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My niece hijacked the cottage for her wedding

The question

Our niece is getting married later this summer. After original assurances that our family would be included in the celebration, an invitation was not forthcoming. We co-own a cottage with our niece's family; each family uses it for a predetermined block of time every summer. We recently found out that the wedding party would like to use the cottage for pre-wedding celebrations during our scheduled period, and that we are no longer on the guest list. We have not yet offered to change our plans because we are not sure whether the relationship is worth saving. Now that the politics of the shared cottage and a family wedding have come together, we would appreciate some advice on how to move forward.

The answer

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I'll go ahead and use one of my least favourite journalistic neologisms here and say "full disclosure" (barf, gag, I hate myself): About wedding politics I can speak with some authority, but about cottage politics I'm a little out of my depth because I've never owned one. I'll do my best, but it's a bit like asking Stella McCartney which she prefers: T-bone or rib-eye.

I am, however, King of the Cottage Guests. My dad, a professor, didn't make enough cash for us to dream of a family cottage. We had one of those pop-up-trailer thingies which, take it from me, isn't the same thing at all. Dad would drag us up to what amounted to a grassy parking lot, where people would actually be more, rather than less, in your face than they were back in the stinking, steaming city.

It was horrible.

So I learned fast not only how to score a cottage invite, but how to get invited back. "No, I insist, Mrs. Smitherton-Smythe, as a matter of fact I enjoy doing dishes! Did you know Agatha Christie said she got her best thoughts doing dishes? I feel the same way – here let me grab that for you!" (The truth: I hate doing dishes. I was a professional dishwasher in my teens and after six months I wanted to hook my super-sprayer up to the deep-fry vat and end it all with a boiling-oil enema.)

I could write a book on the "dos" and "don'ts" of being a good cottage guest. But this new one is such an obvious "don't" that I never would've thought to include it.

DON'T plan your pre-wedding festivities during someone else's cottage time, but if you DO have the chutzpah to do that, then certainly DON'T just assume you can have the cottage and not even bother to ask. If you DO have the effrontery to commit both of the egregious social errors described above, then DON'T do it to family members you've snubbed by not inviting them to your wedding.

Listen: It sounds like there's a lot of broken-telephone communication in your family. The way your letter's worded – "assurances that our family would be included," "we recently found out" – makes it seem like you're getting a lot of information through the grapevine (i.e. third parties).

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The only way to handle this is to speak to your niece directly. Tell her you heard the wedding party was planning to use the cottage during your block of time and what's up with that?

I wouldn't mention the wedding or not being invited. Rise above. After all, not everyone can be invited to everything, and as you say, the "politics" of weddings can be tricky. And every guest your niece and her fiancé includes potentially raises the costs by hundreds of dollars. Maybe they had to make some tough decisions.

Or maybe the venue's too tight. Talk about the nexus of cottage and wedding politics: A friend of mine wanted to get married aboard the RMS Segwun, a quaint little steamboat that tootles around the waterways of cottage country here in Ontario – but the politics of whom would make the guest list became such a hair-puller that he had to abandon the idea altogether.

In any case, when the numbers get crunched, often it's the aunties and uncles who get bumped. It's not personal.

Certainly it's not a good look for you to be stewing with resentment. In fact, the loftiest etiquette here is to send them a present regardless, with best wishes. A guy I could have invited to my wedding but didn't (nothing personal, just numbers) sent us a beautiful gift and a nice card, and to this day (16 years later) I still think, "What a gentleman."

These types of gestures buy an unbelievable amount of goodwill, which is always a good thing to have and pays off in ways you can never foresee.

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Having said that, though, I don't think you should feel obliged to give up your oh-so-precious cottage time in Canada's all-too-short summer just because these little punks have assumed they can hold pre-wedding revelries there.

Heck no. Let them party somewhere else if they haven't even had the decency or courtesy to approach you in person.

But, as I say, the whole situation begs for a sit-down between you and the bride- and groom-to-be. Maybe you'll end up negotiating a tit-for-tat exchange of wedding invites for cottage time.

Bottom line: Reach out to your niece and discuss the situation like adults. Remember, no matter how it might feel at the time – and this is a central tenet of Damage Control, especially when you're talking about a conflict this minor in the grand scheme of things – every relationship is "worth saving."

David Eddie is the author of Damage Control, the book.

I've made a huge mistake

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