Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email email@example.com. Questions will remain 100 percent confidential, and may be edited for length.
My fiancé and I recently got engaged after 4 years together. My fiancé has two sisters, let's call them Suzie and Katie. Suzie is wonderful. I enjoy spending time with her, find her to be great company, and feel privileged to have her in my life. Katie, on the other hand, I am uncomfortable around. She is rude to everyone around her, and constantly berates my fiancé when we are visiting his mother's house. Additionally, two years ago she made it very clear she didn't want me at the family Christmas, and it really hurt me. Perhaps I am being too sensitive about that incident and should let it go, but I can't help how hurt I am about it.
I realize that it is traditional for a bride to ask her fiancé’s sisters to be her bridesmaids. My fiancé and I are in no way a traditional couple, nor do we plan to have a traditional wedding. I also just absolutely did not want to have Katie as a bridesmaid, since she would likely just upset me and cause drama, and I felt that Katie and Suzie were a package deal.
After I announced my bridesmaids, my future mother-in-law called my fiancé to brow-beat him about how insulted the family is about my decision to exclude his sisters from my bridal party. She explicitly stated that Suzie in particular was especially hurt. My fiancé defended my decisions to his mother and gave her my reasoning, which she dismissed as things I need to let go of. I was honestly only upset that I offended Suzie, so I called her and told her why I didn't pick her to be a bridesmaid. Suzie said that she totally understood my reasoning, was in no way offended, and my future mother-in-law had lied to my fiancé but Katie was very offended by being excluded.
My question is, where do I go from here? I am very upset at the fact that my future mother-in-law is questioning my decisions as a bride, especially since she lied about it, but I don't think that I should confront her. This whole thing is a giant mess. Your advice would be much appreciated.
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Dear Brave Correspondent,
Argh! You actually have two problems here—one is a wedding problem, and one is a triangulation problem. The wedding one is such a classic conundrum. Wedding couple makes decisions, parents or future-parents-in-law hate some or all of these decisions, lather, rinse, repeat. You and your fiancé may be “a non-traditional couple” but this is a very traditional problem. The triangulation problem is more difficult but still kind of a classic: Your future-sister-in-law has taken against you for some unknown reason (or maybe no reason) and has recruited your future-mother-in-law into the fight and is now using her to communicate and amplify her upset. This is no good.
Since the wedding business is easier, let’s give that part a go first: There are so few things that make otherwise reasonable people act out more than weddings. I will be honest with you—Katie and your future mother-in-law do not sound like entirely reasonable people to begin with. But, off the top, I feel like I need to say: You can be non-traditional all you like and then some, you can say your vows while accompanying yourself on the ukulele and then invite everyone to join you for individually-wrapped snack cakes and pinball, and people are still going to act in every totally predictable terrible way about it.
It often seems, in the middle of planning a wedding (and I have been married twice, plus helped plan the weddings of many friends) like there is some magical way to do things that will please everyone and make perfect harmony reign. In this magical state of unified joy, you will be married and it will set the tone for a brilliant future together. Here’s a very, very important thing I need to tell you: This is not true. That blissful harmony does not exist and whether people are glad or mad about your wedding arrangements does not remotely predict your marital happiness.
It totally seems like these things should be true, but they’re not. The wedding itself is always a mish-mash of everyone’s aesthetics and priorities and beliefs trying to express themselves, and things always go awry. Just be prepared. For example, at my first wedding, my ex-wife’s uncle RSVP’d that he was attending with his wife and instead showed up with his girlfriend and her 10-year-old daughter. One of our ushers went literally AWOL (as in, from the National Guard) and ended up being three states away on a bender when we finally found her. At my second wedding, to my very excellent an totally brilliant husband, the municipal train that was supposed to bring all of our friends from the city out to the lovely, bucolic setting of our reception was cancelled due to track work, stranding 43 wedding guests an hour away. Then at the reception his uncle accidentally set a tablecloth on fire.
(Maybe the lesson here is that no one’s uncle gets to come to weddings. Anyhow.)
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s discuss the family you’re marrying into. It sounds like the family battle lines are somewhat already drawn: Katie and future mother-in-law are a little unit, and Suzie and your fiancé are a different (and perhaps more functional) unit. It may be that Katie and your F-MIL are already well in the habit of acting out various upsets and resentments in this way, and that their groove of disapproval is well-worn.
The thing about triangulations is that they thrive on indirect communication and opportunities to imagine (and report) someone else’s intentions. If you’d asked me before your F-MIL called your fiancé, I would not have counseled that he tell her that you weren’t having his sisters as bridesmaids because it was sure to make you miserable. I would have suggested that he offer as frictionless a surface as possible, giving very bland non-reason replies like “we decided to do something a little different,” and “it will be so wonderful to have you all there,” until she stopped badgering him. But two big gold stars and a year’s supply of hair wax to your future husband for standing by you while his mother gave him what sounds like an epic scolding. Now that is predictive of future marital happiness.
I understand that you want to call Katie, because there’s some part of you that feels like surely this would help. That you could share your feelings with her, and she would understand, and perhaps a golden accord would spring up between you that day, and then you will have an untroubled wedding and a delightful family life ahead. But let’s be real, Brave Correspondent: That is probably not what’s going to happen. Much more likely is that you’d call her, you’ll use your I Statements and share your feelings and do all of this in good faith…. and then she will tell you you’re being awful and selfish and then she will send your husband a terrible email using words like “horrified” and “betrayed” and “character assassination” and then she will get your F-MIL on the phone and make up outrageous things that you supposedly said and they will be madder than ever. This has nothing to do with you—this is how their family system works.
But now, because marriage, this is also going to be YOUR family system, and you are going to have to deal with it. The most important thing I think you keep very firmly in mind is that this is probably a lifelong pattern. The pattern is this: Katie aggresses, and then she looks to your F-MIL for backup and enforcement and validation, and you are not going to be able to change it (your fiancé and Suzie seem pretty accustomed to it already). You can only change how you manage the situation.
My advice would be: Engage with Katie as little as possible and when you do, be non-committal and brief. Don’t rise to her baiting if you possibly can. Don’t clap back against her attacks. I know this is so difficult to do, especially in the moment, but if you can, just visualize yourself as a (very cute) ghost when she’s around. Her words can pass right through you, finding little purchase, along with her accusations. Practice saying things like “That’s an interesting idea,” to her various insistence about how you should do things and “I would never have thought of that,” if you can’t manage to choke out “interesting.” If you don’t challenge her directly and can minimize the time you spend with her, you won’t give her any fuel for her shenanigans.
The good news, Brave Correspondent, is that your almost-husband is totally on your side and so is Suzie, and also you are going to be married soon to someone you really like. Katie is going to be Katie—star of her own very unpleasant movie—forever. There’s no way to entirely write her out of your film, but you can reduce her to a very small part and then leave her unpleasantness on the cutting room floor of your final edits pretty often. If you have some sympathy to spare for her, or some patience, that’s excellent and very good on you. But if not, Brave Correspondent, just let her float on by as best you can while you enjoy your life with Mr. Wonderful.
Love and courage,