Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: I was really taken aback by your answer to a stepdaughter being pressured into a bridal shower. Boundaries are something you are always encouraging us to set and yet, in this instance, the daughter is being advised to do without and just let the stepmother get her way.
What happens when there’s a pregnancy? Shower, visiting, hands-on role in child’s life? “Well you let me do it for your wedding … “
There are huge red flags that stepmother a) doesn’t respect boundaries; b) doesn’t respect her husband’s daughter; c) has to get her way. The letter-writer didn’t seem to indicate any closeness with this woman so why? Why should she cave? It wouldn’t be a gift. It would be an invitation for stepmother to continue to force herself on the daughter.
You’ll recall that in my answer (http://bit.ly/YesShower), I reiterated my stance on boundaries: that they’re “the cornerstone of happy families.” I also said upfront that “I’m going against my entire history of advice.”
Why? Because this is not about a pregnancy or raising a child or anything of such high stakes. Should the stepmother ignore boundaries in those cases — and I expect she will — then absolutely the letter-writer and the spouse will need to hold firm. I accounted for that, too: “Caving doesn’t even set a precedent unless you cave again.”
This shower (or party, if they take my suggestion to change it to a mini-reception post-honeymoon so it’s clear it’s not a gift-grab) is a chance at inclusion and bridge-building with people who are going to be the bride’s family.
It’s also seriously low-stakes, per the letter-writer. Her objection was that the shower was an etiquette violation, not that the stepmother is trying to hurt anyone or assert that her way is somehow better or seize whatever else controllers try to control.
So why not solve the etiquette and have the party? What I took from the letter is that the stepmom is desperate to bring the bride to her people, to have a part somewhere in the proceedings.
Or just to get herself some attention, entirely possible.
And while shutting her down is one reasonable response to the desperation and boundary-busting — desperation is indeed the stepmom’s problem, not the bride’s — I think boundary enforcement and nuance can coexist. Again – in cases like this when the stakes are very low for dropping the boundary once.
The payoff can be high, too. A willingness to include can make an ally of the stepmother in a way the bride hasn’t considered.
If I was wrong and the bride knew it and didn’t want to find a way to include stepmom, then I validated that with advice that she stick to her “no.”
If I was wrong and bride took my advice anyway and the stepmom mistook that for an invitation to bust boundaries in perpetuity, then I could argue this new boundary setting process would be easier, not harder, for having said yes to the party. Reversing her “no” on the shower lays a foundation of goodwill that only thoughtful inclusion can.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.