Can I say how much I love this LW’s original email subject line: “A Soap Opera Problem–families torn apart over money, demanding parents, undutiful daughters who are me, sons trying to bear the whole burden.” Yeah!!!!

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’d really appreciate your advice on a family problem. Dad grew up
privileged, then was mostly-disinherited and lost his job when I was a
kid. Instead of retrenching, he incurred debt. Mom demands luxuries,
cheats, and is an alcoholic prone to rages. Now Dad asks me and my
brother A for money constantly, always at crisis moments.

Dad always believes that his financial issues will be over soon.
Unfortunately there’s a company he has a part in being sold, meaning
he might get some money one day—there’s some basis in reality but not
enough. He refuses to sell his house, because he wouldn’t get enough
money, and claims to be always economising because he doesn’t go on
holidays though Mom does and he belongs to an elite gentlemen’s club.

A and I have precarious jobs in which we are paid in irregular lump
sums, so we have the money to give him. We both consider ourselves
lucky. The emotional toll of these emergency requests is huge. We also
cannot afford them. Over 5 years, between us we’ve given Dad over

I wrote to Dad saying his behaviour is disordered and deeply hurting
us. He refused to go to his bank with us, blamed A for not giving him
enough, and hardly seemed to have read my message. He’s past hearing.
Saying he’s a good father otherwise is asking Mrs Lincoln how she
enjoyed the play otherwise.

I tried cutting him off altogether years ago: it ended when my
siblings exerted pressure on me to do a family Christmas. I’m proud of
my siblings (A, B & C, all younger) for getting through our childhood,
but I’m the one who rocks the boat. A gives money to Dad without me
knowing, so as not to risk alienating me. A has a more optimistic view
of the situation. My sister B agrees with me mostly, but B and C are
more sheltered (by me and A). C is college age, still living with my
parents. He’s begun suffering from panic attacks. He plans to get out
of the house next year: I’ll help him.

I’m considering not going home this Christmas, but I know it’ll upset
my siblings and I want to see C as neither of us is great at
long-distance. If I do go I’d like a script for talking to A, and my
other siblings, about this, and to make a plan for us going forward,
in how we’re going to react to my parents and stick together. I’ve
asked A to promise me not to give money to my father without telling
me: so far he hasn’t promised. It would make me happy if I could get A
to agree on no more money given directly to my father.

Thank you so much.

–Saving Only Siblings

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Hello! This is a question that is hopefully less fraught than a few of the other Holiday Questions and I hope will be an easy question for you all to answer.

My partner and I have been living together for over a year and together for much longer than that; it is a thoughtful, committed relationship and I’m very happy. My parents took some time to warm up to him but now like him very much (him wading in (yes, literally) to help at last Thanksgiving’s Sewer Explosion in the Parents’ basement went a long way towards them recognizing how good of a man he really is).

The problem: my family is deeply Catholic (not me) (and in the liberation theology, Nuns on the Bus, Vatican 2 kind of way, which helps). Until my partner and I marry, my parents will not allow us to stay in the same bed. We have no plans of getting married unless there is some extenuating circumstance, and then certainly not in the church.

I haven’t brought it up in the last year or so because 1) I want to respect their beliefs and 2) most of the times we’ve been home, I’ve been sleeping on a couch or with my sister anyway since it’s been for other family events where there’s a full house. But now it’s gone on for a long time, and aforementioned sister yesterday got in a fight with my parents about creating a “boys dorm” and a “girls dorm” for our next family vacation (this also will impact my brother and his girlfriend, who have been together since they were sixteen but also are unmarried). They told her that it’s clearly not an issue since I haven’t brought it up and she’s overreacting. She is not.

Look, I’m not trying to have wild kinky sex under my parents’ roof. I would like for my partner to not have to sleep on the floor (or as happened on other vacations, in a tent outside), and I would like to feel like my parents respect our relationship. How do I broach this topic and make it clear that this does, in fact, bother me, but I’ve thus far respected their wishes — but it is a problem that they don’t seem to respect me or my relationship as responsible, adult, or mature without the parameters of Catholic marriage? Do I even bother? Is this a passive aggressive nightmare waiting to blow up ten years down the road if I don’t say something now?

Help me, Captain Awkward! You’re my only hope!

Grandma’s sleeping in my bed this year anyway so it doesn’t even matter right now

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You’re worried about someone or something. You want to help. What happens if you don’t try to fix whatever it is and take care of yourself instead?

Dear Captain Awkward:

My boyfriend and I have been dating for three years and I dread every interaction with his family. He’s the youngest of five. The eldest brother will ignore my existence entirely. If his mom sees me not right by my bf then she comes over to explain how she wishes he would date his ex from high school because of how much skinnier, prettier, ect…she is. I spend every holiday with them now because if bf goes go with my family they explain how controlling and evil I am. So now my family had just been doing holiday stuff a little bit later or earlier so that both bf and I can attend. They keep trying to convince bf I am controlling him. It started when he became vegetarian after meeting me (I don’t care if other people eat meat; I didn’t care if he ate meat). I don’t make a big deal about eating I just take the things I can eat when we eat with them. They however endless “tease” (it can get mean) over it. I don’t want to just not go because I want to see my boyfriend on the holidays and it helps him withstand the abuse if I’m there to shoulder some. I just wish I knew what I could do to help make it better?

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They’re playing Christmas music in the Walgreen’s near my house, so, here you go.

Hi Captain & Co.,

I need a script for my dad for the upcoming holidays on why I am not spending it with him, and I need a script for my in-laws on why I am likely to be pretty emotional while I try out spending it with them.

Both my parents are alcoholics and my mother is abusive. I stopped going “home” (300mi away) for the holidays at 20 after a physical altercation with my mother on Christmas Eve the previous year. My mother is ill; I spent my teens caring for her, as well as serving as my dad’s only emotional crutch for her abuse (which was worse toward him) while he drank, making him unavailable to me. Among the features of her abuse was to habitually threaten suicide and dramatically self-harm, primarily as manipulation tactic, whenever someone did something she didn’t like.

As their only child I have found those codependent bonds extremely difficult to break. After hashing it out with a therapist I found the thing that was least taxing for me was still to visit, but to put firm boundaries on those visits. Accordingly we have done a strictly sober “Christmas” a week early, which largely avoids the worst of the manipulative nonsense from my mom, and I have spent the holidays themselves blissfully alone for the last five years.

I am now 26 and this year I moved 3,000mi away, which makes travel times more difficult to arrange. I have to go back to my home state to wrap up my graduate degree at the end of December. I do not want to spend the holiday with my parents for obvious reasons. My dad (now sober for five years) is aging and is struggling to remember some of the features of my childhood, and he and my mother have both denied my abuse before, so I do not want to cite that as my reason for not going in case it raises that conversation. He doesn’t have much in his life and I don’t know how to tell him I’m not coming without turning the interaction very negative and conflict-oriented, because I think we both deserve better than that.

On the flip side, I have an incredible, loving boyfriend. His family loves me and I them, and they are *all about Christmas*. I feel great joy and great sorrow when I think about spending the holidays with them. After talking very frankly with my boyfriend about my conflicted feelings, we agreed that I could try to spend the holiday with his family, and I can always bail if I’m not feeling it. He is very supportive of this plan and of whatever I may need, but I feel unsure how to present my potential for ill-timed breakdowns and need for escape plans to his family, who, bless them, could be the default photo in picture frames for how ignorant to struggle they seem to be.

What’s the best way to say “the holidays are triggering for me” to both these parties without saying those actual words?

How Do I Holiday

For your parents:  “I’m going to _______ for the holidays this year.” (Don’t tell them what you won’t be doing, i.e., going home, tell them what you will be doing, and don’t treat it like a big important talk about the underlying issues. Treat it like “hey you should know this so you can make plans.”)

Tell them the information.

Let them intuit the reasons.

And let their reactions be theirs. Him: “I can’t believe you don’t want to spend Christmas with your old man!” You: “Sorry dad, not this year, but I hope you and Mum have a nice day.” + HANG UP PHONE.

Since you’re going back to town anyway, go ahead and have sober holiday (observed) on another day if you want to or don’t if you don’t want to. Take your dad out for breakfast or some other small event if you want to see him (or don’t, if you don’t want to). His memory was selective to begin with and will only fade as he gets older and that’s a hard thing for an abused kid to carry into adulthood, that knowledge that parents can just forget the things they did to you and that that resolution and real honest discussion is probably never coming. When the monsters of your childhood become faded old people with the fight gone out of them, what do you do? How do you find a way to relate? Do you forgive and try to find a way to interact with who they are now or do you hold onto the tight little ball of yourself you’ve been protecting all this time?

I don’t know.

I don’t know.

I think maybe you take it day by day, year by year.

This year, you could send them a nice holiday card (and think about sending them the info about your travel in a card or an email) and remind yourself that it’s not a negotiation. This is for everyone reading: You can spend holidays with whomever you like, including just yourself, if that’s how you want to roll. Family members will have feelings about it, and that’s understandable, but their feelings don’t automatically trump your own. The first time you break tradition is the hardest time, but people do adjust.

Letter Writer, for your boyfriend’s family visit, I suggest that you do your best when you’re there, and if you need to bail, you let your boyfriend smooth it over and explain. If set-up needs to happen, he can do that, too. “You are all so great, but this is LW’s first holiday away from her family and it’s hard for her. She just needs a little space for a bit.” You could also plan time during the visit that is just for you or just for you and boyfriend so that you have some quiet built-in. Or go for one or 2 days, not a multi-day extravaganza, and spend the rest of the time alone. When you’re there, volunteer to run lots of errands at the store, for example, or have your boyfriend take you to see That One Cool Thing In His Town. Be the person who goes to bed really early. Nobody has to know that “bed” is “you quietly reading a book in bed.” Let yourself be a guest, take care of yourself, bring a nice host-gift for his folks to observe the ancient rituals, and let your boyfriend take care of you. Let his care include smoothing over anything that might need smoothing over.

People from fucked up families do not owe people from ‘normal’ families the performance of ‘normality’ or happiness, especially around the holidays. The hot shame and terror you feel when people ask “What are you doing for Christmas” or say “But what about your faaaaaamily!” without realizing that their small talk is your stuff of nightmares is real, and I’m sorry. It’s such a shitty combination of feeling put on the spot, shown up for not being ‘normal,’ maybe with the stab of grief for the memories you *should* have had, and anger at the happy obliviousness of the questioner. Sometimes the best answer is a non-answer, like “we like a very quiet Christmas” (who’s ‘we?’ who cares?) and sometimes it’s “that’s not a very happy time of year for me, but I am glad it is for you” and sometimes it’s “haven’t really made a plan yet, but tell me all about yours?!?” and sometimes the best answer is the naked truth: “My parents are alcoholics and all my worst memories are of Christmas with them. I’m trying really hard to make a new tradition for myself, and thanks to boyfriend I’m happy to be a part of yours this year.” Or “The holidays are triggering for me, and sometimes I can’t always predict how I’ll react.”

Whatever answer is your answer is good enough, and your holiday celebration (or “just another Thursday”) is good enough, and you are good enough, and there are a lot of people out in Awkwardland who feel you and get you and root for you and love you. This year we’re going to have Thanksgiving and Christmas (and other winter holidays that you can nominate in comments) Open Threads on the actual days for people who need a place to vent and collectively off-gas some winter feelings. <3 <3 and <3.

Dear Captain Awkward:

I’ve been reading your blog and I really like your answers. Hopefully you can help me with a problem I’m having. I have no perspective.

I recently remarried (about 5 years ago), and my (second) husband’s parents treat me, and most especially my kids, as though we aren’t family. They don’t even really treat us as guests. It’s more that we’re accompaniments to my husband. He has two brothers, one remarried (but both wives provided ‘actual’ grandchildren), and one married for like 25 years; they, and all of their kids, are obviously all ‘family.’

But my kids and I aren’t. My husband’s mom, when my husband brought this up with her (that I was sad visiting because we weren’t talked to, and because I hoped we’d be part of the family), consisted of: “I’m not going to lose any sleep over (my sadness / my children’s isolation at their house)” and “blood is thicker than water.”

For the first few years, my kids would come with us when we visited, and were basically ignored (they might be asked a question, but then their answers were ignored). Their cousins were talked with, asked about school, etc, conversations ensued. My kids, on the other hand, weren’t treated overtly meanly, they were just ignored. My husband said to me, when I’d say it made me upset: “they don’t care about your kids, they just met them” and “it will take time” (yeah, forever, since nobody talks to us).

So, eventually, I told my kids they didn’t have to go when we go up (they are now 15 and 18, and my mom lives with us, so they can stay here). But honestly, I don’t want to visit either, since I also get ignored; I don’t want to leave my kids behind to be with people who don’t want anything to do with us. (I think this is because my husband is very close to my kids, they see my kids as a threat to the place of his daughter, since she’s ‘really’ family.) Pennsylvania is very different from Virginia in the concept of hospitality and family welcomes, I’m finding.

My husband will say “why do you NEED to belong?” like it’s selfish to want to be a part of the conversation. He says I want it to be “all about me”, but that’s not true, I only want it to be as much about me as it is about everyone. (Normally, he’s wonderful and supportive, but when we get around his family, suddenly he sees the sense in everything they do, and I’m crazy, and I should just be there to support him, and not care if anyone talks to me. He once told me to get out a “puzzle or something interesting” and hope somebody asked me about it as I sat and worked on it alone. He says me bringing up my kids is “pushing them onto people who don’t care.”).

Every Thanksgiving we’ve pretty much always gone to his parents, because my kids are with their dad, and I want my husband to be happy. But it’s harder and harder, after being married almost 5 years, to just sit and be ignored, and then have people be mad at me for not just sitting there contentedly. They’re happy to talk with me as long as I ask questions about them, but they won’t talk about me or my kids with me at all. Not true – they will ask one question about my kids, and when I answer, they change the subject. Like their duty was done, time to move on. So I don’t want to go.

To make matters worse, my husband’s 20 year old daughter, who essentially stopped seeing him once she became 18 (though happily kept taking his money) is going, and I’ll get to watch everyone be so happy to see her, even though she treats her dad so terribly, but then watch nobody ask about my kids, who treat my husband like a dad. I keep going hoping each time will be different, but it never will. I don’t miss my ex, but I sure miss feeling like a part of the family I married into.

So my options are:
a) stay home alone and let my husband and his daughter go be with ‘their’ family (this is the one I’m leaning towards) … sucks because I’d like a nice Thanksgiving with my family too, to begin to create our own traditions;
b) go, and feel isolated (we’ve tried the talking about it, it doesn’t work, this isn’t a family that talks about issues, or I’d want to just talk about it; my first in-laws, I’d talk about problems with them, we’d resolve them) – this is a “put up with it or don’t, but nobody’s changing”; or,
c) ask him not to go (but not really an option; they’re in their 80s, and I’m not going to keep my husband from seeing his parents when they don’t have too much time left).

Can you please help? Just give me a point of view other than mine or theirs? Thank you!

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Hi Captain

My best friend, “Toby” has been living in my city for about a year now and over that time he’s gone from being homeless and alcoholic to having a sweet flat and ten months of sobriety under his belt. I’m trying to be as engaged in his recovery and support as possible because he doesn’t really have much of a support network around him – the mental health system in this country is a joke and he hasn’t ever received the help he really needs for his STPD, anxiety disorders, alcoholism and BPD, he has only a few other friends in town none of which he knows as well as me and his other closest friend and sister live across the country and overseas, respectively.

He and his sister “Jackie” were raised in a horribly abusive household – less violent than psychological, verbal and financial – rich parents who had children for appearances and ignored them to the point of neglect when they weren’t belittling them or loudly expressing their anger at both children being gay, as well as things such as encouraging the eating disorder that has been dominating his life for a long time and having family pets put down once they began to bond with the kids. Jackie bore the brunt of the abuse and has not talked to them for years and has been written out of their will etc, but Toby was the preferred kid and despite being loudly and aggressively disowned by them last year still says he hasn’t made up his mind about them and brings up things like “well, they bought me a car, so they must love me”.

He’s currently in a psych ward on a short stay and got a call from his parents out of the blue. They want him to come up to his hometown to stay with them for a week next month (with the potential to stay longer) and seem to think that they can play happy families and ignore both a lifetime of abuse and a year of no contact despite hearing second hand about his homelessness (during which time the mother volunteered for the Salvation Army and refused to contact him), alcoholism and a near-death experience at the beginning of the year. During that time they were telling the rest of the family to never mention the fact that they had children and had changed all their phone numbers so Toby and Jackie could not contact them. Now they say that they have changed their names and have distanced themselves from the rest of the family and want to make amends – though their phone call contained no outright apologies and skimmed over the major problems in their relationship with Toby and Jackie.

Recently I was with Toby when he ran into his uncle (his mother’s brother) in a store so we think they may have heard about that from him. He is considering going up to visit but I’m not sure what their motivations are and I’m very worried. These people have shown themselves to have only his worst interests at heart and I’m not sure anyone else other than me is in a good position to give him advice or keep an eye on what happens. He recently got out of a very physically and mentally abusive relationship as well and I’m worried that he will transfer his dependence back to his parents which will undermine his recovery and – generally – stable mental health.

I’d like to give him some scripts to take to his parents once he is up there because we both at least agree that they shouldn’t be allowed to to treat the visit as a Fun Family Getaway if he takes their offer of a plane ticket.

– Worried and suspicious

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Dear Captain Awkward,

My mom has always been something of a worrier. Anxiety runs in our family. But recently, there’s been this special, specific little anxiety bundle my mom’s been trying to hand me and my brother recently, like a cat leaving a mouse on a doorstep. I don’t know what to do with it!

The situation: my brother is currently living an (for our family) unconventional life. He graduated college, and then instead of getting an office job (like I did, and like my parents have), he’s pursued his creative projects and he got a job at a coffee shop to pay the bills. I think this is just fine. To me, this is the part of his artist’s journey where he struggles to pay the bills as he makes art in his shitty apartment. Not fun, perhaps, but sort of a necessary preamble to greatness. My mom has made it clear that she Does Not Get It. She says it’s not that she disapproves, she just doesn’t understand. She is a very smart lady and the struggling author/artist is a pretty robust cultural touchstone, but she keeps seeking clarification on “what exactly is he doing with his life” in these really hurtful ways.

She has done this same thing multiple times: She has a conversation with her friends about what my brother does for a living. They say something to the effect of “I don’t get it.” Or, “What is he doing, really?” Or, “But why?” My mom then relates this conversation to my brother under the guise of “Let’s figure out a way to explain what you’re doing to my friends, together.” Which – why? Why do your friends need this rock-solid grip on what your son is doing with his life? Also, he’s in his mid-twenties, supporting himself, on his own. Why does she need her friends to weigh in at all on what is, currently, a pretty successful story? She has pulled similar “help me figure out what to tell my friends” about my current state of un-marriedness to my boyfriend. When I told her “we’re happy with the way things are right now,” she seemed genuinely relieved, as though I had given her a script that she (A SMART LADY) could not think of. She hasn’t brought it up again, but my brother’s “I’m following my creative pursuits and figuring things out” script has not stuck quite so well.

Do you have any scripts for what I can say to just make her stop with the “my friends said” nonsense? Or any insight on why she’s doing this in the first place?

I Do Not Want Your Mangled Anxiety-Mouse, Mom

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