Dear Captain Awkward,
My sister is 37 and I (also female) am 34. We share an apartment and consider ourselves best friends. We’ve both had bad luck with relationships, and I had quietly given up on either of us marrying. But in the past few months she has finally found love and is now engaged. And I’m having a very hard time dealing with it.
I can’t stand to be around her fiancé. I don’t have any actual objection to him — no red flags, he seems like a good person who really loves my sister. I know that I’m just projecting all of my fears and insecurities about the situation onto him. Maybe it would help if his personality meshed better with mine, but he’s boisterous and loud and irritatingly familiar, while I’m a quiet, reserved introvert. We have no interests in common and fairly different values. It breaks my heart because my sister and I have always been so close, and now the most important person in her life is going to be this man that I cannot imagine being friends with. He gets along great with the rest of the family; I’m the only one who seems to be struggling with the situation.
I know it hurts my sister that I haven’t been welcoming to him. I really am so glad that she’s happy, and I’m actually excited about the wedding because it’s her wedding! I just can’t get through a conversation with the groom without wanting to run away and cry. I have talked to my sister about my fear that she won’t have room for me in her life anymore, and she promises that isn’t true, but I’m still scared. And there are other things, too, that she can’t control — like whether I can support myself alone (I definitely can’t keep our apartment) and the likelihood that I’ll be the spinster aunt alone when I thought we would at least have each other. It’s all pretty upsetting for me and every bit of it is channeling into resentment of her fiancé. I don’t know how to change my feelings or deal with them. What can you advise?
Did you ever think you’d be living in a plot point from Little Women? You are Chapter 20 Jo March right now:
“I just wish I could marry Meg myself, and keep her safe in the family.”
“She’ll see those handsome eyes that she talks about, and then it will be all up with her. She’s got such a soft heart, it will melt like butter in the sun if anyone looks sentimentally at her. She read the short reports he sent more than she did your letters, and pinched me when I spoke of it, and likes brown eyes, and doesn’t think John an ugly name, and she’ll go and fall in love, and there’s an end of peace and fun, and cozy times together. I see it all! They’ll go lovering around the house, and we shall have to dodge. Meg will be absorbed and no good to me any more. Brooke will scratch up a fortune somehow, carry her off, and make a hole in the family, and I shall break my heart, and everything will be abominably uncomfortable. Oh, dear me! Why weren’t we all boys, then there wouldn’t be any bother.”
You are not alone in feeling the way you do, and you do NOT have to marry a German literature professor old enough to be your dad to work through it, ok? There are easier ways.
My biggest piece of advice is: For now, sort out your behaviors and let your feelings be your feelings.
You can feel: jealous of this dude and his place in your sister’s life, nervous about your future living situation, anxious because the life you imagined for yourself has been upended, and irritated at this dude for not meshing with you. Your life is being upended, there are big changes that affect you, you’re not an irredeemably awful person for feeling this way!
If your behaviors are unwelcoming to the fiancé (cold, rude, running away & wanting to cry whenever you talk with him) and you put a lot of stress on your sister when he’s around and make her work very hard to take care of your feelings about this, the source of any rift with her that results won’t really be him. It will be you. If he were abusive or unkind it would be a different story, but he’s just kind of not your jam. Being reserved doesn’t make someone a better person than being exuberant, and she didn’t fall in love with him AT you or to punish you, so you have to decide, how hard do I want to make my sister work to have a good relationship with me right now?
Over the long term, you will be happier if you can train yourself to look for things to like about him rather for things that annoy you. He’s here to stay. What does your sister like about him? What do other people in the family like about him? Practice redirecting your “bitch eating crackers” thoughts, like, “Yep, he’s not my favorite, but he’s good to my sister.”
But you don’t have to figure any of that out right now. You don’t have to be friends with him or ever love him like one of the family or ever think he’s the most fun person to hang out with. You just have to figure out a basic amount of pleasant and well-mannered and that any new person deserves when they’re a guest at your family table and aim for that.
That means, at minimum: Greeting him and making some effort at small talk. I’m working on a post loosely called “Small Talk Is Useful And Good And You Won’t Die Of It” that will be up sometime this month, but you know the basics already: Say hello & goodbye, ask him a few polite questions about hobbies/family/daily life, try to find a few safe topics you have in common (you both like your sister, so that’s one right there), steer away from controversy or conflict areas. That’s all you have to do. The goal is to create a series of brief, positive interactions that leave the door open to things getting easier someday, rather than working hard to find some kind of deep connection that might never happen.
That also means, stay away from joint activities you know bring out the worst in you (or him). There are people in the world I can enjoyably play board games with, there are people who mention board games and I’m like “WHERE ARE MY SHOES, GOTTA GO” and they are like “you just got here” and I’m like “I KNOW! TIME TO LEAVE WHILE WE ALL STILL LIKE EACH OTHER!” Not to pick on games: I am a full-on Karaoke Person. If you are not, we should not go to a karaoke bar together. We should especially not do karaoke together if you are already a baseline of annoyed with me, literally nothing about it will make you like me more, not even the time I totally slayed this song despite not remembering any of the words or how it goes. Does that make sense? If your sister starts to attempt some “look at my two favorite people, together, on this really competitive trivia team, in a loud bar full of boisterous strangers!” Geek Social Fallacy 4 + 5 nonsense, knowing when to be a Determined Good Sport (once a year, on her birthday, for up to 2 hours, maybe) and know when to say “Y’all have fun without me!” (every other time) might be a good portion of your battle.
If your sister is smart, she will set aside some sacred time or activities that are just for the two of you, NO BOYS ALLOWED. That is something you can ask for, by the way: “I’m so happy for you, can we do something that is just for us sometimes?” If this fiancé is smart, he will stop trying super-hard to win you over and meet you at “basic polite & friendly behavior.” That is something you can ask for, by the way, “Duder, I know you make my sister really happy, and you’re doing your best. I’m having some trouble adjusting to the changes, and none of that is your fault or about you, but like, don’t try so hard! Let’s just give it some time. We both love my sister, that’s all that counts.”
It doesn’t fix everything you’re feeling, but it’s a start.
Ok, that’s squared away, let’s talk about the stuff that’s going on in the rest of your life. Because your letter reminded me a lot of this one, and the lessons in it are worth re-visiting.
I met Mr. Awkward at 38 and married him at 42 so I apologize, I cannot hang with “I am 34 years old and now DOOMED TO ETERNAL SPINSTERHOOD” talk. If you never want to get married or be in a couple of any kind, cool, it’s not a doom! If you do want to be partnered someday, there’s no guarantee of anything but there’s also no cut-off time after which it is definitely Too Late For You. It is way too early (not to mention incredibly un-constructive) to cast yourself as the bad fairy at the feast, haunting the corners of your sister’s new happiness.
It doesn’t mean your feelings and anxieties right now aren’t real. You’ve been building your life on the idea that nothing would ever change and especially on the idea that another person (your sister) wouldn’t change, and that was all okay as long as you’re both in it together. Sing it with me: “I’ve been ‘fraid of changing ’cause I built my life around youuuuuuuuuuu…”
And then the landslide brought you down.
You’re having to make some stressful adjustments, but you’re also getting a giant wake-up call/opportunity to redesign your life and make sure it suits you. And it’s not because something terrible happened (your sister didn’t die, or decide suddenly that she hated you), it’s just change. The changes are here, you can fight them or embrace them, but there is no avoiding them. So what else can you do about them? The two biggest things that come to mind involve solving your housing situation and looking for ways to take pressure off your sister & that relationship:
A) Having to find a new living situation is stressful, and expensive, but it can be done, and it can be planned for. Start looking/saving now. Start thinking about possible roommates or what you can afford on your own. Talk frankly with your sister about the lease, the furniture, finances, etc. and make a plan together that’s fair to everyone. The sooner you start, the more choices you’ll have.
B) If your social life and support system has been very tied up in your sister, and you’re feeling very lonely right now, that’s also understandable! Nobody is going to replace the bond you have with your sister (nor should they!) just like no dude is going to replace the bond she has with you (Just watch ’em try! See below! I literally never need an excuse to link to this clip!):
But you’ll feel better and stronger if you can approach your relationship with her from a place of strength and abundance. She’s your most important person but she’s not the only person in the world. You need a support system that isn’t just about her and you probably need to work on cultivating some other friendships.
Good news, this is a time of year where tons of people are starting something new with the same collection of hope and regrets and awkwardness you are feeling. Take a class, volunteer somewhere, join a hobby group, try something you’ve never tried before, do all the stuff we know works to build human connection. And reach out to old friends, too! Not every lapsed connection is still a live wire, but as long as it’s a matter of drifting (vs. “please leave me alone”) and nobody’s selling anything*, I think there are way more people who would be happy to hear “Hi Old Friend, I really like you and I wish we’d never lost touch. Can I buy you a coffee in the New Year?” than not.
Letter Writer, I hope you can be very good to yourself, be a basic amount of nice to this guy, and that you can find ways to channel your frustrations with all of this into making yourself a good 2019. Thanks for your question, if anyone needs me I will be re-reading/re-watching Little Women.
*Inspired by the true story of my eighth grade bully’s sad attempt recruit me for various leggings & weight loss pyramid schemes last year. Turns out, yes, I’m “still mad about all that.” I do not think that all went how she imagined it in her mind.
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