My Family Made My Wedding All About My Sister

My family has met me with joy. Hushed, muted joy.

by Anonymous

“I am so excited for you. But your sister is having a rough time right now, so we probably shouldn’t make a big deal of this.”

For as long as I can remember, I have done things first. I am the oldest of two kids, and the oldest grandchild on both sides of the family. For my first three years, I was the only kid around. I went to prom first. My high school graduation was first. I received two college degrees first. In six months, I will walk down the aisle first.

And with each of those celebrations and happy moments, my family has met me with joy. Hushed, muted joy. And a reminder to not make my sister feel overshadowed. Not to “make the celebration about me.”

It is always something. A crappy job. A lack of life direction. A bad breakup. A crappy apartment. A fight with a friend. She has her high points too, but they seem to come few and far between the low ones. Which are never a true crisis, but they feel like one to her. From the outside, it feels like she lives in a constant state of misery. She talks a lot about the things she is doing to actively be more happy—counseling, yoga, self-help books, surrounding herself with positive people. But it’s always something. And these life crises always happen to coincide with my happy moments. And they suck the life out of all of us.

The year that I graduated college was the same year she graduated high school. She had been waitlisted by the college that I was attending. My mom called me the night before and told me to make sure that I didn’t make the day all about me, especially with how sensitive things were at the moment. Don’t talk too much about your grad school plans. We are only inviting Grandma, not the extended family, so that your sister’s high school graduation party can feel like the big deal later this month. “Sure Mom, no problem.”

My sister didn’t attend my graduation from my master’s program. She chose to stay home and wallow instead. She had recently made the decision to transfer colleges and move home to live with my mom. I know it was a rough time. And I tried to understand that celebrating someone else was just too hard. My mom drove the six hours to my college town and promised that we would have some time to spend together—I think she was excited to get away from the emotional overload. The day of my graduation, my sister called to tell her that she had gotten into a fender bender at the grocery store parking lot. She begged my mother to come home because she was overwhelmed by having to call the insurance company by herself. “You understand if I have to leave a bit early, right? She’s just at such a low point right now.” “Sure Mom, no problem.”

We got engaged last spring, around the same time that my sister chose to leave her low-salary, miserable job. It was a job that she hated from day one, but trudged through, complaining to us non-stop, but refusing to quit before her contract was up. When they asked her to stay for a second year, she knew that she needed something more long-term, where she would be making more money and have better benefits. It seemed like the best decision for her. She said quit, but had nothing else lined up. She moved home again for the third time, with limited job prospects. We all became consumed with her job search and anything we could do to help her find something. My partner and I respected the fact that she was “not in a good place” again, and kept the celebration of our engagement low-key. No engagement party. Not even a celebratory dinner with family. Nothing to point out that our lives were at an upswing, and she seemed to be in yet another downward spiral.

I asked her to be part of the wedding because I never would have considered not including her. But I knew her involvement would be limited. I set the bar very low. Almost no expectations. “Just show up and wear a black dress.” I wanted it to be as easy as possible for her. She needed to be able to focus on her own life, not me. I offered to pay for her dress, since I knew she didn’t have any money. She could pick whatever she wanted—I wanted her to be comfortable and happy. I told her not to worry about a bachelorette party or bridal shower. “I don’t like being the center of attention, and who needs those things anyway? Not me.” My friends pushed back on this, encouraging me to do something small but still a celebration of me. But I knew I couldn’t ask her to take this on—she couldn’t afford it, and she’d complain the whole time and make it about her. And I would feel bad for wanting something to be about me. Even just this one time. With no expectations, I would be protected from her letting me down.

She seemed excited for me to try on dresses. Rather than heading to a store and making a big production, I did it at home with a few that I bought off the internet. No fuss or spectacle. With just my mom and sister. But then she rushed me that afternoon because she had made plans to have a picnic with her friends, and was already late to meet them. How long did I think this would take? Could we go a bit faster? When I had picked one of the dresses, she said “Great, so I can go now? It’s been fun. You’re getting married!” in a false sing-songy voice, and flew out the door.

My partner finally called me out. “How long are we going to wait for her to stop being miserable? Because I think that’s just who she is. She’s never got to be able to focus on anyone other than herself and her own unhappiness. You give her too much of yourself, hoping that you will eventually get something in return that she is not capable of giving.”

I sobbed. And I wanted it to be not true. Because I truly want an adult relationship with her—a friendship, even. Based on mutual respect. But perhaps this was how we had been conditioned. Our roles reinforced by years of being told by my mother to contain my happiness. To celebrate behind closed doors. To avoid being the center of attention. And to focus all emotional energy on her happiness instead. Families are flawed, huh?

As our wedding approaches, I can’t help but question if she will truly be standing by my side. I know she will physically be there. But will she be present? Will she allow herself to be happy for us? Or will she make the day about her?

She has a new job now. And a new apartment (although a crappy one again). She genuinely seems closer to being happy. But six months is a long time away. And I just wonder how long it will last this time.

Photo by Gabriel Harber

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  • May

    Toxic. That’s the word that came to mind as I read your post. A few other choice words followed but I won’t repeat those. People like your sister have poisoned their own wells and are determined to prevent anyone else from drinking from theirs. I feel so sad and frustrated for you, and what makes it worse is knowing that this must be barely a fraction of how you feel! Also, I’m really sorry but the other thought I had was of that scene from SATC where Charlotte yells at Trey “OOHHH DON’T UPSET THE PENIS! SSSHH EVERYONE THE PENIS MIGHT GET UPSET!” My mind is a jetlagged rollercoaster tonight.

    • emilyg25

      Enabling is the word that came to my mind.

    • Anono

      A bit like how people with cancer poison their own wells and intentionally interrupt the lives of their families and friends and bring them sadness?

      Read: based on the limited info here, the sister’s dysfunction, plus as it is reflected in the family, would seem to be pathological. Oversimplifying mental illness as willful self-centeredness is part of its the stigma. It is also unproductive in solving the problem (because it ignores/doesn’t correctly identify it) for the sick person or the people whom their illness affects.

      • KC

        It’s totally possible for people to be self-centered and tiptoed around without there being mental illness involved. (you can end up limping due to habit, rather than pain, if things are reinforced enough) But otherwise, yeah, at least her parents are responding in a way that indicates that they believe that the younger sister *can’t* respond in an emotionally-stable way. Whether she could respond to things in an emotionally-stable way if she worked on getting rid of the limp, or whether she really does have a mental illness of some kind that is not going to go away without Serious Therapy Or Medication isn’t something I can tell at this distance (or, really, any distance, being not psychologically trained).

        • Anon too

          I agree. I don’t want to over-simplify, but the way the mother treats the youngest girl here sounds like enabling, more than anything else.

        • Laura

          Even if there is mental illness involved, sometimes boundaries still need to be drawn to prevent compassion fatigue. That is something I’m really grappling with around a friend who has very severe depression. Is her depression a legitimate problem? Yes. Does she milk it for all it’s worth? Absolutely yes. I never know how to respond to her appropriately because I recognize that she does have issues, but she often uses them as an excuse to take advantage of others. It’s a tight line to walk and it can be hard to know how to respond.

      • copper

        That wasn’t the read I got from this at all. It seemed to me more like the parents accidentally created a situation of trying to falsely make everything equal among unequal siblings. Younger siblings often feel overshadowed by high-achieving older siblings, and instead of encouraging the younger sibling to explore other areas and develop their own individual talents independent of their older sibling, they made the older sibling mute her own joys. While motivated by a positive impulse, they took it in the wrong direction and taught them both to be unhappy. Just an alternative read on it.

      • Meg Keene

        Enabling can reinforce and produce bad behavior, but it doesn’t create mental illness. So, in short, I don’t think we’re talking mental illness here. I think we’re talking about another really complex dynamic. Sister may not be as equipped to deal with things, after being enabled for a life time. (And, sister might have been less equipped from the get go, starting the cycle.)

        But in short, I mostly just feel like giving the poster a long lingering internet hug is the best we can do. She’s heard her whole life how she needs to tiptoe around her sister, and he sister can’t help it, and she just needs to be less happy. I’m not sure layering guilt around ideas of mental illness is more helpful? (Also, I’m not sure this is a problem that **can** be solved, to be honest. The best you can do is work on managing your own reactions and response.)

        • copper

          I’ve wondered how she feels about all the advice we’re giving… OP, I hope you realize that we’re so gung-ho with the advice because we all feel this deep and abiding need to stand up for you after reading this! And because we aren’t there, all we can do is support and encourage you to stand up for yourself.

          • Meg Keene

            You know, as someone who’s dealt with similar situations, I can tell you that I wasn’t expecting advice this morning, and it’s actually been making my skin hurt. The reality is, in these situations there is not much you can do, and advice HURTS. We ran this because we wanted people to feel less alone. I was totally blindsided by all the advice, especially knowing that in most cases like this, none of it is applicable. Standing up for yourself gets you nowhere. All you can do is quietly take care of yourself the best you can. Changing family dynamics: not going to happen.

          • I’m surprised at Meg’s reaction to the advice (though there is a lot of it!). The OP is describing an unhealthy family dynamic and she does appear to be describing it in a fairly fatalistic/victim type way. Which isn’t how it has to be. While we can’t control anyone but ourselves, recognizing this kind of problem comes with the responsibility to either change it or stop complaining about it. The OP recognizes there is something not ok with the way she was raised to treat and continues to be asked to treat her sister. Now its up to her as to whether she is going to do anything about it, be it trying to change the dynamic or learning to not look to her family for support or joy.

            I’m not saying she needs to confront anyone but I am saying there are ways for the OP to change either how she feels about it or how she deals with it. Either way, its on the OP’s shoulders now, much as that sucks, to do something about it, hence all the advice. That’s how I’m seeing this at least.

          • Meg Keene

            I REALLY disagree with the idea that if you’re put in a shitty family situation you have you, “either change it or stop complaining about it” First, you often can’t change it, it’s not in your power, and at the end of the day it’s not your responsibility. Second, the idea that we should just shut people up, and have them stop complaining about it? Talking is often the first step towards healing.

            Of course, the poster, and any of the many other readers in similar situations are going to need to do work on these issues. But those are really things they’ll need to work on slowly, in therapy, and with loved ones and partners. It’s not a commenter-on-the-internet advice situation, really.

            There’s obviously no problem, per-say, with people leaving very well meaning advice. I was just hoping to make people feel less alone, full stop. It’s sort of like when you come home sobbing over something, and your partner immediately starts suggesting ways to solve something that doesn’t have an easy fix, and you finally tell them, “I just want you to LISTEN, not to solve it?” Posts like this are a bit like that to me. We can’t solve it, but we can give some solidarity.

          • Laura

            Ohmygoodness. Solidarity. Yes. I guess sometimes, when team practical reads a post, we get all “practically” and try to advise. As I just did.

            Sometimes, (most times) all you need is a giant hug and a “I’m here for you.” Family dynamics cannot be changed. If we spend our lives trying to do that, we will be giants balls of stress and tears from failed expectations. Managing dynamics and caring for ourselves (and surrounding ourselves with caring people) is absolutely the best way to handle most any shitty family situation.

          • malkavian

            Telling someone to either change something (they probably can’t control) or stop complaining about it is incredibly, incredibly isolating to that person. I come from a family that is incredibly toxic and unhealthy, and the attitude you described means I really don’t talk about my family, ever, to people I don’t know very well. Considering how many conversations people have in social settings are about their families in some way, shape or form, I get left out of a lot of conversations that normally serve as basic bonding. Not to mention being unable to talk about it normalizes ‘healthy family dynamics’ to a point where people who have unhealthy family dynamics (outside of the norm) feel like freaks, leading to further feelings of isolation. To be honest, a lot of families with dysfunction, including mine, count on NOT TALKING ABOUT IT (ie “Why are you talking about FAMILY business to people?!’) to perpetuate cycles of dysfunction. And talking about it really does help with coping.

          • It’s unfortunate that the first part of my statement keeps getting disregarded.

            “recognizing this kind of problem comes with…responsibility…”

            I empathized completely with the OP’s story. Seriously. But I followed it up with a “now what?” Maybe that’s terribly offensive to people. My apologies if it is. That’s how I live my life. Got a problem? Complain, get empathy from others, figure out what to do about it. I believe in taking all these steps. I have a hard time with people who do not, which admittedly could be my flaw.

          • malkavian

            What responsibility? What exactly are people responsible for in situations like theses? Again, you can’t change how other people act. And even if you take steps to ‘deal’, (like, in my case, mostly cutting off contact with your family of origin), that doesn’t automatically make the situation less painful and isolating. And some forms of ‘dealing’ lead to social stigmas and further isolation. Stuff like this leaves very, very deep emotional scars. Saying ‘well do something about it instead of complaining’ implies that there’s some sort of easy answer out there. There isn’t.

          • It’s interesting to me because I feel like you and I have very similar situations regarding our Families of Origin. So I’m obviously not communicating my thoughts or admissions of my own flaws appropriately since instead of connecting on this, we continue to be at odds.

            I have no relationship/contact with my family of origin. It is hard and embarrassing and uncomfortable to be in this position in the world we live in when it seems everyone is always talking about their families.

            The responsibility came to me when I recognized the extreme toxicity of my family and understood I needed to leave them, confront them, change the way I felt about them, try and change them, etc… I tried it all. That’s my point. I tried things. I worked at it and eventually for me, I had to walk away. This piece lacked the aspect of doing anything about the problem and again, wrong though I may well be, that is what I have trouble with. I’m sincerely sorry if feeling this way makes me some terrible person.

          • malkavian

            Some people are at different stages of coping. The author seems to just be coming to a realization of how messed up her family dynamics are and likely needs time to fully process that information and decide how she wants to handle it. Even figuring that out takes time and a lot of deep thought. It’s not a snap decision where one automatically knows what the right course of action is-I wish it were because that would make life so much easier.

          • TigerLilie

            That doesn’t make you a terrible person. I think acting on a problem is the only way to find peace and resolution to it. That is how I operate as a person. Some people may disagree with that, but I also have a problem with people who complain and never act. And I don’t think it’s fair for someone else to say that having that perspective is insensitive or oversimplifying. We cope through action. Others don’t. Those who choose not to act annoy me with their complaining, but I also realize that it is well within their rights to complain and do nothing. I can be annoyed, because those are my feelings. But I do NOT believe it is my place to tell my complaining companion that they should act or stop blabbering on about his or her problems. If I get to the point where the complaining is overwhelming me, I take a step back and remove myself from the situation. We cope with things differently and that is perfectly natural and okay.

            I think that we need to recognize that we are having a conversation involving at least two very different types of people and that our opinions have no bearing on how the author may or may not handle her personal situation. So to call each other out, asserting that some of us are being insensitive to x,y, and z factors… well, it’s just childish.

          • Ali

            I agree with you, Meg. If my family was capable of responding positively to the type of advice people tend to give about these situations, well I wouldn’t be in the situation where I would need that kind of advice.

            Realizing my family dynamics are way messed up helped me out a lot. Having people reinforce my opinion that that the dynamics are indeed very messed up, helps me.

            Doing things… well. There’s not much I can do about them and how they choose to behave. Except deflect, disengage, and try to protect myself (and my partner) as much as I can. And accept that they will never change, as much as I can accept it.

            Interacting with them is still very difficult tho. I don’t know that anything will ever change that. There’s just too much damage.

          • Meg Keene

            This is a very much more articulate version of what I was trying to say. The reason we published this (other than it being so so well written and smart) is that reading things like this can allow people to realize dynamics are messed up, and feel less alone. That’s sort of as healing as it gets sometimes.

            But this, “If my family was capable of responding positively to the type of advice people tend to give about these situations, well I wouldn’t be in the situation where I would need that kind of advice” is so often true of these sorts of interpersonal messes. If it were as easy as say, talking to your mom (or, fill in the blank with whoever it is in your life) it would have been solved light years ago. As it is, you usually have to find a way to live with it. And that’s the trick. Knowing other people are doing it to, helps.

            The only reason I’m commenting about this at all, is because this sort of advice can make you feel worse. Because the situation makes you feel terrible, and now you feel like your a bad person because you know you’re not going to follow through on any of the well meaning advice. The reality is, on some level, you’ve tried something like it in a million small ways, or you just know it’s never going to help. SO. To those reading who can’t take the best advice in the world? Just remember: it’s not on you. It’s only on you to try to take care of yourself and your baby family, and try to be as kind as you can, when you can.

            That’s my two cents, at least.

          • alsoanon

            Yes — I’ve been on both sides of this situation. When someone close to me was going through this type of situation, it was so hard to watch the misery and despair that it caused, that I would find myself thinking, “Stop letting them take your joy! You deserve better, don’t let them make control your feelings, stand up to them!”

            But when it happened to me? Yeah, those comments weren’t helpful at all. I was perfectly aware that those people were stealing my joy and feeling pretty helpless about it. The most helpful thing that people said to me was, “I totally hear you and understand why you feel that way, I’ve been there, and I will be here for you, however you feel and whatever you need.”

            So yeah — it’s not your fault, you’re not alone, and please take care of yourself. And let your friends and partner help you bring joy to the occasion (also, high-five for your awesome new baby family and partner sticking up for you).

            Also, as someone who is in the habit of putting others’ needs before my own (and it sounds like the OP might have this habit too), something I felt was really helpful was to think of my situation as if it was someone else’s, instead. Write out my thought/feelings (just like this post), and then read it later and consider what I would say if it’s was a friend’s story. It really put things in perspective in a different way, and reminded me that what was happening wasn’t ok (which seems obvious from the outside, but hard to remember when you’re constantly being told how to feel or not feel, i.e. mute your joy, etc.)

            Lots of fist bumps and hugs — good luck, anonymous, and just remember there are a lot of internet strangers over here rooting for you.

          • stayce

            Meg, I hear where you’re coming from, and I’m sure that in many cases, you’re right– there may not be a way to change how a dysfunctional family member interacts with you. I really sympathize with the OP; how painful to have all of the happy moments in one’s life minimized because they’re somehow going to steal someone else’s happiness away. That’s not the OP’s fault, or the OP’s problem.
            But–this is in no way a criticism of how the OP has handled things in the past–I do wonder what her mom (or the rest of her family! Is everyone like this?) would say if the OP voiced some of the feelings in this letter. What if the next time her mom said let’s not make a big deal of this, the OP said “that’s not okay with me”?
            OP, maybe now isn’t the time for you to start thinking about this stuff; you have a lot on your plate! Only you can decide what makes you happy and comfortable when dealing with the unfair baggage your mom and sister have put on you. I’m not sure about APW’s policy on recommending other resources, but I have found Captain Awkward and the many, many links on that site discussing narcissism, dysfunctional families, and boundaries really supportive and helpful.

          • Chloe

            I think it can be sister mental illness, mom enabling and poster in a position where focusing on her own wants needs and experience may be the most healthy thing. None I these things are mutually. In cases where mental illness is an issue that can be the most difficult thing. Even though someone is suffering with an illness we may still not be equipped to support/interact with her.

        • Class of 1980

          Certainly, the OP can manage her reactions, but a talk with mom might not hurt either.

          I’ve seen this dynamic before in a family I know. The oldest became rich. The youngest was always being prevented from growing up. He was never expected to learn the skills you need to manage daily life. His mom even managed his checkbook until he was in his late thirties because she was afraid he wouldn’t do it right. She kept buying his underwear and some of his clothes as if he was a child. When he finally wrestled his checkbook away from mom, she was surprised that he could handle it.

          Mom was well-meaning, but is deceased now. The younger son is now financially dependent on the older son for any kind of retirement. He has been depressed his whole life and feels like a failure.

          The kind of upbringing diminishes a soul.

          Pity your sister too. Mom has set her up for a hard life as an adult. She will go through her days not believing in herself, and this could be the cause of most of her depression.

          • Meg Keene


    • LaikaCatMeow

      Bingo. My little sister sounds exactly like this little sister, down to the age difference. Every thing “wrong” with her life is a direct result of her choices and her attitude. Yet, she spends her time making everyone feel bad about her situation. She bullies my parents, who let her live at home rent-free. She bullies me and tried to make me feel bad for having a Masters, a new car, a stable romantic relationship.

      People like this are the worst. It breaks my heart, but I’ve learned to stop having sympathy for her bad behavior.

  • Amy March

    I think you are asking the wrong question. It can’t be “will she make the day about her.” You already know the answer to that is yes. The question has to be “what are the rest of us going to do about it?”. “self, when sister stubs toe just before walking down aisle, what will I do?”. And, importantly, “mom, you know my wedding day is going to be a big huge celebration of me and fiancé right? Not sister? I understand you want her to be happy, but can you try to focus on me, just for that day?”.

    Your sister has obviously gotten really good at getting the attention she wants, but you still have time to practice taking care of yourself instead. And if your friends want to take you out to celebrate- try saying yes!

    • emilyg25

      And also, because you can change your mother’s behavior no more easily than your sister’s, maybe try to tell yourself, “This is my wedding day, and I will have a fabulous time and be as happy as I like and proudly accept the light that will shine on me and my partner.” Seriously, you deserve it.

    • Stephanie B.

      I agree with all of this. I’m actually appalled that your mother would tell you to not make celebrations about YOUR LIFE “all about you.” Well, who ELSE should they be about?

      You’ve gone along with this your whole life, but please don’t do it for your wedding. Your wedding IS all about you and your partner. That’s the POINT of a wedding. It’s not about your sister. And you shouldn’t subdue your joy and celebration because your sister isn’t experiencing the exact same amount of success and joy that you are.

      I hope you have a wonderful wedding, and truly celebrate and truly shine as much as you want.

      • copper

        This. I feel like the next time mom comes out with this is time to tell her that you aren’t MAKING it all about you, it IS about you because it’s your event, your big fat life-changing event. There’s no need to make it about you because it already is, and there’s no need to make it about something or someone else either because that would be fake and silly. And if these people can’t handle it being about you, that’s their problem not yours.

      • Leslie MacDonald

        YES! Reading this made me SO ANGRY on the writer’s behalf at her family – I realize there are certain issues that you need to be sensitive about, but to *always* be treading on eggshells like that? UGH. The writer’s getting MARRIED – she SHOULD be excited, and her family should be excited for her!

        • CallistaS

          Same here. Why should she shirk in the back ON HER OWN WEDDING DAY? That is completely ridiculous and I am so upset on her behalf that her own mother cannot get over herself and realize how selfish she is being and has been for this poor girls entire life!

  • Anne Schwartz

    This is so tough. I read this and just felt for you.

    Congratulations on your degree, wedding, and new life. I am so happy for you.

    • M.


  • Ali

    I wrote a long comment and I thought it was all nice, but it got eaten by the comments monster. *sad* I’m going to try again, cause my family is very not functional, so this post speaks to me.

    Your family shouldn’t be treating you this way. This is not ok, and you deserve better.
    They are trying to steal your joy to give it to your sister, to even out some kind of scale they have in their head. I guess they would be ok if both their daughters were slightly miserable, rather than one happy and one sad. Because that’s even? That is wrong.

    Your happiness is not transferable to your miserable sister. It’s not ok for your family to keep silencing you, muffling you. Stopping you. Holding you back.

    Your partner sounds very wise. You should listen to them. I’m glad you have found a supportive partner.

    I had to realize that I would never have the happy sisters-as-friends relationship with my own sister. Our relationship was just too toxic, and it was poisoning me. It’s hard and so painful. It’s hard to see other people having friendships with their siblings. Try not to compare yourself to them.

    Also, anything you decide to do or not to do about your family dynamics is ok. You have to make a safe space for yourself and your baby family. If your parents and sister are not willing or able to provide you with that safe place, it’s ok to disengage, a little or a lot. You do whatever you need to and make sure your are ok.

    Good luck! It gets easier the more you do it.

  • Bluebell

    Some people always need things to be about them. My wedding taught me this in technicolour. My mother and my maid-of-honour both need to be the centre of attention and when they are not they act out. They acted out all over my wedding.

    But my wedding, being the bride, allowed me to understand for the very first time that their demands were not reasonable. For the very first time I knew that this one thing, my wedding day, was allowed to be about me (me and my husband) and not them. I finally saw that my mother and my m-o-h would always insist that what they wanted was more important than my needs, but that wasn’t necessarily true. It’s just that they were prepared to throw tantrums and shame me with labels like ‘difficult’ if I didn’t give them the attention they craved.

    My wedding let me hold onto the belief that sometimes what I want does matter.

    My wedding altered my relationships forever but not in the ways I expected and in an incredibly painful way.

    But it was worth it. Now, I no longer put up with people who make everything about them, they can go elsewhere. In my world what I want now matters. This shift in perspective is the biggest wedding gift I could ever receive.

    Best wishes for your future marriage. I wish you well for your wedding. If the only thing you get out of it is the conviction to say, ‘Do you know what, I count too in this family’ then it will be worth it.

  • Chelsea Baker

    This is a situation that feels familiar to me as well. I am also the oldest and “The Good One” to my brother’s “The Bad One.” Not that my brother is bad. But I think that with siblings, perhaps especially so in 2-child families, it is so easy to label children and we grow into the roles we are assigned. That being said, I agree with the comments below. It is not OK for your family to stifle your happiness or make you feel undeserving of celebrating your marriage. I don’t have any wise advice to give other than to echo the APW mantra: your wedding is not an imposition. You will be surrounded by friends and other family members who are thrilled to celebrate your commitment to your new baby family. Your happiness will add to their happiness. Of course it sucks that your mother and sister can’t or won’t share in your happiness the way you want. But there are plenty of other people who will. I think it could actually make you feel better to revisit your friends’ suggestion to have a small shower or party to celebrate your marriage. Surrounding yourself with people in your community who care about you and genuinely want to celebrate you can help you to stake a claim in your happiness.

  • Emma Klues

    I wonder if it’s hard for her to motivate to achieve or be happy when she isn’t seeing any examples of a joyous life (if your joy is being hidden or downplayed by your family). I am wondering if seeing a day be all about celebrating you could be good to inspire her to want to create a situation in which everyone could celebrate her.

    Just like some people struggle without examples of strong marriages, I wonder if people struggle in their lives without examples of successful, joyous ones.

    I in NO way want to imply that you are at fault, I am wondering if this concept might be good fuel for convincing your folks to celebrate your day wholeheartedly!

    • Emily M

      This is exactly what I was thinking! Hiding joy and not giving the sister opportunities to experience the warm feelies about happiness in someone else’s life doesn’t benefit her AT ALL.

    • Rowany

      Agreed, plus this highlights a simple conditioning problem. Given that her sister likely craves attention, she knows 2 things: 1) being unhappy and sabotaging yourself gives you attention and 2) being happy and successful doesn’t. If her parent’s want both sisters to be happy, they should celebrate BOTH of their successes, and not rushing to their side when they have a crisis. Once the sister tries to handle a crisis on her own, THEN give her a pat on the back or what not. I doubt the sister is doing any of this attention-seeking constantly but the family definitely needs to work together to break this pattern of behavior. Because going into a crisis anytime the OP has a success is not a coincidence, it’s clearly a conditioned pattern.

    • Amanda L

      This. The whole time I was reading this post, I was thinking that stifling your own joy and celebration doesn’t let her see what a full, rich, happy life really looks like. It also lets her ‘win.’ Her ‘if I can’t be happy, nobody should be’ attitude is horrific (and that may not be her attitude, but it’s what your mother has turned it into), and I pray that you and your family find the help that you need to be able to share your unbridled joy on your wedding day, of all days.

    • copper

      It just reinforces the perception that negative attention is the only kind available.

  • Zoe

    As I read this, I wondered if little sister is depressed or struggling with other mental health issues. To be that unhappy ALL the time suggests that something is going on beyond typical self-centeredness. Perhaps her mother’s (ineffective but well-intentioned) way of trying to ‘fix’ the situation is to focus emotional energy on little sister.

    Original author: Can you have an honest talk with both your sister and your mother? Use the classic “When you… it makes me feel…” language (i.e. When you skip out early on trying on dresses, it makes me feel lonely and sad.” ) Depression can, unfortunately, make people behave in self-centered ways. If the sister has any self-awareness, she might be able to recognize it and apologize. Having an open and honest conversation (non-accusatory, just trying to find out where the other is coming from) may be the start to the adult relationship you want. Of course, if sister WON’T have a conversation, that’s good information to have too.

    • KC

      Yes, I totally thought this as well.

      (And there being mental health issues would not mean “oh, she can make me do anything and I have to do it, because mental health issues” – it just means that you potentially have a framework for making those decisions. Just because someone’s attending your party on crutches doesn’t mean you can’t have dancing – you might want to make sure that the venue’s navigable, or make other reasonable allowances, like having somewhere she can sit with her broken ankle propped up and still be on the edge of the party, but you don’t have to just squelch everything because… something.)

      (but it could just be sibling issues and her falling behind what she feels to be the expectations and having a hard time “measuring up” and the entire family making a mess of the whole situation by sulking, enabling, drama-queening, offering attention for unwanted behavior, etc. But responding with pity instead of anger [even when it’s a “no, we can’t allow that behavior”] is sometimes good anyway.)(says the person whose sibling issues look absolutely nothing like these, although “differentiation” was a theme [you take that road, I’ll take this one, then we can’t be competing and no one feels badly about winning/losing], but still – take with a large grain of salt)

    • Alison O

      Totally agree, based on the limited info available in the post (insert “I’m not authorized to give medical advice” etc. disclaimer here). As someone who has suffered major depression and has had loved ones struggle with it, as well, I’m always surprised at the “some people are just determined to be unhappy” type of responses. In my circle there is high awareness (and compassion) around mental illness, so I forget that this is not generally the case. People who have not suffered mental illness or are close to people who have may not be aware that often the sufferer has some level of awareness of their ‘wake’ and feels a great deal of guilt and shame about it, but they are not equipped to translate those feelings into changes in behavior, thoughts, etc.

      I think it is especially unfair to ‘blame’ the ill person in this case because it sounds like the parents, in particular, have enabled the continuation if this family dynamic. Repeating, “she’s just in a hard time right now,” shows ignorance, willful or not, of the seriousness of the fact that younger sister is almost always in a hard time. They may think they are being sensitive, but this way of dealing with the problem does no favor whatsoever to younger sister because it ignores/doesn’t recognize the true problem she may be dealing with (that perhaps could be more effectively addressed through psychotherapy or psychopharmacology). It is obviously extremely unfair to older sister, as well.

      I would personally start with talking to the parents. The post is so well-written, reasonable, and poignant, I might just send it in a letter with “This is how I feel. Can we talk about this?” as a starting point. Maybe they are willing to examine the family system, maybe not; that’s not within the control of the author. However, either way, seeking therapy independently could be helpful for her to learn how best to cope with this unfortunate situation.

    • BD

      It’s impossible to for sure determine only from the info in this post, but it does appear that some kind of mental illness is at play here. Actually, the little sister sounds a bit like me when I was in my late teens/early twenties, with pretty much the same family situation going on. I struggled so hard in those years, and it turns out I did (do) suffer from severe anxiety, which can lead to depression, which can lead to resentment of an older sibling who is doing well. However, in my case my parents weren’t as enabling as the mother in this post appears to be. And that’s definitely not helping the situation. It wasn’t until I got away from my childhood home, and began to accomplish things on my own (though they were meager accomplishments at first) that I began to live a somewhat normal and healthy life. If my parents had constantly played down everyone else’s achievements, and always insisted on enabling my self-defeating habits, I’d probably still be living with them, barely eking by, the pariah in the room.

  • js

    I think it’s the hardest thing in the world when your family, who is supposed to have your back in this world, is continually a disappointment. I also think it’s hardest, for people who have a big heart and put others first, to admit those people will never to treat you the way you deserve. We all want to believe the best in others. I am where you are and you have to protect yourself. Don’t change who you are and let those people you’ve found as your family, your supporters, lift you up for a change. Let people help you, celebrate you and care about you and-even if it’s just for your wedding day-stop worrying about and putting others first. Baby steps, with your baby family. Then try doing it the next day and the next, until it feels okay to share your joy and shout your happiness from the rooftops. You do deserve to be happy. Congratulations to you on all you’ve achieved in your life.

  • Laura C

    As much as focusing on your sister, I’d focus on your parents (or just your mom? I guess you don’t explicitly mention your father). It sounds like they’ve/your mom has been enforcing her unhappiness on you for her whole life — it’s definitely hurting you and it’s probably not doing her any favors, either. She’s never going to change as long as mom is there, encouraging her behavior. Why would she? And it sounds like the conversation with your parents is actually the one that would need to happen first, because if you just go talk to your sister, she’ll run to mom and get back-up. And on your wedding day, having your mom there and happy for you and understanding that this is a wonderful thing and not an unfortunate overshadowing of your sister will be just as important as anything that happens with your sister.

    • LM

      I agree that it’s not just the relationship with your sister. It must have been so hard for both of you — you to feel like you can’t express how you’re feeling and her to feel like her upset seems so dangerous to people. I imagine a changed family dynamic would be nice for both of you. Best of luck as you move forward with your wedding. You can’t control how she acts before or during your wedding, of course, but the more you can accept where your relationship is currently and see her upset as something not to be feared, the more you can practice celebrating the good things going on, and also building an adult relationship with her, if that’s what you want.

    • APracticalLaura

      I agree – I wonder if you set a time to talk to your mom and tell her what your needs are if that would help you get through to her. For instance, instead of saying that you want her to stop treating your sister a certain way, instead frame it as a: here’s what I need as an adult, as your daughter, and/or on my wedding day. Using a lot of “I feel” statements can help express your feelings and guide this conversation without being accusatory or confrontational. Good luck – doesn’t sound like an easy conversation to have!

  • This post breaks my heart. Your partner is 100% right. As much as I can understand parents of young children wanting to make sure no one feels left out, this emphasis creates adults, like your sister, who don’t learn to be happy for other people. Children need to learn early on that not everything is about them, and that sometimes we need to support our family members when something great is happening in their life.

    I know you can muster the strength to get through this time! Have a bridal shower with your friends for sure – it should light you up to see all the people in your life who can be happy for you.

    • Kat Robertson

      I second the bridal shower thing! It sounds like you have some friends who want to show you a good time, so let them. :-) Sister can decide for herself whether or not to attend or participate.

    • HannahESmith

      I also agree that you should ask your friends if they would be willing to throw a bachelorette party or wedding shower for you. I felt bad about asking my sister (and my maid of honor) to spend the money on my bachelorette party, so I asked my best friend if she would want to, and she was thrilled. (She even got my sister involved, but our dynamics are quite the same as yours). People want to celebrate with you. Let them.

  • Kat R

    I 100% hear you on the “Responsible Oldest Child With Troubled Younger Sibling” thing. This post reminds me of pretty much every day of my life until a few years ago when I (1) finally decided I had had enough of that and (2) moved several hundred miles away (for career reasons). I felt responsible for my brother since the day our parents got divorced, and that thinking royally messed me up. A couple years of me living in another state and VERY limited contact, as well as his new marriage meant that this past Thanksgiving was the first time I spent a pleasant evening with him since we were very small children. Still, my trust in that relationship is limited. I hope, but do not expect it to last.
    If you’re like me, you will not stand up for yourself because you deserve to celebrate, be successful, and have the spotlight from time to time (though clearly this is true) but maybe it will help to hear from someone else who has been there that this dynamic is not good for your sister, either. The best way to help her is to live in a joyful, authentic way yourself and place healthy boundaries on your relationship. She has no incentive to make healthy life changes when she is pampered and sheltered to an unhealthy degree when things are going badly. If your relationship with your parents is such that you can encourage them to do the same I would, but if not I would at the very least communicate to them that it is unreasonable to expect you to downplay your wedding celebration (or other major life events) for her. They probably already know this, but hearing it from you might help them to make the connection and realize what an unreasonable thing that is to ask.
    I hope some of that helps. Also, congratulations, because it sounds like you have accomplished a lot of great things! It also sounds like you are very lucky in your partner. :-)

  • april

    “As our wedding approaches, I can’t help but question if she will truly be standing by my side. I know she will physically be there. But will she be present? Will she allow herself to be happy for us? Or will she make the day about her?”
    I hate to say it, but you need to stop asking yourself this. It sounds like your sister is still very much working through some issues, and while it’s great that you and your family want to support her in that process, that doesn’t mean you should let her hi-jack all your happy occassions. I know it’s easier said than done, but try not to let yourself care how your sister feels on your wedding day. Try to focus on the rest of your friends and family (not to mention your partner) who will be there overflowing with happiness and good wishes for you. Maybe, as your sister begins to pull her life together, she’ll be able to share in your joy. But if she doesn’t and/or she can’t, that’s ultimately her problem and not yours.

    • exactly. and SHE is responsible for herself- no one else. She is responsible for her joy, her happiness, her feelings – that’s her job as a human, not yours.

  • It’s funny (odd) to me that anyone is even able to enjoy their wedding when so often weddings bring out our problems and shine a spotlight on them.

    • KC

      They can also have a tendency to bring out our gold and shine a disco ball on it. So there’s that. :-)

      (I really enjoyed my wedding, but wedding planning was Horrible.)

  • em

    Ugh — I am so sorry. I grew up with a (much much less severe) version of this, and I think a certain amount of that behavior is normal. The amount you’re describing is not, however, normal.

    For me, getting engaged was a big turning point. With the support and validation of my now-husband, I was able to identify what was unfair. His support gave me the courage to say something about what I was feeling.

    In my situation, my mom and I were fighting a lot in the early engagement stage and I just reached a breaking point wwhen sis and I were driving up to meet our mom. I broke into sobs, and told my sis I felt I had to hide (or your word –mute) my joy, and, and that I desperately needed someone to feel giddy with. And my sister seriously stepped it up during the engagement – and actually took it too far when she had a true crisis the weekend of my wedding.

    It may be different for you. For me, it was about my mom going all mamma bear and protecting a cub who didn’t actually need it. In your situation, it sounds like the baby bear may have some pathology to work through. But here’s my advice.

    #1: You have to ask for what you need. My sister was always really good at that. I wasn’t. You clearly arent. It’s something to work on.

    #2 In order to ask for what you need, you need to believe you deserve it. Your partner is giving you the gift of validation. Your friends are, too. APW is backing all of them up. You deserve full-throated joy, lady!

    #3 The people who are there for you in your joy are also the ones you want there when things get tough. The world has thrown some tough stuff at my young marriage — and I’ve needed help working through it from friends. I’ve realized that to talk about our strugglse with anyone who’s not firmly on the side of our marriage would be impossible. Joy in the good times is a pretty good indicator for who’s on the right team.

  • Meg

    If your parents are just going to keep letting this bullshit happen where you tip toe around to make her happy, you need to get your friends around you to let you have the spotlight for once. As the big sister it isn’t your job to spare her feelings at every step, it’s your job to lead the way and show by example. Her shortcomings are not your problem. I say this AS a little sister who lives in the shadow of a sister who always got the attention in a very similar way.

  • Kestrel

    While my experiences are nowhere near the extreme levels you’ve gone through, this reminds me of my experiences. For me, however, it’s not so much my siblings being miserable, more just that they didn’t achieve as highly as I did. Add insult to injury, and I’m 5 years younger than my brothers and 7 years younger than my sister.

    Oh, you graduated with a 4.0? Yay! But better not celebrate too much. Your brothers only got 3.7 and your sister only got 3.0. You got a scholarship? Fantastic! Better not mention it too much – your brothers had problems finding them. You got engaged? Great! Better not play it up too much though – your sister just got engaged too and you don’t want to draw attention away from her. Got into grad school? Great! But your brother is really struggling to find a grad school right now, so you better not mention it. Got a job? Great! Better not say too much. Your brother is having such a hard time finding one.

    Sometimes it really sucks being the youngest. I realize I’ve likely been spoiled a bit, but it necessitates that every thing I do is compared directly to my older siblings – and there’s 3 of them to think about! I understand, but at the same time, I just get frustrated – and this is something I’ve talked a lot about with my family. It feels as if anything I fail at means I didn’t measure up to them, but anything I succeed at can’t really be celebrated because it has to be equal.

    • Kestrel

      Whoops. I haven’t actually talked much to my family – meant to say my fiance. I’ve also talked some to my therapist I was seeing for depression.

    • malkavian

      This isn’t limited to youngest siblings. I’m the oldest, and my mother has at one point directly blamed me for all of my younger brother’s failures, essentially telling me that HIS failures and poor behavior (we’re talking, like, arrests here) are the result of pressure to live up to MY successes. Now, the dynamic in my family is different than a lot of people here in that there’s less active “You’d better not talk about the good things in your life” and more “Poor sibling, let’s coddle him and make him feel special while more-or-less ignoring the kid that’s non-problematic”. Honor roll? Well, it’s normal for you so you don’t get a reward (and the gods help you if you don’t make it), but little brother gets rewards if he makes honor roll. Oh, your brother keeps calling you horrible things, like ‘yeti’ or ‘bitch’? That’s cool, but don’t you dare ever call him stupid or we’ll make you regret it because you’re being horrible to your widdle brudder.

  • Eh

    This post really spoke to me. My husband’s brother and his wife have some pretty horrible memories from their wedding (they have good memories of their ceremony but they are upset about their reception and other events surrounding their wedding) and tend to like to be the focus of attention so us being engaged and us getting married was very downplayed when they were around. We were trying to minimize the family drama because we didn’t want horrible memories from our wedding. For the most part this worked though in the end they didn’t come and celebrate with us, but that was their choice.

    I wish that someone had stepped in and say to them that they need to be happy for us and that sometimes other people will be the focus of attention and not just them. That said I also wish that we had more support to celebrate our engagement and wedding when they were around (my husband and I felt very isolated as his parents were pressuring us to keep things low key for the family). For example, we announced we were engaged at Thanksgiving so everyone was there and we were congratulated but the focus wasn’t our engagement it was Thanksgiving. We didn’t have a separate engagement party or anything. During the planning process we rarely talked about our wedding around them (even though my BIL was supposed to be our best man – anytime we tried to bring up our wedding around him he shut down because he felt that we were doing things for our wedding too early or it would remind him of something that they didn’t like about their wedding). At family gatherings we didn’t talk about our wedding, even at a family meal the week before our wedding (my husband’s aunt and grandmother asked me a couple of questions and I answered them and kept my answers short but I wasn’t going on and on about our wedding plans like my SIL had before her wedding – there was a wedding present that was delivered that day by another relative, which made things awkward).

    A friend told me a few weeks before my wedding (when it was becoming clear that my BIL’s family probably wasn’t coming to our wedding and I was pretty stressed about changing our plans because then we wouldn’t have a Best Man) that we need to celebrate with the people that are present and not dwell and the people who aren’t. So we celebrated and we had a great time. I have awesome memories from my wedding – the wedding was us and even more perfect than I could have imagined – and I am in the process of getting over the stuff that happened before our wedding (the four of us had a nice chat this weekend).

    I really needed that friend to tell me that. For me the engagement stuff and the wedding planning stuff isn’t that important to me. We don’t like being the centre of attention so it was easy for us to respect his parents’ wishes (though it did result in us feeling like we were walking on egg shells all the time and it made it difficult to discuss our wedding plans with our Best Man). I am glad that I celebrated our marriage at our wedding.

    In the next few months and the next few years we are going to be the centre of attention in the family. We just bought a house (we move in January) and we are planning on having children (they already have three kids and are done having kids). So we need to celebrate these things (as much as we want) even if they are there and not “celebrate softly” because they are around.

  • Carly

    Man, as per usual APW has timing down pat. Had a tough family dinner last night with a mother and brother who, to varying degrees, are very, VERY similar to your sister. Gotta love the holidaze.

    I feel for you, OP, but take some small comfort in knowing there’s a big community of internet strangers who are excited for you; about your wedding, your TWO degrees (seriously, that’s awesome), and your happiness in general. And sometimes, letting friends fill in where family can’t (or won’t) is more fulfilling than you’d expect.

  • RW

    I have a close family member who is really good at making everyone around her bend to her ridiculous requests and demands, and she has been doing this for YEARS. There’s been an underlying tension between us my entire life but I thought things had gotten better between us in the past 5-10 years. But this spring, she started being extremely shitty to me and though it was hard to admit, I knew that a lot of it centered around her not being happy for me and feeling unhappy with her own life situation.

    The difference this time around? Since I hadn’t been home and around my family for a while, I had a completely new perspective on the whole situation…that is, I could see how completely unacceptable and shitty her behavior was and was able to call it out accordingly. When I was younger, I basically had to go along with what my mom or grandma felt was the acceptable way to handle the situation…which was enabling her behavior by giving in to her ridiculous demands. As an adult I was able to say, “Oh HELL no,” and push back, while also saying to them, Look, this shit isn’t OK and she needs to deal with her shit and/or seek professional help because this is a completely unacceptable way for an adult to behave. And if she doesn’t, fine, but I’m not playing this bullshit game anymore. And you know,…I don’t think my family had ever really stopped and thought, Oh, right, this ISN’T normal or acceptable adult behavior. And though it was really painful and upsetting, things got handled VERY differently this time around.

    So I guess my point is, anon, it’s never too late to put your foot down and say no. No I’m not going to let someone else’s baggage run the show and no I’m not going to plan my huge life events around someone else’s feelings. Don’t buy into the idea that this is OK and that you’re powerless to do anything about it. For me, one of the best parts of adulthood has been getting to free myself from the family bullshit I had to put up with as a kid.

    • Stephanie B.

      I agree with this so much. It’s very hard to step out of old patterns, but it’s definitely possible, especially with the support and love of your partner. It’s not unreasonable to celebrate successes and life’s joys.

      That said, you can’t force your family to celebrate with you. But you are so lucky that your friends want to celebrate the joy of your marriage with a shower or party, so let them. Let them be there to fill you up with joy on your wedding day, which IS all about you and your partner!

      • Anon, so many hugs. I’ve been there at times in my life and well, it’s exactly as you describe (though other family members).

        To comment on this specific thread: Ditto all of this. I finally (finally) enjoyed wedding planning when I just stopped really caring about pleasing all of the people. it was the first time I was really able to put my foot down around a lot of things/issues, and at the same time gave me the courage to stick up for my baby family and to really grow into myself.

    • mildred

      Paying bills – yucky. Fixing your own messes – meh. Not putting up with childhood b*llsh*t?

      F*ing PRICELESS.

    • Gina

      This SO much. It is not too late, and the wedding is the perfect opportunity to put your foot down! I felt from this post a little bit of a fatalist attitude–“I guess we’ll have to wait and see how she handles it”– but I think you know how she’s going to handle it, and the question is how YOU’RE going to handle it. Kudos for picking a strong, supportive partner and supportive friends who will back you up on this one! They want to celebrate your union. Let them, and let yourself, rewrite the script.

  • Oh, HAI, I feel your feels.

    A piece of unsolicited advice? STOP. Just stop kowtowing to her needs, wishes and desires. Some people are very depressed – and your sister sounds like one of them – and you cannot fix them. You. Can. Not. Fix. Them. Only a therapist, potentially medicine, and lots of work can do that. It is not on you to do, nor your mother, nor your sister’s friends.

    But also – and here is where I am probably overstepping more, but I like you, anonymous APW writer, and want you to be happy – maybe the issue is that your expectations of your sister are too low. Maybe she needs a little less coddling, and a little more “step the hell up, lady, and do your job as my sister.” Who knows? She may just rise to the challenge.

    And, if all else fails, wine.

  • Moe

    I just want to focus on the very best part of this, your partner is awesome. I love his insight and willingness to speak up to you and For You. I understand so much of this dynamic and sympathize, I pray that your wedding is a true celebration of your commitment to each other, as it should be…without hushed tones or apologies.

    • new anon

      or her insight (?)

      • Moe

        either one. :)

  • Kayjayoh

    Reading this, I am very grateful for the relationship I have with my sister. She does have depression and has had a rough time of it as an adult. However, while she sometimes needs help and support, she is also very present with the rest of the family as we have our own celebrations. It would be very easy for her to focus only on her own troubles, but she doesn’t. Sometimes *I* start to focus on her troubles, and think about how I might tiptoe around them, but this post reminds me that this is my own choice, not something she has ever demanded of me.

    • Kelly

      I could have written this exact comment.

  • Meigh McPants

    The thought I kept coming back to while reading this is that it sounds like your family has been treating joy as a finite resource. There’s not a pool of “good stuff” from which everything you pull takes away from what your sister can have. There is not a limited amount of happiness allotted to your family. Sounds like maybe mom and sister need a reminder of this? I wish you the very best and hope your wedding is amazing. You deserve to be wildly happy. We all do.

    • Perfectly said! And I’d want to add “and get a grip!” to the mom and sister – reading that made me want to stand up for the writer so badly!

    • Amanda

      I passed a church this morning on my way to lab with the quote: “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.” Made me stop for a second, and go whoa – so true. As with joy — you lose no joy out of your life by feeling joy for someone else. This family (sister, mother) need to practice a bit of this.

  • Sarah

    This is an amazing post. So glad this kind of conversation exists.

  • Leslie

    There has been things on APW that have resonated with me many times, but this….I could have written this. In my case, I am the third of four, but the youngest of the sisters in my family. We are fairly spread out in age, so my sisters got a running head start on using all the allotted opportunities for spectacular mistakes before I got a chance. Pretty much my entire childhood for about as long as I was aware was filled with family meetings about each of their crises-of-the-moment. My mom handled it terribly, usually breaking down and leaning on me (even as a child) and my father for support. Meanwhile, I found myself internalizing everything with no outlet and continued to try to be as perfect as possible so as to not tip the family into utter chaos. My sisters grew into adulthood and continued to play what I call “The Contest of Who Has it Worst.” It started verbally, always trying to one-up each other with who was more oppressed that day. Eventually it became a self-fulfilling prophecy and now as adults, they have found themselves in pretty dire situations. In my case, the results have become large-scale crises (think losing custody of her children, in one case), but ones of their own making. My ability to manage this became more difficult once engaged because I had to come to terms with my own expectations. When I called home to announce my engagement, my mother couldn’t stay on the phone for more than a couple minutes and could barely muster a congratulations because she was too drugged up on medication for anxiety and depression that she was prescribed following a mental breakdown prompted by my sister’s crisis. Throughout the process, they have remained only slightly engaged, and I’ve usually felt like I couldn’t bring up the wedding too much because it wasn’t fair and seemed trivial, and often felt like I could hear the eye rolls when I talked about being happy. All of this eventually culminated in my own mini breakdown on the day before Thanksgiving when, sobbing, I told my fiance I was pretty sure I was never going to be allowed to be happy. Sometimes you have to say what you are thinking to realize how ridiculous it is. We ended up scrapping our wedding because the pressure and ultimate disappointment of family expectations was becoming too much to handle (among also saving a boatload of money). Now we are getting married in three weeks, starting for scratch. The timetable means I don’t have time to focus on anything else (I am also working two jobs) but what needs to be done and it has help mute expectations on my end. I haven’t decided if this was a healthy way to take back my happiness, or just a large-scale operation in avoidance, but I sure as hell feel a lot better now. I don’t have any advice for the OP. The truth is that family dysfunction sucks, especially when you are the one trying to hold it all together. But there are people who know how you feel and are cheering for you to find your own personal happiness, even if it is amid other people’s (often self-inflicted) misery.

    • Kelsey

      “continued to try to be as perfect as possible so as not to tip the faimly into utter chaos”. This describes me, and my percieved notions about the role I play in my family perfectly. I don’t know if I ever consciously thought this, but somewhere in my head I think I believed (probably still do a little bit) that if my life fell apart, my mom would probably kill herself or go insane… That and being the younger sister of a woman whose life is far from under control. My mom tries really hard not to let the stress/misery that results from my dad and sister’s actions (not helped by her own dysfunctional coping mechanisms) get in the way of her being happy for me and my wedding, but she doesn’t always (usually) succeed.

  • Kelsey

    My situation isn’t exactaly the same, but I can relate. Last night I told my sister she was not going to be a bridesmaid. A few months ago, after we got in an argument where she said she no longer wanted to be a bridesmaid, I told her that she wasn’t allowed to use it to manipulate me–if she said she didn’t want to be in my wedding party once more, I would hold her to it. Last night, she said it again. Tomorrow I’m shipping her dress back to Ann Taylor. Her son is extremely important to my fiancee and I–they live with my parents, so I see him most days of the week, my fiancee and I have been dating since before he was born, so he’s seen him more than his father, and my fiancee and I have seriously discussed the possiblity of adopting him if she begins doing drugs again. I’m worried that I will give in and let her back into the wedding party and things won’t get any better, or that she will punish me by not coming/not letting my nephew be the ring bearer, or starting an argument at my wedding.

    • Leslie

      Perhaps we are kindred spirits. During my original wedding planning, I tried to reconcile with one of my sisters, with whom I had been on rough — at at times not-speaking — terms for a few years. It all quickly fell apart when I sent a group email to my bridesmaids with links to three dresses, ranging in price from $60 to $80. What I received back from her was at least three, extremely long, hate-filled emails calling my materialistic and pretty much a just a horrible person for even asking anyone to consider such an outrageous request, all while digging up grudges she had held on to that were at least a decade old. I asked her to not be in my wedding party and I don’t expect her to attend at all, but like you, I fear how this will affect if my niece, with whom I am very close, will be able to attend.

  • humorsofbandon

    I totally understand where you’re at. My sister is exactly the same. Our family constantly walks on eggshells with her. It sucks, and it sometimes feels like being in a prison of our own making, but it feels better than the alternative. When she goes off the handle, it makes everyone else’s life a little worse and it hurts my mother SO much. The rest of us would sort of like to take her to task more but it breaks my mom’s heart to see that she has an unhappy child who cannot find ways to make herself happy. It would hurt my mom even more to just confront my sister and call her on her bs, and I can’t do that to my mom.

    My now-husband could not understand this dynamic in the months leading up to our wedding, and it hurt him to see my reaction when my sister would unleash on me for things that I thought were me trying to accommodate her and let her be more at the center of attention (i.e.: with her permission I planned my bachelorette party around when she would be back from where she lives abroad in an effort to include her as maid of honor, and she tore me a new one afterward for making everything about me and ruining her trip home). He can’t stand her and as far as he’s concerned she’s not welcome to stay with us in our apartment. She has ruined every major family event that he has been part of, and I can see why he thinks she is a lost cause.

    Having been there, all I can say is this – you only get one big day like this, and she will make her own choices about being miserable whether or not you get to have the day you want. There’s a point at which you have to stop reducing your own happiness to try and bolster hers, because it’s not going to work. Whatever your mom’s opinion, I hope that you have other people who will back you up, help you plan a wonderful day, and act as a barrier between you and your sister so that she can’t get you down that day. Congrats, and happy wedding.

  • I’ve happily celebrated all my sister’s high points (when she has let me – we don’t have the greatest relationship, because she doesn’t like me very much), but her wedding was REALLY hard for me. I had left my ex husband three months prior, and I KNEW they were going to emphasize how “marriage is permanent and FOREVER.” Also, she didn’t ask me to be in the wedding, which hurt me a lot. I ended up having a panic attack before the wedding, but once a couple of my cousins got there, I was okay. They distracted me through the rest of it.

    I know it’s not the same as your situation. Your sister sounds like the attention needs to be all about her, all the time. But sometimes your siblings happy times just happen to be really tough to go through, because it reminds you of how you aren’t measuring up. Of how much you’ve failed.

    I remember when my sister graduated from college in 2011, her then-boyfriend / now husband asked me, “So Stephanie, does this motivate you to finish your degree?” I was, for the record, one unit short of completing my BA, but I didn’t have the money to pay for that unit. ($800 is a lot of money when you make $14/hour!). That REALLY hurt. I was there, happily celebrating, with gift in hand, and he had to remind me that I wasn’t measuring up. That I was less successful than she.

    So I kindof understand where your sister is coming from, but I think she needs to be WAY less dramatic about it. She needs to be there, with a smile on her face, and happy for you. But no one needs to remind her about how where she is in her life. And quite honestly, she is 4 years younger than you, and she should not be where you are. She is always going to be slightly behind you, just because she is younger, and I hope she realizes that.

  • Helen S.

    This post made me feel very grateful for my siblings! I could definitely be accused of stealing my siblings’ thunder at times. I attended the same school as one of my siblings – I graduated and got a good paying job and he dropped out and has struggled a bit. But he completely put on a happy face and supported me. Thanks for the reminder of how awesome that was for him to do. I’m sorry your sister can’t be happy for you and your parents aren’t calling her out for it, but it sounds like you have a partner who is supportive to lean on.

  • Anon

    I have read this piece several times, and it resonates with me in many ways. I felt a full roller coaster of emotions reading it and have had to read it over several times just to process my feelings on it. First, while this seems to be an extreme case with your sister, I hit me that I know people like this. People for whom I have downplayed my own happiness so as not to offend them. People who have taken happy events and acted out and made it about themselves. I didn’t even realize I have been enabling some of this behavior- I want to thank you for making me think and opening my eyes to something I hadn’t fully seen.
    The other way this resonates with me is that I have a sister and she is in my wedding, and just like you I crave that special sister relationship with her. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to fully let it go, despite feeling hurt by her behavior over and over. I’m so glad we’ve been talking more about sister relationships here- they are so hard and so complex, and this post so beautifully illustrates why that is the case. It’s kind of the other side of the coin to Stephanie’s wonderful piece about her sister. I love reading these pieces so much. It makes me feel like I’m not the only one.
    To whoever wrote this, know that you are not alone. Sending you big hugs. XX.

  • ((hug))
    Sounds like a hard place to be.
    Please take some time to celebrate yourselves. The way you want to celebrate. Put yourselves and your new baby family first for once.

    Have your bachelorette party. Let a friend who is keen for it to happen organise it.

    And please, please, dont let your sisters next disaster derail your wedding. You know it could happen. Celebrate your asses off at your wedding. Come back and tell us how you did it, and how wonderful it was.

  • Tania

    I felt your weariness reading this. I have no smart advice but I think I kinda know how you feel. A friend said to me after my wedding that my sisters seemed to make themselves the centre of the universe at my wedding. She was kind of right. And I let it happen because that’s just how it’s always been. I hope you find a way through it and celebrate your wedding unreservedly!

  • Anonymous Also

    I could have written this post. I’m so sorry about your situation. It is really, really hard to have a sister who struggles so and a family that tiptoes around her. In my case, I am confident that mental illness is a contributing factor to my sister’s moods and behavior. I wish I could say that this knowledge makes it easier to put things in perspective when she makes snarky comments, accuses me of not considering her feelings, and focuses only on how things affect her…but it generally doesn’t. I’m still regularly disappointed that she cannot seem to be kinder or less self-involved, especially when I try pretty hard to be considerate of her. I’m working on not taking her words and actions so personally.

    My mantra growing up was something like “It’s harder for her.” I used this mantra to help me excuse my sister’s behavior and to excuse the requests from my parents to downplay my own successes. While I think it is probably true that things ARE harder for her, I am learning that this doesn’t mean that I have to twist myself into a pretzel to try to please her or avoid upsetting her. She’s going to feel however she’s going to feel, and I can’t control it. This is a hard lesson to learn, at least for me.

    My engagement and wedding were just another opportunity for my sister to be dramatic and make things about her. She was my maid of honor (and only bridesmaid), but she only agreed to be in the wedding grudgingly, and only after raking me over the coals for not being a better sister to her, followed by six weeks of the silent treatment. I did a lot of the same things you did to try to make it easy on her. Then she was mad that I didn’t include her more in the wedding planning. The whole run-up to the wedding was tense, to say the least.

    On the day of the wedding, she was…herself. She was catty and self-absorbed, but (to her credit) she also tried to rally somewhat: she told jokes and brought me cinnamon rolls for a pre-wedding snack. She mostly vanished during the reception, but you know what? While I will probably always be a little disappointed that she couldn’t be fully present and happy for me, I think perhaps she did the best she could. And I was having so much fun being with all of the people who COULD be present and happy that I mostly didn’t worry too much about her. And that was as it should be.

    Best wishes, my dear, and be kind to yourself. You deserve every happiness.

  • Claire

    “Comparison is the thief of joy”. – Theodore Roosevelt

    You are different people, comparing your milestones is never going to be on the same scale.

  • Anon

    Did you just write a story about me and my sister?

  • Alex

    Wow this hits so many similar points for me and my younger sister. While I was never discouraged from celebrating my achievements, they’ve always sort of dovetailed with my sisters various situations. I graduated high school with honors and a scholarship; she barely made it out. I went to a great school and graduated from it; she got kicked out, then subsequently dropped out of her state school and then community college. I have a great job with benefits, and manage to keep a roof over my head and food on the table in NYC; she is in school loan debt, jumps from retail job to retail job, and is about to have her car repossessed. I’m getting married and did not ask her to be my maid of honor, just a bridesmaid because I do not have expectations for her. Heck, I would actually be surprised if she showed up and stayed for the whole day because most likely something better will pop up that she needs to go to (yes, even though it’s my wedding day). I know the situtations are different, but what has helped me in this process, especially because I felt massive guilt at the beginning of the planning process because I couldn’t figure out ways to include her, is literally just to have no expectations because if I do, i become disappointed. If she shows up to something, great! If she takes something upon herself, even better. But I don’t expect it. It makes things much easier for me and saves me alot of heartache.

  • Kristie

    *sigh* unfortunately, THIS. So much THIS. I’m the younger of two sisters, and I’ve apparently “obviously always been mom’s favorite” and “always got so much more” than she did. It hurts. The main difference is that my mom is very supportive about my wedding, and loves talking about it–which makes my sister even worse. To make matters worse, my sister’s fiance feels inferior because he is an unskilled worker without a Diploma, and mine is a physician. When I found out my sister–my MOH–doesn’t even want to have anything to do with a bachelorette party or a bridal shower because she’s resentful of me being the “favorite”, I was left wondering the same thing…will she really be standing by my side? Or simply standing there because it’s expected.

  • One and Only

    Man, I’m so glad I’m an only child.

  • Laura

    First off, congrats on all of your life accomplishments. Guess what, they ARE about you, because you achieved them. Yes, with the help of a community and family (though maybe not with the help of sister), but all of those celebrations are yours to claim.

    Your partner is right when saying that your sister is just a perpetually miserable person. Can I be so frank as to say I am angry at your mom for not celebrating you in the way you deserve. Instead of giving you the, “it’s not all about you” speech, she needs to be giving it to your sister. As if your joy will in some way make her more miserable. The fact is, when we love someone unselfishly we are happy for them and their life accomplishments and life celebrations. Period. Whether my life is in the toilet or not. My situation in life does not give me the right to sabotage your happiness. Just because I am unhappy in my current situation does not mean that I can’t be happy for you in your current situation. And if it does, then I need some serious therapy.

    I wonder if this 6 months would be a good time for you and your partner to discuss just how to make room in your lives to celebrate each other, and how the two of you plan on reacting when your family downplays your day. Because I think you already know that on your wedding day (and during these 6 months leading up to it) you will be encouraged to downplay this celebration in some way. Your family will not change their patterns of behavior. But you can change yours. You can break the cycle.

    And on that note, remember that this celebration is only half about you – because the other half is about your partner. And if you downplay your wedding day just so your sister doesn’t feel bad about yourself, you run the risk of making your fiancé feel devalued as well. That will keep this whole cycle going.

    • Laura

      ugh… “feel bad about *herself*” Chrome for iPad doesn’t play nice with Disqus and won’t let me edit.

  • klick

    What about having the mother read this post?

  • Diane

    I give you permission to have a full on bride-zilla tantrum and tell everyone “IT IS MY/OUR DAY!”

  • TigerLilie

    I think we can all say with certainty that this situation is not one a bride-to-be should be facing, in an ideal world. And I’m quite certain the dynamics and engrained roles within your family are much more nuanced than can be understood by an outsider. I’m sure it is hard to take any action in this situation, both due to the position you have been placed in within your family unit, and the expectations you have crafted for your own behavior. That being said, your wedding is something to celebrate. It is something to be joyful about. It is something stupendous and magnificent and life-affirming. It is one of the great gifts in this life, and that deserves to be recognized. I urge you to let the people who want to celebrate with you do so. Your friends want to throw you a bachelorette party? Let them! Your family doesn’t have to be involved at all. Your co-workers want to host an office shower? Accept the honor and allow yourself to know that people around you want to celebrate you and your fiance. I do hope you allow yourself to focus on your relationship, the love you share with your fiance and yourself during this time. Because, regardless of outside opinion, this wedding really is only about the two of you.

  • CallistaS

    Dude, you are getting MARRIED! Let your friends celebrate you. Make a huge production out of it. It should be one! It’s a happy occasion. I’m sorry that your mom is an enabler, and to some extent has made you one as well. You celebrating something is not a direct cause of your sisters unhappiness. You celebrating something will not make her feel something. SHE is responsible for her life and how she chooses to react to things. Give her that responsibility.
    Have your friends throw you a huge party and have a big wedding. Your sister does not trump your fiances feelings for you and wanting to have an awesome day.