Inviting Estranged Relatives

Cynthia Hanson
by Cynthia Hanson

You've written the guest list. Not once. Not twice. But three times, cutting coworkers, adding neighbors and leaving other folks in the "maybe" column until the "A-listers" RSVP. You're comfortable with the final list...with one exception: You're still debating whether to invite an estranged relative. A father or mother, sister or brother, grandmother or grandfather, aunt or uncle whom you haven't spoken with or seen in years. On the one hand, you're tempted to send an invitation because, like christenings and funerals, weddings are family affairs. But on the other hand, why waste a $100 dinner on people who don't act like family as far as you're concerned, and whose past misdeeds still make your blood boil?

Expert Advice

According to Chicago therapist Leah Shifrin Averick, the decision to invite estranged relatives should be based on the circumstances surrounding the rift and whether you really want to renew the relationship. "Yes, it's gracious to mend fences and invite them," Averick says. "But it's OK not to invite them, too -- especially if the circumstances of your falling out were so horrible that you can't forgive the person and you really don't want anything to do with them."

Questions to Ask Yourself

To help you decide, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you angry about something that would be impossible to forgive? (Examples: Did your father molest you as a child? Did you mother abandon you when you were a baby? Did your uncle steal money from the family business and force your parents into bankruptcy?)
  • Was the rift the result of a minor misunderstanding that escalated into a feud? (Examples: Did your aunt stop speaking to you because your late grandmother left you more money than her children? Did your brother make disparaging remarks about your fiance?)
  • Are you worried about a scene at the wedding? (Example: Is your alcoholic brother prone to verbal outbursts and violence?)
  • How would you feel if the relationship didn't improve after the wedding?

Resolve Differences First

If you choose forgiveness, don't extend the wedding invitation out of the blue. "Resolve your differences first; then send the invitation," advises Gilda Carle, Ph.D., a New York psychotherapist. "The invitation won't solve the problem. Only a candid discussion will do that."

Madeline's Story

Madeline, a 28-year-old New Yorker, learned that lesson the hard way. Though she hadn't spoken to her great aunt and uncle for several years, she invited them to her wedding as a courtesy to her grandmother. "I knew my grandmother wanted them to be there," says Madeline, who can't recall the details of the rift. "Besides, my aunt is 89 and my uncle is 82. They won't be around forever, so I didn't want to have regrets." But she does. Both declined Madeline's invitation by scribbling nasty comments on the RSVP card. "My aunt wrote, 'I think you're a selfish person. You always have been and always will be. I hope your marriage is unsuccessful,'" Madeline says. "My uncle wrote, 'Will not attend!' -- and underlined it for emphasis. I'm sorry I invited them. They didn't have to be so harsh."

Sara's & Larry's Story

For Sara and Larry, inviting Larry's biological father, Bert, to their wedding proved bittersweet. Larry's parents divorced when he was a toddler, and Bert virtually disappeared from his son's life. "By the time I met Larry, they hadn't spoken in 10 years," says Sara, a 32-year-old Atlanta resident. "Larry didn't have a strong opinion of Bert. But 11 months before our wedding, Bert started calling and sending email. He even bought us airline tickets for our honeymoon. I was happy that Bert was making an effort, so I pushed Larry to invite him."

They did. And after the wedding, Bert showed his true colors. "He turned out to be unreliable and selfish," Sara says. "We've been married four years now, and we've only seen him once. The more I got to know him, the more I realized that he wasn't capable of having a normal relationship with us." Even so, Sara doesn't regret inviting Bert to the wedding. "We gave him a chance to be involved in our lives and to make a new connection with Larry. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. But if we hadn't invited him to the wedding, it always would have been an open question."

Keep it in Perspective

Ultimately, deciding whether to invite estranged relatives is deeply personal. That's why it's crucial to weigh all the pros and cons. "Forgiveness is not for the other person -- it's for you," says Carle, the psychotherapist. "If you want to heal past pains, invite your estranged relatives. But remember, your wedding day is your special day. If you're not ready to forgive or you're worried about the person's behavior, don't invite them. You shouldn't stir up negative feelings toward a relative on the happiest day of your life."

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