Captain Awkward et al,
A few years ago now, my parents informed me that they have been swingers since I was 11 years old (over 15 years ago). I feel I should mention: while I am only able to sustain one romantic/sexual relationship at a time, I embrace any lifestyle that involves informed, consenting adults. What threw me for a loop was that the family narrative that I had been telling everyone (including myself) was altered irrevocably. I’ve been in therapy, working on my feelings of anger and anxiety that have been busted loose by this revelation. While my parents love me, I don’t think they really understand how troubling this has been for me.
Since the time of my parents’ coming out, they have been involved with a woman named Myrtle. Myrtle is an otherwise single woman, who has recently adopted a baby, and about a year after that, gave birth to my half-sister. My parents have been very involved with both children, and have built and moved into a house across the street from Myrtle.
Periodically, I have sat my parents down to ask them questions, like: “What relationship do you expect me to have with these children?” and “How formal is the relationship between you guys and Myrtle?” They insist that they are not and will not be entering into anything formal with her, that if she finds someone to be monogamous with, they’ll just go back to being neighbors. Yet, it seems whenever I call they are at her house, or at swimming lessons with the kids, or just coming back from a trip together. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve lost my parents.
Last week my father informed me that I must invite Myrtle to my upcoming wedding. To be fair, I did tell him that given their financial contributions, they are entitled to a limited number of “I insist” cards, to be used judiciously. He claims she is unlikely to come. I don’t understand why they want me to invite her. I don’t really want her to be there. The space is limited, the guest list is small and only includes family and the dearest of friends.
Captain, do I play the good daughter (something I excel at) and invite her? Should I just recruit some friends to play “keep Myrtle away from me” on the big day? Should I call my parents and find out why they want me to invite someone that they deny a having a formal relationship with? Should I just say no and cope with any resulting tension? I just don’t know what to do.
Trying to Get Over It
Dear Trying To Get Over It:
Congratulations on your upcoming marriage! And congratulations? on becoming part of the long tradition that says that weddings are the time when families try to spackle over all their conflict and bullshit and put a whole bunch of pressure on each other to perform in a certain way. “Wedding shenanigans” form the backbone of the Advice Industrial Complex, and I am proud to take my place in the Agony Aunt Alliance on your behalf.
You and your parents need to talk about what inviting Myrtle means to them and means to you.
Script #1: “Dad, let me be honest, it never occurred to Intended and me to invite her. I think this is a very awkward request you are making. But before we decide, we want to know why it’s so important to you.”
Make him do the work of explaining his reasoning. Your dad says she is unlikely to come. Well, then why is it so important to invite her? Because if you invite her, you’re saying “please come!” There is no “come but don’t really” kind of invitation. Lots of people don’t get invited to any given wedding and don’t get offended about it. It’s actually fucked up to give Myrtle an invitation that is not a real invitation, or force you to extend a fake invitation. See what he says, and then Script #2 might be “Intended and I are inviting only people we know well and who are close to us. If Myrtle wouldn’t come anyway, why go through the charade of including her?”
Oh, and also, use the Royal Engaged “we” whenever possible. It’s not just your wedding, it’s your future spouse’s wedding, and it’s okay to invoke them when setting boundaries (as it would be okay for them to invoke you with their family!). Have your intended on the phone or in the room when you have these conversations, too, if you think it will help.
Does the rest of your family know about Myrtle and the kids, or did your parents come out only to you? Have you and future spouse actually met and interacted with Myrtle? It sounds like not so much. If that is the case, and “Myrtle” is a complex open secret kind of thing in the extended family, then here is Script #3:
“Mom, Dad, if you want to introduce Myrtle and the kids to the family, why not just have a BBQ or something. I would feel more comfortable if getting to know Myrtle and her kids was not bundled up with planning my wedding.”
Having a child with someone and uprooting your life to build a house next to that person sounds pretty serious to me, whether or not the relationship is “formal.” Does the extended family know your half sibling is your Dad’s child, or is it this weird secret-second-class-family thing going on? Are your parents lying or deluded when they say that they don’t really expect this relationship to last? Denying Myrtle’s importance while insisting that she be invited to a small close-family-and-friends-only wedding makes no sense.
Which leads us to Script #4: “Mom, Dad, what is this really about?”
They’ve always hedged at asking you to consider Myrtle as part of the family (Have you and your intended spouse even met her? It sounds like it’s been at least several years if the kids are going to swimming lessons?) but it sounds like they want this wedding invitation to demonstrate that she is included and accepted by you. It’s a rubber stamp on fancy paper acknowledging a relationship that doesn’t actually exist yet. If they love Myrtle and want you to know her and her children, they have some work to do in introducing you to each other and actually laying out their hopes for what will happen there rather than hedging as they have been doing.
Once they’ve laid it out, here is one way you could go:
Script #5: “Mom and Dad, if you love Myrtle and want her to be part of the family, then have a party (that is not my wedding) and tell everybody how it is. That way we can all get to know her a little bit, and she can be invited to the wedding without me having to tiptoe around the whole thing and wonder who knows what and what you and Myrtle want to tell people-‘She’s our neighbor.’ ‘She’s a friend of the family’ ‘She’s Mummy and Daddy’s Special Friend’ ‘She’s the mom of my half sister!’ – this is for YOU to figure out and address, not for me to handle with a wedding invitation.”
I don’t think it’s cool (and fortunately you don’t think it’s cool) to exclude someone your parents love from your wedding just because it’s a non-traditional relationship. If your parents were divorced and wanted to bring step-parents or partners/boyfriends/girlfriends, you’d roll with it, right? But if your parents re-married or were seeing someone seriously, they would also presumably make an effort to make sure you got to know that person. So while there is ickiness around expecting people to be secretive about non-traditional love arrangements, it’s not “society’s” disapproval that’s making the “You must invite Myrtle” thing fall apart for me. If your parents want to facilitate an actual real connection between you and Myrtle, it sounds like they’ve had years to get the ball rolling and be emotionally honest with you instead of just “Here’s stuff about our sex life starting from when you were 11” type of honest. (I don’t know why they had to tell you the entire history, why not “Your mom and I have been exploring nonmonogamy for a while and heeeeey we met someone” not “Please re-examine everything you think you know about your childhood.” Too much information!)
A wedding is just one party. What’s their long game here? The real issue is that Myrtle and the half-sibling(s) are not a real part of your life. Your parents are pretending this is all casual and temporary and that there’s absolutely no pressure. But there is pressure: your dad is insisting that she be invited to your wedding. This is about legitimizing something about their relationship with Myrtle in the eyes of you and your family (and/or Myrtle herself, WHOSE PERSPECTIVE ON THIS I WOULD DEARLY LOVE), but they are using you and your wedding as props to do this instead of having the hard, real conversations that needed to happen long ago. Is this about you being judgmental of their lifestyle or is it about the fact that you don’t know this lady at all and it’s never seemed to matter to them much before? If they had done the work to integrate Myrtle and your half-sibling into the family, the question of inviting Myrtle would be a fait accompli. Absent that work, it’s okay for you to want a day with your parents where their focus is on you and your new spouse. “Mom, Dad, it sounds like we do need to revisit the whole question of where Myrtle and her kids will fit into my life, but this is not the time, this is not the event, this is not the way.”
I don’t want this to go to the ultimatum place, but if your parents play the “If Myrtle is invited then we won’t pay for the wedding” card, you also have the “Well, if you want me to EVER have any kind of relationship with Myrtle and the kids, this was NOT the way to go about it, fuck all y’all we’re eloping thx bye” card. Both look like losing hands, but I don’t think that’s your fault.
So, say you decide that it’s not worth fighting this and Myrtle is invited and actually comes to the wedding. What do you do?
1) Greet her briefly and accept her congratulations graciously. Consider the stock phrase, “Thank you, we’re very happy. I hope you have nice time.” Once she’s there, she’s a guest, and the ancient host-guest relationship prevails. She will eat your bread and salt, and you will not harm her lest you wish to be pursued throughout eternity by The Kindly Ones.
2) Let your parents be the one to introduce her around. She’s “a close friend of your parents'” as far as you are concerned, the rest is their news to share or not.
3) Get your friends/wedding party to be a buffer.
4) If she tries to “connect” or “talk seriously” with you at your wedding, say “Myrtle, seriously? Not the place” and move away/invoke buffer team.
5) If your parents pull some “LOOK AT US AND OUR UNCONVENTIONALNESS” show-offy stuff (Like, this *is* the first time everyone is meeting/hearing about Myrtle and your dad’s toast is to you and to the Several Loves of his Life, or there is awkward three-partner ballroom dancing) think of the incredible, amazing story it will make later. Maybe a wiggly-arms dance?
Good luck, get married, be happy, and tell us how it all goes down if you feel comfortable doing that.
P.P.S. I can’t be the only one imagining Myrtle’s counterpoint letter, right? “My partners are insisting that I attend their daughter’s wedding, even though I am pretty sure she is not into the idea and this seems like Not The Time Or Place to meet the extended family. What do I do?”