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‘Should I Invite My Mean Aunt to My Wedding?’

Photo: Daniel Parent/Getty Images/500px Prime

Dear Polly,

My fiancé and I are thinking about our wedding guest list, and I’m anxious as to whether or not I should invite my aunt. My mother and all of her sisters went on a “sister’s trip,” and there was a huge argument between my aunt and my mom. During the fight, my aunt ended up yelling that she doesn’t like me, thinks I’m dramatic and selfish, and that is why she never reaches out to me when she is in town or puts in any effort to build a relationship. I am a very sensitive person, and I consider myself pretty self-aware. When I’ve done something wrong or hurt someone, I feel the guilt for years and years (to an unhealthy amount and I’m working on that). I know I’m not perfect and I’ve made thousands of mistakes throughout my life, but I’ve racked my brain and I can’t think of anything I could have done to warrant my aunt’s intense dislike. I had a feeling that she didn’t like me five years ago or so, but my parents thought I was reading into things. This confirms what I already felt, so I don’t believe it was just said out of blind anger. My aunt has never reached out to me to apologize or explain, and I have not reached out to her after I heard this.

My mom grew up in a dysfunctional family, and they all ended up in different states, whereas everyone in my dad’s family lives nearby one another and they all value familial bonds. They would do anything for me, even though I have such different views from them. I know that my aunt doesn’t place the same value that we do in family, but I have a difficult time reconciling this in my mind. It’s easy to pretend like nothing happened because I never see her and there are never family events on my mom’s side; however, now that I have my wedding guest list to consider, I have no idea how to handle this.

I don’t want someone attending my wedding if they have already openly stated that they dislike me. I care a lot about doing the “right” thing and I care too much what other people think. I’ve been working hard at doing what’s right for myself instead, but there is such a delicate balance because I still want everyone to be happy. Ideally, if I invited her out of politeness, I would really hope she doesn’t come. But if she does show up, I know I’m going to feel anxious and it will make me uncomfortable on a day that should be celebratory and happy. What should I do?

Confused Bride

Dear Confused Bride,

Only a truly dramatic, selfish aunt would yell about how dramatic and selfish her niece is. That said, this situation offers you an opportunity to practice the fine art of taking other people’s words and opinions with a grain of salt and moving forward without dwelling on them. After all, you’re sensitive — you already accurately perceived that this aunt didn’t like you. The discovery that she doesn’t, in fact, like you isn’t such a bombshell. The bombshell is that she had the gall to yell at your mother about this, in front of her sisters. That feels embarrassing and probably kicks up a lot of shame for you: Am I a selfish monster? Am I dramatic? Do my other aunts feel the same way about me, a tiny bit? Do my high-school friends think so, too, particularly after that one time I drank too many wine coolers and threw up all over Annie Wilson’s back porch?

People who live inside of a bubble of shame add up a vast universe of clues that tell them they are unlovable all the time. The unhinged, yelling aunt doesn’t create the bubble, she just causes it to rise to your conscious awareness, and then a swarm of other bad experiences and conflicts rise to the surface, too, kicking up fear and anxiety and dread and sadness. One of the major differences between people who are haunted by shame and people who aren’t is that ashamed people can’t accept that some people just don’t like them. They tend to blame one or two people for bringing their preexisting shame to light instead of accepting that the world is a complex place. The truth is, people are complex and have a whole range of feelings and opinions that you can’t control, and it’s not remotely personal.

I’m not saying your aunt isn’t a little bit of an asshole. But you told your mother that you suspected that she didn’t like you. Your mother denied this but felt shame about it. In her denials, she taught you to feel shame about barely detectable negative opinions in other people, even though she was only trying to protect you. She could’ve said, “Maybe you just get on her nerves. People in families get on each other’s nerves all the time. That’s just how families are.” But dysfunctional, shaming families don’t talk about acceptance and commitment. They expect everyone to love and embrace everyone else in the same quiet, uniform way. They expect everyone to make the same agreeable, pliant sounds. But then they still study tea leaves and read omens and collect clues that other people don’t like them. They don’t ask for exactly what they want or talk openly about how other people feel. They play a part and keep their mouths shut and then, when encountering the slightest hint that someone isn’t playing along nicely, they explode.

Who knows what really happened in this fight, among sisters who are pretty dysfunctional, generally avoid each other, and probably also stigmatize feelings and differences and preferences and vulnerabilities? We don’t know how the fight started. When family members never address what they want or feel, and then there’s a conflict, things get ugly quickly. Your mother may have openly criticized your aunt for not reaching out to you, because your mother’s shame caused her to see your aunt’s rejection or neglect of you as a sign that your aunt thinks she’s a bad mother. Meanwhile, your aunt may habitually avoid other family members, yourself included, when she comes to town because her shame is kicked up by being around her family. But when your mother asked her, “Why don’t you send letters to my daughter?,” she felt ashamed. Her shame (and a million other buried resentments) caused her to lash out and yell “BECAUSE YOUR DAUGHTER IS TERRIBLE!”

When people lash out, out of shame, it’s not remotely personal. It’s laughably impersonal, in fact. And nothing is less relevant or personal than angry words thrown around by a bunch of sisters from a messed-up family. But our shame tells us that everything is personal. Shame tells us that our humanity itself is merely a constellation of embarrassing flaws that should be hidden from each other.

You can invite anyone you want to your wedding. It’s your wedding, so it’s your choice. You can invite Harry Styles and NOT invite your mother’s entire family, if that’s what you prefer. But I want you to think about how inviting every single sister except one perpetuates shame — your shame and theirs. I want you to think about the ripple effect of that action, how your mother will talk about it, how your sisters will talk about it, how people outside the family will talk about it. The talk itself is irrelevant, as irrelevant as the fact that your aunt dislikes you and five or six of your OTHER invited guests probably dislike you, too, but good manners and circumstances prevent them from showing it. (That’s not specific to you. I’m not saying you’re bad. I’m saying EVERYONE IS DISLIKED BY A FEW PEOPLE OUT THERE, ALWAYS.)

What’s relevant is how you’ll feel when there’s fallout from this choice — once your guests get their invites, a week before the wedding, a month after the wedding, ten years after the wedding. I want you to protect yourself from a bad situation. I want you to protect yourself from becoming a conduit for toxic family dynamics that existed long before you were born. You might as well be a puppet in a toy chest at playtime: They’re using you to express what they can’t express directly to each other.

Forgive them and ignore it, is my advice. Notice how much shame your mother’s family has. Cultivate some compassion for them, as you watch them swim through their seas of shame. And learn, maybe for the first time, to say to yourself, “This isn’t about me.” Learn to feel your shame and say to yourself, “I inherited this.” Think about your mother’s face when she adamantly denied that your aunt disliked you, years ago. Think about how you KNEW your aunt disliked you and your mother knew, too, and you KNEW she refused to say it. Think about how you ate that shame anyway, and every time your aunt didn’t reach out to you, you made it about your flaws. “There is something wrong with me,” you told yourself, “and only this one aunt can see it clearly.” It was like your aunt knew this secret, and if she told anyone else, everyone would turn against you and your whole world would fall apart.

No one has that kind of power. Reality is not nearly as scary as our shame-fueled imaginations are. You are not that flawed. Your aunt doesn’t care that much about how you act, and if she does, it’s only because she’s chosen to project her own flaws onto you, along with all of the shame that comes from existing in a family that won’t communicate their feelings to each other unless they’re yelling.

If you told me you had an uncle who abused you, I’d say don’t invite him. If you told me your aunt walks around talking shit about you everywhere she goes, and is also likely to make a big scene at your wedding, I’d say don’t invite her. But that’s not what we’re dealing with here. Right now, we’re trafficking in shame instead. She said something in a weak moment that she probably regrets, but she’s too ashamed to face the situation head-on and apologize to your mother. Maybe you think she should apologize to you, but she wasn’t talking to you, and this wasn’t even about you in the first place. Stop imagining how awkward it will feel to see your aunt. Imagine being busy and distracted and juggling dozens of friends and family members at once, because that’s how your wedding day will be. Let go of this now and you won’t give your aunt a second thought by the time the wedding rolls around.

Send out your invitations and accept that a few people who get them dislike you, and some of them might dislike you more than your aunt does. It’s just not that important. Let go of the illusion that everyone embraces you everywhere you go. This illusion only makes you more fragile. Face your shame head-on, every day, and slowly but surely, the idea that some people don’t like you won’t incite fear and paranoia and anxiety and dread. Your disapproving aunt will go from feeling like a dark, threatening storm to a ripple in your tea.

Stop reading tea leaves. Stop scanning the sky for dark clouds. Enjoy your wedding day by looking out at a sea of faces and recognizing, at last, that we are not matching, compliant, polite, loving robots built to give each other what we want without asking for it, without saying awkward words and fumbling and embarrassing ourselves. Look out and see that each face hides a rising tide of pain and sweetness and rage. We are all doing our best, and failing all the time. We are all ashamed and afraid and full of so much love. We are all hurting.

All that matters is love: the love between you and your partner, and the love between you and your mother, and the love between your mother and her sisters. There is love there. Sometimes you have to dig for it. So don’t throw away your shovel and walk away. Dig for it — angrily, fearfully, gratefully. Just dig.


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‘Should I Invite My Mean Aunt to My Wedding?’