Can I Make My Sister Keep Her Promise to Help with My Wedding?

From MOH to MIA

woman drinking coffee at train station

Q: My sister and I used to be close. We used to go out to dinners together, go to shows to see our favorite local bands, and I considered her to be not only my sister but my best friend. A few years ago, things started to change in our relationship. We would only hang out when it was on her schedule or something she wanted to do, she started telling a lot of little lies for no known reason, and she was just generally acting incredibly selfish/self-important. She stopped making an effort to come to extended family get-togethers, weddings, etc., because she was always too busy. (By the way, we have a huge extended family and our get-togethers are so much fun, so it always bummed me out when she couldn’t/wouldn’t make time to be a part of things.) I, maybe wrongly so, chalked all of this up to her being in her early twenties and figuring herself out.

When my fiancé and I got engaged about a year ago, she was naturally my pick for maid of honor. Despite how our relationship has changed, she’s my sister, and I wanted her by my side on my wedding day. Fast-forward to today, three months from our wedding, and she’s completely cut my family out of her life, for no known reason. She hasn’t seen or talked to my parents since midsummer last year, despite their multiple attempts to see or get in touch with her. She just doesn’t seem to care. At all. I have minimal contact with her, by her choice—for every three messages I send her I’m lucky if she responds to me once, and it’s been almost two months since the last time I’ve heard from her. I’ve tried every way I can to reach out to her. I’ve tried just being a friend; I’ve tried being honest and telling her how she’s affecting people. I’ve flat-out asked her if she’s still planning on being in the wedding. (Because although this is a much bigger issue than whether or not she’s going to be in my wedding, it still adds a lot of stress to the planning process not knowing if you even have a maid of honor or what your family dynamics are going to be like on that day. By the way, her answer was yes.)

I wish we could just yell at each other, lay everything out on the table, and figure out how to start piecing our relationship and family back together. But she’s not yelling or fighting for this relationship. She’s not saying anything. And I feel like I don’t have any more energy to give until she can make some kind of effort toward us. She’s my sister, she’s supposed to be my maid of honor, and I don’t even know if she’s going to show up. Right now I’m so hurt and angry with the way she has been treating people that I don’t even know if I want her in the wedding anymore. But I also don’t want to drive the wedge deeper or sever whatever ties may be left from her standpoint.

I’ve told her that we need to talk through these things and that she needs to see our parents before the wedding, because there is no way I need a bunch of drama on our wedding day. There’s only room for love and positive energy surrounding us that day! And I know if she doesn’t show up, my parents are going to be devastated, my mom’s going to be crying all day (not tears of joy), and there’s going to be a huge cloud hanging over everything. Plus, if I have to deal with looks of pity from everyone who knows what’s going on or hear people ask all night where my sister is, I am definitely going to have a meltdown. I’m already super emotional about this issue, and tears surface every time someone brings the subject up. I can only imagine what a mess I’ll be on our already emotionally charged wedding day.

So I need some advice. Do I give her more time and hope she comes around? Do I give her a deadline to get her dress and her act together or she’s not in the wedding? Do I continue to invest my time and energy into a relationship where I’m literally getting nothing positive in return? How do I help my parents deal with it if she doesn’t show up on our wedding day? Already, every time I see them, they ask if I’ve talked to her, and all I can say is “No, because she’s not willing to make any kind of effort,” and then I feel bad, as if I’m hurting them all over again. I know there’s not an easy answer here, but any advice or suggestions you have would be appreciated!

—Anonymous

A: Dear Anonymous,

Well, you’re not hurting your parents. Your sister is. I get that it hurts you to see them hurt, but make sure you’re not mistakenly taking the blame here.

When a person is dropping the ball on their loved ones, it’s usually because they’re going through their own rough time. This is especially true when it’s uncharacteristic (which is what it sounds like here). This stuff with your sister sounds worse than garden-variety selfishness. When you first noticed these changes in her, you originally chalked it all up to “being in her early twenties and figuring herself out,” but a lot of garbagey things happen to women in their early twenties. Not to alarm you, but maybe it’s time to consider if she’s been through something traumatic, is on some kind of substance, is hanging around with a toxic partner, or is struggling with her mental and emotional health.

At the very least, considering other issues that might be at play could take the sting out of this, and redirect your frustration into compassion (if you can muster it). Instead of going to her in anger, try calling her to say, “Hey, this isn’t like you; is something going on that you need to talk about? Is there some way I can help you?” Maybe you’ve already tried that route. Maybe it’ll get you right back to square one. But there’s a chance it’ll break that cycle of distance, anger, more distance, more anger. I know for sure there have been times when I’ve been a jerk, and having someone point out, “This isn’t like you,” made me feel heard and understood.

Otherwise, it’s time to start recalibrating your expectations. It’s a difficult tension to master, but the ideal is to be strong in your boundaries, while also soft to the possibility of her coming back around. That may look like no longer reaching out, but staying open to responding when she (hopefully, finally) reaches for you. Boundaries that protect you but don’t block the person out completely are best, if you can figure out a way to do that.

One way may be to set that deadline you mentioned. Reach out to her, see if you can find out if something is going on, and if you get nowhere, set a deadline for her to get her dress and get in touch. You do have a wedding to plan, after all. If that deadline passes and your sister just isn’t in the wedding, make sure your mom knows in advance and can prepare herself for the possibility that she may not arrive at all. You can’t prevent anyone from feeling terribly on your wedding day, but you can brace yourself and your mom.

It might help to know that even the best weddings have crappy low points. Admittedly, your sister skipping and making your mom cry isn’t the same as a melting cake or the band mispronouncing your name. But many other awesome ladies before you have endured very hard times at weddings. I hope you, too, can find some joy and love in the rest of the day.

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