Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My younger sister is a few years younger than I am. Growing up, I had to care for my younger sister, and tension resulted from me having to include her when playing with friends, etc., despite not wanting to. This tension continued when my sister had mental-health issues and other life crises. Although I didn’t have a great relationship with her, I was responsible for stepping in and filling the role of caregiver. My parents were so overwhelmed and unable to meet my sister’s emotional needs that they turned to me to do so instead. This resulted in much resentment and anger and hurt between my sister and me. My sister craves closeness and my approval, and I just want to be left alone.

I recently became engaged to a stable and loving partner, and I informed my sister that she would not be in the bridal party, because she and I don’t have a close relationship. Instead, I said that I would like her to be an usher with my partner’s sister and walk my mom down the aisle. It should be noted that before I even spoke about how I would want my sister involved in my wedding, she started off by saying, “I’m not sure I am even going to attend your wedding.” Now my entire nuclear family is incredibly angry with me and has taken drastic actions, such as calling my best friend to tell her that they are upset with me.

Over the past few years, I have tried to set caring boundaries with my family, which has been viewed as an act of war. I feel as though I am at the end of my rope with my family and don’t know what else I can do, save cutting ties completely.

Anonymous
Milwaukee, Wisconsin


Dear Anonymous,

There are two issues here: the question of how to handle your family’s discomfort with your bridal-party decision, and the more general question of how to handle your discomfort with the role you’ve played in your family since childhood. Understanding the latter issue will help you manage the former.

It sounds like your sister has long felt hurt and rejected by you, and you’ve felt resentful of her. This is a common dynamic in families with a high-need sibling, whether those needs stem from mental-health issues or simply from a certain kind of temperament. The high-need sibling tends to take up a lot of emotional air in the house, sometimes so much that the parents, as you said, begin to feel overwhelmed and unequipped to help. In an attempt to keep the peace, they may accede to the high-need sibling’s requests and desires at the expense of everyone else’s. This might involve asking the other siblings in the house to “be flexible” and “help out”—by, say, including the high-need sibling when playing with friends, or caretaking in a variety of ways that aren’t appropriate responsibilities to place on a child or a teenager or even a young adult.

This is what happened to you, and you didn’t have much choice in the matter. The result is that you became angry and resentful toward your sister—even though none of this was really her fault. It was your parents who placed you in this role—not your sister—but because your sister seemed to be the problem, constantly interfering with everything from your autonomy to your joy, she became the focus of your rage. So it’s no wonder that she would crave your closeness and approval while you just wanted her to leave you alone.

The difference between then and now, though, is that you’re both adults, and with adulthood comes agency. You can either remain stuck in the past and react to your sister and parents from that place of childhood anger, or you can separate the past from the present by taking advantage of the choices available to you and managing your feelings in a more productive way.

For instance, consider the way you approached your sister about your wedding. So far, you’ve both reacted exactly as you did in childhood. Feeling perpetually rejected by you and possibly anticipating the perceived rejection to come, she preemptively rejected you: I’m not sure I’m going to your wedding. Instead of hearing the hurt underneath her comment, you went back to that childhood place of Here she goes again, creating drama. Then, rather than looking at how you contribute to the tension between you, you communicated your choice about the wedding in a way that sounded like a rejection, thus confirming her feelings of rejection.

There’s a world of difference between saying, essentially, “You’re not going to be in my bridal party, because I don’t like you very much, but you can be an usher to keep the peace,” and saying something like, “My partner and I are very excited about our wedding and we’d both love to include our sisters in the ceremony as ushers to the other important people in our lives. I’d love to have you walk with Mom down the aisle—that would feel really special to me. Would you accept this honor?”

When those childhood resentments are simmering just beneath the surface, you may struggle to communicate your needs and decisions to your family in a gentle and loving way. You say that you’ve tried to create “caring boundaries” with your family, but you might want to reflect on how much care has actually gone into those efforts and why they might be perceived as “an act of war.” Keep in mind, too, that boundaries aren’t about dictating what someone else will or won’t do. They’re about getting clear with yourself about what you will or won’t do.

That distinction matters, because I think what you really want as you embark on this new chapter of your life with your partner is to make choices that feel right for you, and then no matter what your family does, to be able to tolerate their disappointment (often delivered in the form of guilt or pressure or attempts to control) if they want you to do something different.

So what does that look like now? With your sister, you might muster some compassion for her hurt feelings about the wedding, and take responsibility for your role in the tension between you. You might say something like “I’m sorry about how I handled my request for you to participate in my wedding. It came out all wrong, and what I wish I had said was this.” Then you rephrase the request, and let her know that you’ll understand if she chooses not to do it, but that you hope she will, because it would mean a lot to you. And here’s the important part: No matter what she does with this kinder request, you keep your boundary to yourself, which might look like not investing any emotional energy in her response and instead staying focused on the fun parts of planning your wedding with your partner.

Meanwhile, you can take your parents aside and begin the conversation you’ve been wanting to have with them for decades but haven’t had the words to do so. It might go something like this: “You may not be aware of this, but my sister isn’t the only one who has struggled in our family. I have some feelings to work through about what happened in our family, and maybe that’s gotten in the way of how I’ve tried to communicate about the wedding. I want my wedding to be a joyous occasion, and I want to include everyone in a way that’s meaningful to my partner and me.” Then you explain how happy you would be to see your mom walk down the aisle with your sister. If your parents still try to get you to do something different, give them a big hug and say, “I love you very much and I know we see this differently, but I hope this is the start of a conversation we can continue to have as this next chapter in my life begins.” Then, hold your own boundary: If your parents continue to express disappointment over your decision, don’t engage in those conversations other than to say, each and every time, calmly and with warmth and compassion: “I know you love me, and one way to show your love is to make room for my happiness. I’m so looking forward to having a closer and more peaceful relationship with you, and I’m optimistic that focusing on the joy of my wedding can be a great first step.”

People often wonder whom weddings are for—are they for the couple, or for the family and friends of the couple? Many would say it’s the former (“It’s your day; do it your way!”), but in my view, weddings are about the couple, and they’re also about the community surrounding the couple. They’re about building a family that consists of the old and the new, the past and the future, and it’s because of this that they offer a unique opportunity to redefine who we are in relation to the people we love.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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