a stylist come to the hotel. Here’s the contact info if you want to schedule an appointment at the same time. Their rate is $60.”
    …but that’s ONLY if you feel comfortable or think that might work best.

    • Amy March

      I read this the opposite- sister is not welcome to make an appointment at the salon and not welcome to come hang out.

      I think that’s fine, and that the conversation needs to happen with Mom. Or Mom is going to invite sis along.

      • Zoya

        Yeah, in addition to the sister-conversation I recommended, I think a Mom-conversation is in order. Let her know, kindly but firmly, that you understand she loves Sister, but you don’t want Sister involved in wedding party activities and if she shows up she will be asked to leave. (I could see a scenario where Mom tries to broker a reconciliation the morning of the wedding.)

        • penguin

          Also, Mom doesn’t have to be part of the getting-ready party if the LW doesn’t want her there. I’m assuming she does from her letter, but just throwing that one out there.

      • sofar

        Ah good point. In that case, keeping her in the dark is best. And agreed that Mom has to be onboard and aware.

        I guess it all depends on sister’s whereabouts the day of. Is she staying at the same hotel? In your parents’ house? If either of those is the case, I can see her trying to tag along. At that point, I think LW is totally entitled to ask her to leave on the grounds of “wedding-party only.” Or, if that risks an epic blow-up, maybe have a designated person you can text to swoop in to the salon/hotel suite and say to the sister, “Hey, come with me — we need help setting up at the venue!”

  • PAJane

    Maybe I’m utterly clueless about something important here. Somebody please explain why LW would buy the sister a gift.

    • Lisa

      I couldn’t figure that one out either, but I’m really not a gifts person. I didn’t think to buy anyone a gift beyond purchasing the jewelry for my MOHs chose to wear with their wedding attire. I’m not sure why the sister in this scenario is given a present if she isn’t participating in the wedding and doesn’t seem to have contributed to it in any positive way?

      • Zoya

        I pictured it as a conciliatory gesture–a way of saying “I don’t want to completely burn this bridge with you.” Kicking someone out of the bridal party is a pretty big deal, and pretty much ends any pretense of this being a good or close relationship. I think the gift suggestion is intended to soften that a bit and offer both sisters a way to save face. (Doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right call for this particular situation, though.)

        • PAJane

          The sister is unreliable, hurtful, abusive, manipulative… The bridge has been on fire and rebuilt repeatedly for their entire lives, and the sister’s the one with the blowtorch. I don’t see how the sister’s role in the LW’s life or nonparticipation in the wedding warrants a gift of any kind, and I don’t think there’s much the LW can do to damage the relationship, because there’s nothing left to break. And even if there was, she’s not the one doing the breaking. At best she could be trying to sooth the sister’s temper by offering her a gift and trying to avoid a meltdown, but at some point, accept that there is a good chance the sister will freak out as a course of action regardless of what anybody else does or does not do, because it’s a day ending in y.

    • I think in this situation, the LW is struggling to make things *seem* “normal” (for lack of a better word), and in her mind, a “normal” wedding would have sister as a bridesmaid, accepting a gift. How much normalcy can she have without also looping in all the unwanted stuff? sort of thing.

      -just my read of it

    • Her Lindsayship

      I agree with what Liz and Zoya are saying here, that the gift keeps the whole thing from seeming so much like a burning bridge. However, personally I wouldn’t get her a gift. I could see how a drama-prone person might take that as ‘I don’t like you enough to stand up next to me at my wedding but I got you a present like I did for my actual friends, so we’re good right?’ Almost calling more attention to the non-bridesmaid situation. Not saying that’s what it objectively means! Just that it’s got potential to be weird, at least from my perspective.

      • penguin

        Yeah I wouldn’t get her a gift. Although the LW knows all the family dynamics better than we do, a gift just seems weird to me in this context.

    • Ella

      The gift could maybe be part of the “you know you’re not a bridesmaid now right” conversation. Something like… “when I asked you to be my bridesmaid I’d planned on giving all the bridal party a gift. With everything that’s happened since then, I’d rather you weren’t a bridesmaid, but I’d like to still give you this gift.”

  • Mrrpaderp

    My read is that sister will either show up expecting to be a bridesmaid or she won’t show but will do something dramatic, maybe a facebook post or a group text. LW should be prepared for either. That means actually telling sister she is not a bridesmaid, telling the rest of the wedding party what’s up (yes including the groomsmen), and chatting with mom about boundaries.

    For the day of, give your phone and mom’s phone to a trusted friend who can check them in case there’s an actual emergency but can screen nastiness from your sister. And no don’t get sister a gift. You get gifts for the bridal party. Giving her a gift will just confuse the issue. Plus if she doesn’t show you’ll be upset you got her something.

  • Hannah

    Normally, I would agree with the general consensus that the sister should be informed that she is no longer a bridesmaid. In this case, however, RGM’s sister sound like she might retaliate to that kind of statement. Ghosting is part of her MO, and it sounds like its a reasonable assumption at this point that she isn’t coming to the wedding. But volatility and violence are also part of her personality, and receiving a formal rejection like that may inspire her to do something awful and dramatic, like showing up in person before or during the event and making a scene.

    It’s probably still better to say something rather than hope for the best, but if so, RGM should definitely consider hiring a bouncer – not a family member, but a professional security person without an emotional stake in the wedding.

    • Anon

      I agree— I bet there’s a good chance that if she has to take any responsibility to get there (book/pay for a hotel room, travel, etc), she won’t do it.

      • suchbrightlights

        Provided that her attendance isn’t enabled by someone who is holding out the irrational hope that this is an opportunity to mend fences and that ~*a wedding*~ will mean that all parties are on their best behavior because family and celebration and joy.

        So yes, bouncer- whether she’s invited or not.

  • PAJane

    I just didn’t envision a future where she’d be “active” enough to warrant an invitation.LW, do you actually, really and truly *want* her there? Like, at all? Because she doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to invite toxic people to your wedding, even if they’re your sister, even if your mom still loves them. If she’s abusive and causes nothing but problems and the idea of her being present stresses you all the way out, there’s no amount of Good Family Participation Points earned that obligates you to include her.You say you don’t want to exclude the sister (which I’ll note is not the same thing as actively wanting to include), and if that’s true, have at, you do you. Maybe you’re not ready to draw that kind of a boundary, maybe your wedding isn’t where you want to do it, maybe you just can’t do that to your mom. But the option that hasn’t been considered at all here, because Liz took you at your word, is that she doesn’t have to be at your wedding at all.

    • Jess

      Aaand I’m filing away the idea of “Good Family Participation Points” to remind myself that there are no amount of them to make somebody treat me better.

      • PAJane

        Abusive people often keep you on the hook by giving you just enough good to keep you hopeful. If they were shitty all the time, it would be a lot easier to walk away from them.

        • Jess

          Isn’t that just the truth.

    • penguin

      Excellent point!

  • lamarsh

    My husband and his brother have a very strained relationship. At first, we were going to include him in the wedding party mainly for the sake of appearances. Then he behaved terribly the first time he met my parents, saying a bunch of nasty comments about my now husband that my mom fortunately saw right through. After that, we decided not to include him (luckily we hadn’t asked him at that point either). My brother and husband’s sister were both in the wedding party, and no one asked us to explain why his brother was not included. Maybe they gossiped about it, but we didn’t really care.

    My husband handled the getting ready portion by just not inviting his brother. This was definitely the best move as it allowed my husband to get ready without feeling stressed and to enjoy his time with his friends. We had his brother do a reading at the wedding (which does not sound like it would be an option in this case) but we did not get him a gift as he wasn’t part of the wedding party. It all worked out fine. And given some of my BIL’s comments/actions during our wedding weekend, we’re very happy we didn’t include him more out of obligation.

  • Violet

    I’ve been mulling this over, and all I’ve come up with is: family, as a concept, can be bizarre. Family is the only way people would even remotely consider having someone who physically assaulted them in their bridal party. Let alone grapple with the decision. Hugs, LW.

  • Ashweck

    I’m going to out it out there: not one person asked me where my brothers were on my wedding day. I didn’t invite them and yes, it created problems. But on balance, not having them there made my wedding day so much better. I think you should really consider if you want her there and know that if someone asks you where she is, or why she isn’t a bridesmaid, you can sort of raise an eyebrow and just say “what a strange thing to ask.”

    Look, I know people were mad at me about my guest list, but no one who really loved me was. No one who genuinely cared about our wedding, no one who was glad to be celebrating with us, even gave it a secknd thought. I think you should just give your people more credit, and then make decisions based not on what you’re supposed to do or what questions you might be asked but rather on what you think will bring the greatest ratio of love and joy into your day. (Almost no decision is 100% perfect…)

    • Aubry

      Yes, I second that no one asked me where my father was on my wedding day. I did have a few people ask me in advance (some people that should bloody know better too, and did I ever tell them that) but I had a nice trope reply ready for the random questions (“I’ve walked my self through 26 years of my life, I think I can manage 50 feet down an aisle just fine, thanks”). Anyone who would ask would be so far out of the loop as to warrant a very surface level reply in any case. And most adults, when seeing family issues unfold in that way, know to keep their nose out of it.

  • Anonymous

    I have a different reaction to this letter. I agree with the helpful advice about setting boundaries around your wedding with your sister. That said, hearing about her adolescence of running away from home with abusive older teens made me concerned about her. People don’t usually engage in the aggressive and risky behavior you describe unless they’re in a lot of their own internal pain. I don’t know your sister and can’t begin to understand the complexities of your family relationships. But I do really wonder if there is another layer underneath her difficult behavior and part of her that wants a relationship with you but doesn’t know how to create one.

    • penguin

      That may be true, but I don’t think that really changes the advice for the LW. It doesn’t sound like she has a close enough relationship with her sister to suggest therapy, and even if the sister has some background contributing to her behavior, that doesn’t change what she’s done.

      • PAJane

        And a wedding is not the place to solve this kind of problem.

    • anonymous

      I kind of agree with you. This part of the letter concerned me:

      “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 seems like in adulthood, the sister’s most obvious failings have been to be absentee from the family. Disappearing from the family and then popping back up again post-divorce seems like it COULD be a result of an abusive marriage. Doesn’t mean that the wedding is the right place to hash this out – but it does mean that maybe there is more going on with your sister than is immediately apparent on the surface.

  • Emily

    I find it really difficult to process letters like this where there is not even a hint of an explanation of the “toxic” person’s behavior, and the only time it seems to happen is with siblings.

    There is a big difference between the boundaries you put up with an addict versus the boundaries you put up with someone who has a mood disorder vs the boundaries you put with someone with trauma vs the boundaries you put up with someone with a personality disorder.

    I have toxic and violent family members. I understand putting up boundaries, but I also think LW should take sometime to reevaluate her childhood memories. LW was very close in age to her sister when this behavior started, so it would make sense for her to be less than generous. When you are sixteen you don’t have a lot of sympathy for 15 year olds, but as an adult…15 year olds get a lot more lee way.