Q: Last night, my future sister-in-law gave my fiancé an ultimatum: either we remove someone from our guest list, or she doesn’t come to the wedding. This person is my fiancé’s stepbrother, someone he has always felt close to and who he really wants to be there. This is also someone my sister-in-law says she cannot be in the same room with.
The main controversy here is an event that isn’t agreed upon by the entire family. About ten years ago, while my sister-in-law and fiancé were in high school, one of her friends stayed the night in the family home. During the night, she decided to go to the stepbrother’s room for a hookup. When the friend got caught, her story changed from consensual interaction to sexual assault. Let me just say that I am the biggest advocate of victims speaking out, eliminating rape culture, and assailants being punished for their crimes. What I don’t advocate for is legitimate instances of false accusations. My future mother-in-law, fiancé, and his other siblings all see the situation as a consensual act of teen rebellion and have no problem with the stepbrother attending the wedding. My sister-in-law maintains that it was sexual assault, and views his invitation as us “defending a sexual predator.” No charges were ever filed.
I fully expect for this to be a widely controversial question, but what do we do? I feel like it is wrong of my sister-in-law to put my fiancé in a situation where he is forced to choose between two very important people in his life, but it’s also not necessarily fair to expect my sister-in-law to attend an event with someone she views as a predator. Since she is the one who gave the ultimatum, I am leaning toward letting her not attend the wedding, as is my fiancé. But that means spending his life knowing his sister wasn’t a part of the most special day of his life. Thank you in advance for any advice!
—Mrs Ralph Waldo
A: Dear MRW,
There’s no way to know if something happened that night ten years ago. You weren’t there. You’re only hearing your partner’s sister’s friend’s account of it through the grapevine. And I’m even further removed from the situation than you are, so how am I to know? But I feel I need to say: It may have started as consensual, and still have turned into assault. Stepbrother may be beloved and important to your partner, and he still might have done it. I know. False accusations happen. But I want to be really, really careful about treading into this “Meh, she just has regrets about being found out,” territory. Especially because your sister-in-law, as the one closest to this friend, would presumably be the first to know if she’s lying.
Luckily, you don’t necessarily have to determine what happened all those years ago. Does what happened factor into a wedding invitation? Mmmm… some would say yes. I’m not sure it’s clear-cut. It can be hard to figure out how to treat someone after they do one terrible thing or another. It’s clear you guys and your sister-in-law disagree about whether or not he’s innocent. But even if he did it, does that automatically mean you stop speaking to him, you cut him off, you don’t invite him to family events? Is a wedding invitation the same as condoning (or as she put it, defending) his actions? I mean, maybe. But not necessarily.
I think I’d start by asking yourself, “Would we invite him if these accusations are true?” and that might mean entertaining the idea that, yeah, these accusations might be true. Would that have any impact on your wedding? If not, it might be worth saying so to your sister-in-law.
Another way to think of it is to put yourself in sister’s shoes. Unfortunately, loads of women are assaulted. And many more than that know men who make them uncomfortable, men they’d prefer not to be around. How would you want this situation handled if you were in her position?
You could work out some logistical resolution if she’s super opposed to seeing him—like one could attend the ceremony and the other the reception—or maybe you can find a way to seat them really far apart. But it sounds like your sister-in-law’s problem isn’t the actual issue of seeing his face and making polite chitchat, but instead what inviting stepbrother means and represents. And maybe it doesn’t mean or represent anything about who he is or what he’s done. You just care about him.
It’s possible you’ll still be faced with this ultimatum, no matter how you try to talk your way out of it. Then it’s a question of who matters most. Who is your partner closest to? Which relationship is most likely to bounce back? And probably myriad other factors I couldn’t even guess at. It sucks. I’m sorry.
IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO ASK APW A QUESTION, PLEASE DON’T BE SHY! IF YOU WOULD PREFER NOT TO BE NAMED, ANONYMOUS QUESTIONS ARE ALSO ACCEPTED. (THOUGH IT REALLY MAKES OUR DAY WHEN YOU COME UP WITH A CLEVER SIGN-OFF!)