For some sisters, an engagement is a time to celebrate life, love, and family. For others, it can transform simmering childhood resentments into a full-blown battle royale. "Whatever ongoing or unaddressed issues siblings have had, they may be recreated when one sister gets engaged," says Karen Gail Lewis, a marriage and family therapist in Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. The key to avoiding sibling brouhahas? Identifying potential trouble spots before they begin:
She Isn't Married
When one sibling is getting married and the other one isn't, that big green monster might rear its warty head. "The non-marrying sister may feel resentful," explains Lewis. "Then she'll feel guilty about feeling resentful." Some sisters react by pouting and sulking behind the scenes. And others express themselves a bit more, um, publicly. Says Christine*, 28, "My sister was five years older than me and not married. She was so depressed that she got completely drunk at the wedding and, after the reception, hooked up with the DJ!"
She Wants the Spotlight
Any event that shifts the share of the limelight as dramatically as a wedding can bring out the crazy. "My little sister was my maid of honor, and she couldn't stand that, for a year, I was getting all the attention," says Jenna, 29. "A week before the wedding, she picked out a new, sexier dress to wear. All night long, guests kept commenting on my sister's outfit, which was a lot shorter and tighter than all the other bridesmaids' gowns."
She's Been Dissed
Here's the most surefire way to create an instant conflict: Choose a friend, and not your sister, to be the maid of honor. Worse yet, leave your sister out of the bridal party altogether. "One of my patients wasn't invited to be a bridesmaid in her sister's wedding," says Lewis. "If that weren't bad enough, the bride never told hera—the sister heard about it from friends." How'd it play out? "She screamed at the bride, the parents stepped in to calm everyone down and just made it worse, and the sister felt so excluded, she didn't even show up at the wedding."
She Feels Betrayed
Don't try to get even with a sister who's behaving like a bitch by being one yourself. "I've seen brides take out their anger at their siblings by picking out bridesmaids' dresses that make their sisters look awful," says Lewis. It's a strategy that can backfire. "My sister hated her bridesmaids' dress—she said it made her look fat," says Jennifer, 23. "After the ceremony, she jumped into the hot tub wearing it, because she forgot' to bring a swimsuit." Ah, sweet revenge.
Give Peace a Chance
The best way to avoid conflict is by nipping it in the bud. "The wise bride is the one who makes an effort first," says Peter Goldenthal, author of Why Can't We Get Along: Healing Adult Sibling Relationships. A few ways to ease the tension:
Sit down and have a heart-to heart. Be gentle—tell her that you really want her there with you and that you need her support.
Ask her to help you with a wedding chore that she'd enjoy, and see how she responds. Just remember: "You can't say take care of the flowers,' then complain about the centerpieces she chooses," says Goldenthal.
Show her some respect. Consult her about potentially controversial issues like the bridesmaids' dresses, and she may meet you halfway.
After an engagement, siblings can feel left behind. "Do something fun, just the two of you, that has nothing to do with the wedding," says Lewis. She'll realize that she's still important in your life.
If all else fails… "Write a note to her a few days before the wedding," says Lewis. "Tell her that you know there's been a lot of tension, and that you're at fault, too. Then ask her to put everything aside until after the wedding."
*Names and details have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.