#783: How do I tell my dysfunctional folks I’m not spending the holidays with them this year?

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. ❤ ❤ and <3.

146 thoughts on “#783: How do I tell my dysfunctional folks I’m not spending the holidays with them this year?

  1. LW: I have little to add to the Cap’s great advice other than a fist bump of solidarity. I’m 42 and I’m having my first Thanksgiving at home… ever. You’re in your 20s! You are TWO DECADES ahead of me! So I’ll add a fist bump of admiration! Telling my parents was awkward and difficult and there’s been slow-motion retribution in various forms, but… I’m getting to have the Thanksgiving I want.

    We reclaimed Christmas when my daughter was born 10 years ago and it has been glorious. No more sitting around making tense small talk fraught with subtext (or ignoring the subtext with lock-jawed determination). No more eating bad food made by people who resent all the cooking but won’t let me help. We still do our observed extended-family holiday but it’s not on Christmas proper and somehow that’s less freighted. I hope that you find yourself enjoying your parents-free holiday as much as we do.

    This year, I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving with a menu that doesn’t involve Paula Deen’s Pineapple Casserole. (canned pineapple + cheddar + butter + breadcrumbs… served hot.)

    1. Re: That Casserole

      (Marlon Brando whispering “The Horror…the horror” from the end of Apocalypse Now)

      1. That’s EXACTLY how I feel. The first time my SIL told me the recipe, I blurted out, “WHY?!” in open-mouthed…. horror. It was not my crowning moment of diplomacy.

        1. LOLZ… In our family it was the Narcissistic Aunt who made a canned green bean and onion ring casserole each and every year and had to parade around and show it to every family member with pride upon arrival… =D
          Meanwhile my Mom had been up in the early hours making a 28 pound turkey and all the fixings for 32 people with only me to help peel mountains of potatoes and other veggies. She could not make a pie to save her life though and therefore others brought the pies. One year she was so frustrated trying to make pie dough that she finally heaved the sticky mess at the wall where it hung over the kitchen clock the entire day and no one even asked why it was there….. They KNEW.

          1. If the pie dough sticks to the wall, it is Not Right.

            Pie crust is apparently my superpower but I’m curiously hopeless at mashed potatoes. I think everyone has their holiday cooking Waterloo.

      1. I live in Savannah, the town Murthuh Deenyall claims is her hometown (it isn’t) and I just want to say, apropos of nothing, that we do not say “y’all” every three words or have that same (grating, to my ears) accent. Or eat pineapple smothered in bread and cheese. Just so you know. 😉

    2. Wow. This post and comments has affected me to the degree that I’m feeling ill. One mantra from a therapist that’s worked for me in situations such as this one is: “You don’t HAVE to be friends with them”. On a lighter note, the visit with your BF’s family may just be easy peazy, lemon squeezy. Go prepared to ENJOY yourself. Enjoy spending a happy holiday with nice friendly people.

      And may all your Christmases be bright…

      1. I want to advise dialling back those expectations.

        I come from a reasonably unpleasant family of origin, and was raised in a cult. Two years ago, I went to Christmas with my BFF’s family, whom I love to pieces and had met and previously spent time with. It was festive as only Florida at Christmas can be festive. I went to no fewer than TWO family dinners, and a big messy college-friend-reunion-beach-weekend. People I had never met gave me presents. My BFF’s family treated me, their daughter’s random friend, more warmly, with more acceptance and love, with more genuine pleasure at my presence, in the three weeks of our visit, than I have been treated by my parents in my 40 years of existence on this planet.

        By the end of our visit I was a mess. I went to bed early several nights because I couldn’t handle how nice everyone was being and I was afraid I was going to start messily crying in the middle of family dinner. I needed a few days to gather myself when BFF and I got home.

        You might think that “spending a happy holiday with nice friendly people” is an unalloyed pleasure that will somehow fix all the sad spots in your brain, but you can’t count on that happening. You may need that time to get away, especially if all your Christmasses have NOT been bright, because you may be constitutionally unprepared for all that actual niceness and friendliness, and the cognitive dissonance might be physically painful.

        All that said, I would never trade that visit for anything. The exposure to a normal healthy family environment was wrenching and painful but also good and positive and made a big difference for me in understanding what exactly I never had, and why it is okay to be angry that I was deprived of it. But yeah, a space to get away or go to bed early (and not on the sofa!) when you need to is SO KEY. And knowing that it’s okay to feel all the weird complicated distressing feels you might end up feeling.

        1. I went through this recently, and I’m glad I’m not the only one. I was planning to move in with my parents this summer after school, but instead I moved in with a friend’s family. It’s the closest look I’ve had a the inside of another family in a long time, and, well — I knew my family was abusive, but only now at age 25 am I coming to understand how far over the line they were.

    3. I don’t have much to add either, but man, I’m an only child of an alcoholic father that made the holidays difficult, and I struggled for YEARS shoulding all over myself about where I should be on December 25th. So LW, know you’re not alone out there.

      1. My husband is the only child of alcoholics. (Well, he had a sister, but she died a decade ago of a heroin overdose). After he and I married, we decided we would be spending our holidays at home. Well, after spending on Thanksgiving and one Christmas with them – then we decided “no more” – there was just too much drama.

        The next year, his dad called and said that his mom was threatening suicide. (She did that occasionally.) On Christmas Day on the year we went to Madrid for Christmas – after they had emailed to tell him he was a Bad Son for abandoning them, his mom sent him an email wishing him “Merry Christmas” and saying, “Everything sucks and I get despondent.”

        When my husband asked his parents how they would react if my (widowed) mother made the same demands on us that they did, they told him that my family was “not close.”

        His parents are not nice people.

        1. Wow, every time I read more about Sly and Doris, it just gets worse.

          My in-laws were/are bad on and off, but yours were relentless.

          I do have one story that comes near yours: On the weekend that my grandmother passed away, I got a call from my mother and we rushed to the town an hour and a half away where my family live and my grandma was in hospital. Though she was 92, Grandma’s illness was unexpected, sudden and severe (in only a few days she had gone from well to having a deadly chest infection). I had the chance to see my beloved grandmother one last time. I got the call later that night to tell me she had passed away.

          The next day we got a call from my brother in law berating us for not going to see my MIL who was ill with constipation. (I know it can be life threatening for older people, but this is fairly routine for MIL.) He would not let my husband explain where we were, because “no excuse would ever be good enough” for not seeing MIL. When we saw MIL the a few weeks later and told her about my grandmother’s death and funeral, she said snarkily that “Well you have to pick your priorities.” (Definitely implying by tone that we picked wrong!)

          Christmas has not been spent at their place for a long time, though we often go to another BIL’s for boxing day with the whole lot of them. It’s a fun ride of guilt tripping which last year involved being not spoken for the 4 hour event to by “no excuse” BIL, because we had not handed over money to him without consultation when he wanted it, for something he wanted to buy MIL.

  2. I’m going to my sister’s for TG, and she’s been fretting about possibly inviting our toxic brother. She’s feeling the ‘but faaaaamily’ guilt, and I’ve been trying to get her to see the “you get to spend the holidays with people you like” side of things, along with the “sure, inviting Brother will alleviate the but-faaaamily guilt, but it will also make you fret for the next three weeks anticipating how all the Toxic will happen, plus guarantee a perfectly horrid holiday, so which misery would you rather live with?” and hoping that works to convince her. In the meantime, I’m not cancelling the hotel I booked when I thought she wouldn’t be able to put me up juuuuuust in case.

    1. You know, that is a brilliant way of framing it – if you’re going to have a certain amount of misery, which one would you rather have?

      Thanks for that thought.

  3. These feels! I know these feels!

    Year One: I declined to spend Thanksgiving with my challenging family, I spent the whole day nervously watching Buffy marathons on television with one eye on the door. I totally felt like my whole extended family was going to show up and drag me to the holiday festivities against my will. Fortunately, this did not happen.
    Year Two: I was able to more casually tell people “Oh yeah, I stay home and watch the Buffy marathon, I’ve been looking forward to it all month!” and my parents still asked me to come visit but didn’t make a big guilt-y deal about it.
    Year Three: Parents understood I was not going to come but they still called that day and tried to make me talk on the phone to relatives I really wasn’t comfortable talking to.
    Year Four: Parents assimilated that I would call them the day after Thanksgiving, and that was it, that was all they were going to get.

    These days, while they still invite me, they no longer give me Big Guilt because they know it won’t work.

    I suggest that you avoid giving reasons for your choices in this. Like the Captain says, *reasons are for reasonable people.* All you need to say is, just like above, “We’re doing X.” If you give them reasons, like “I don’t feel comfortable with this” or “I’m looking forward to enjoying the holiday for once” or anything, they will probably just try to use that as the beginning of a renegotiation. Stand fast! The first time is the hardest. You can do this, LW, I know you can.

    1. There is a Buffy marathon on Thanksgiving???? Change of plans time!

      For real though, I 100% second not giving reasons. You wanna stay home and watch tv, do it. No explanations necessary.

      1. Innorite?? I do take a break at 12 pm to listen to Alice’s Restaurant.

        Eventually I created a whole series of “alternative holiday plans” like the Thanksgiving Pie Breakfast (slogan: “when you don’t have anywhere to go, or you don’t want to go there”), Christmas Day OffBeat Matinee (anything but heartwarming!), V-Day action movie night of female leads, etc, etc. Love my life!

      2. Every day is Buffy marathon day… on Netflix! Which is what I think LdyEkt was referring to – but it’d be extra awesome if it were on cable too.

  4. My parents divorced by the time I was 2, so I have no Dad component to horrible holidays. BUT. I can’t remember a holiday when I was small where my mother didn’t pick a fight with her parents, didn’t scream at me until I cried, didn’t make some kind of ‘scene’ until she got her way about some damned thing. My grandparents kept coming because grandma really loved mom despite her horrible treatment, and grandpa went along. It all continued until a) grandparents died, and b) I got married and had kids and refused to come around for unbearable treatment. There was great huffiness at the edict to “behave or we leave, and if we leave, we don’t come back next year”, and thankfully, thousands of miles that made other arrangements much easier and more attractive for The Holidays. Non-holiday visits were less fraught for/with mom, but every visit was difficult. It wasn’t just family my mother was horrible to, either. I noticed over the years that her roster of friends changed every 5 or so years, because sooner or later, she was demanding and rude with them too, and they walked away. Somehow, mom never learned to treat people nicely, which is a pretty sad indictment.

  5. I definitely relate to this letter, although I haven’t quite gotten up the nerve to refuse to attend the holidays altogether (I HAVE instituted a 2-day only policy with “because I’m leaving now,” as the only reason for my departure.)

    I just want to point out that your thinking that your boyfriend’s lovely family will need reasons for your “behavior” might be stemming from your experiences with your dysfunctional family. In some families, “I’m going to run out to the store, now.” Or “I’m going to go for a walk by myself,” is actually met with a simple “Have a nice time, dear,” rather than a meltdown and/or interrogation. Shocking, I know!

    1. Thiiiiiis!

      I used to fret over “but what will I say when I need x or y??” when visiting with my spouse’s family, and he was like….nothing? Whatever you want? Because in close families where everybody is treated like a legitimate person, you don’t have to have a pre-made shield against prying and judgment.

      1. And I was shocked – I am very lucky to have come from a functional family – to find that simply going into the guest room after a full day of way too much togetherness rather than staying in the living room to watch a football game is considered a breach worthy of raging to my husband about how rude I am, not just in the moment but in the years to come, any time the inlaws go to the Vault of Bad Things Golddigger Has Done That Justify Our Hatred of Her.

    2. I come from a family of introverts and we run out of spoons quickly even during our small, quiet holiday celebrations. We all know that “going to the store” is the same as “I need some down time to stock up on spoons.” And it is ALWAYS met with a “Have a nice time, dear.” Hopefully your boyfriend’s family will be the same! So good luck!

      BTW, if you can’t escape the house itself…..I’ve found at my husband’s big huge boisterous family gatherings that I run out of spoons fast and that hiding out in the kitchen washing dishes, carving turkey, mashing potatoes, etc., with the cook is a great way to get some alone time. As is claiming a corner of the couch and watching kid’s holiday movies with all the kids piled up around me. Everyone sees me “interacting” when really I’m stocking up on spoons. Again, good luck!

      1. Excellent plan. Kitchen or kids worked best for me for many many years. I am old now, so I can make my “No, thank you” without explanation, but for many years the kitchen or kids kept me feeling safe.

          1. That tactic saved me many a holiday when I was a teenager and my three older sisters’ houses were full of screaming toddlers. Although my sister’s Dalmatian used to walk *me.*

      2. I’m mostly extrovert-ambivert, I love being around people until I’m done. (I’m done comes around about every 2 months, more if I’m doing a lot of public-facing work.) My husband (also an extrovert) has this amazing large family, they all live in town and get together every sunday for dinners (plus other get togethers with smaller sub sets throughout the week). They’re great and have done everything to make me feel welcome and like family. When we were still dating, on the second dinner, my (future) mother-in-law asked me about my knitting, always in my purse, because she wanted me to feel free to knit while I’m there. And I do, and it keeps me so happy to knit and talk sometimes and not other times. Also sometimes husband and small child go without me and I have an evening of ME and everyone understands and is happy for me. They’re awesome. They made space deliberately for me in their family and they’re making space for our growing subset of family to make our own traditions.

        I hope LW that this is what you find. Because this is how good families treat new people. And if you are a handiwork person, having a little bit of knitting tucked into your bag can be an amazing shield/conversation starter/socially acceptable way to sit quietly.

    3. “In some families, “I’m going to run out to the store, now.” Or “I’m going to go for a walk by myself,” is actually met with a simple “Have a nice time, dear,” rather than a meltdown and/or interrogation.”

      This is true. LW, I can’t speak for your boyfriend’s family of course, but from my own family I can tell you this: My extended family’s idea of the holidays is to fit way too many people into way too small a house, eat too much food, and be all up in each other’s business for the entire week between Christmas Eve and New Years Day. And I love it and wouldn’t have it any other way, but I can easily see how that could sound like a nightmare to other people, and we’re all aware of that. When my aunt first brought her boyfriend over, they came just for Christmas dinner, and nothing else. She came on other days that year and he stayed home, and everyone found this perfectly reasonable. He has come to like it all too, but he worked his way into the whole thing gradually.

      My mom, even though she’s been part of this family for decades, still finds it all too much. Her strategies are as follows: She volunteers for any errands that need to be run, and sometimes invents one as needed (oh we don’t have whipped cream for the pie? No, really, I insist, it’s just not the same without, let me go get some/Oh there is a [store] near here? Man, it’s been a while since I’ve been in one. I’m going to go check it out.). She spends time alone in a room where everyone else isn’t, doing her own thing (people sometimes assume she has work that has to get done, but actually she’s usually playing games or reading, and no one really cares anyway). She goes to bed early (although this is her normal habit anyway). And when she’s had enough, my parents go home, even though it’s usually only been a few days (us children stay longer with a relative).

      And everyone goes out for walks alone or with just a few others when space is needed, no questions asked. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, to cut the time you are visiting with them shorter than they might assume you would want to stay, and take some time to yourself even while you are there. No explanations needed unless you want to give them. If they are reasonable and loving people, they will just be happy to see you. Let your boyfriend handle any questions that come up. A simple “The holidays are a difficult time for [LW]” says enough and doesn’t leave a lot of room for polite people to pry – they can be a difficult time for many reasons other than what you’ve been through. And if it’s feasible to get a hotel room, that will likely be a *huge* blessing at the end of the day.

      Jedi hugs to the LW and anyone else who wants them.

      1. This is what my extended family used to do (before we literally outgrew every single venue in the Grand Rapids, MI, area that could possibly fit us – no joke) and I loved it so much! But it’s very overwhelming for new family; I made my then-boyfriend flashcards for each family member when he came one year, and Grandma’s new husband came once and was totally overwhelmed, poor guy. (That year also happened to be the year that we all basically got norovirus and infected each other one by one and sat around watching as we all dropped like flies. So.)

        But I converted to a different religion as a young adult, and was very glad that I could use the holiday as a time to say “Well, time to go to Mass, and I think I’ll take a little drive around the lake after” if I needed more spoons. They were always very good about it and I am very thankful for that.

    4. YES! The first two years of visiting my partner’s family I was a nervous wreck peppering him with questions about how I was dressed, what type of food, what to talk about, etc. and he was totally mystified and answered with a lot of “uhhh whatever you want.” I finally realized – huh. I can just EXIST here. And as long as I am polite and moderately helpful all is well.

      Blew. My. Mind.

      1. I had this experience too! My partner’s dad even went out of his way to ask partner what kind of beer I like (answer: cider) and deliberately stocked it, to make me feel welcome. Mind blowing!

        1. My partner’s mom made sure to make spaghetti at least once when I stayed with them for Thanksgiving because it’s my favourite meal ever. 😀

    5. Yes, absolutely. I come from a loving, rough-and-tumble, boisterous family, and am an introvert. They all know that at some point in time during my week-long Christmas visit (probably several “sometimes”), I will need to retreat either for a few long walks (either by myself or with one other person), or for a book reading in the corner, or whatever. No problems, no explanations needed, and the only response (besides the, “Have a nice time,” mentioned above) might be along the lines of, “We’re going to Place at 2-ish, make sure you’re back by then if you want to come.” (Notice the “If you want to come”; should I choose to say, “No, I’m not feeling up to it today,” then that would be an okay response too. About the only thing that’s “required” is the White Elephant Gift Exchange, and that’s partly because I’m the one who organizes it so it would be weird for me to miss it.)

    6. Also–if they are really nice, you or your boyfriend can just mention, “It’s going to be a little tough for me, please excuse me if I get a little teary or need some time out.”

      I know in my families (birth and ILs), this would be met with affection and understanding. And there would be a couple of people who would absolutely run interference on your behalf.

      They’d want you to take care of yourself.

      Of course, if they’re the kind to want to solve everything for you, you might want to keep it a little more low-key, and have the boyfriend run interference from their kindness. But hopefully they’ll love you so much that if you say, “No, really, I just need a breather; it’s more helpful if you just ignore me now. I’ll be back in a bit,” that they’ll smile and say, “OK. See you!”

  6. LW, I’d like to offer you a jedi hug if you want it.
    Something I gathered about codependent bonds is that they leave people feeling a strong need to explain themselves, to reasonably discuss their thoughts and have them (and sometimes themselves) validated.
    Here’s the thing: you do not need to explain yourself. Your bf’s family love you, and they’ll love you just the same if you’re silent, sad or crying. Your blood’s family behaviour towards you won’t change no matter how solid the reasoning you give them, either.
    That’s why the Capi’s “stick to the bare facts, reasons are for reasonable people” technique is such smart advice. You do not need to explain yourself. Your explanations are a gift, a peak into your mind, and you are free to give this present to whomever you deem worthy, or to no one at all.
    I agree with the Captain on letting your bf buffer for you. However, if you’d like to offer an explanation to his family, a possible script could be: “The holidays are a very fraught time for me, so I’m likely to be a bit distant/emotional”.
    All human beings have emotions. You never need to apology for this.
    All the best to you, LW!

    1. Yes, this. Holidays are very triggering. They can trigger because of bad memories, they can trigger because of good memories, they can trigger because things feel wrong/different in some unspecified way that you don’t expect, they can trigger because there are more interactions and pressure for things to be “right” when really they would be better if the pressure wasn’t there. Being emotional doesn’t need an apology, and the details don’t need to be explained. Kind welcoming people will not require you to either perform happiness for them or pick through your issues.

    2. “Something I gathered about codependent bonds is that they leave people feeling a strong need to explain themselves, to reasonably discuss their thoughts and have them (and sometimes themselves) validated.”
      This is solid gold. Also, being abused has set me up to need to have reasons that others will accept so that I won’t be attacked. As one of my best friends has reminded me “no is a complete sentence”. Reasonable, non- abusive people are usually okay with no.

      This too “Your explanations are a gift, a peak into your mind, and you are free to give this present to whomever you deem worthy, or to no one at all.”
      People who “need” to pry into my mind in order to respect my actions and opinions are giving me big red flags.

    3. With kind and reasonable people I think it would be a kindness to explain yourself, but only to the extent of letting them know that they are not the cause of your distress. The phrasings here about holidays being a difficult time for you or it being the first holiday away from your family are suitably vague and signal that you’re dealing with your own stuff and that you aren’t upset or bailing because they accidentally offended you or failed to be as kind and welcoming as they were trying to be.

      But boyfriend can be deputized to say these things on your behalf.

      1. Yes. If you have good relationships with them, this sort of minimal, barebones thing outlining what you may need (to leave, space, early bed) may be a blessing for both of you-it’ll make sure they back off and don’t overwhelm you if they sense something is off, and it’ll make sure they don’t feel like they failed to include you.

  7. Oh LW

    How brave you are.

    Let me just add one thing to the Captain’s excellent response.

    It is totally fine if you decide to bail.

    Jedi hugs if you want them

    1. I like this. Fine if you bail, and fine if you go and find yourself opening up to Norman Rockwell like joy. Be kind to yourself, seek the support from the boyfriend, and have a list of polite excuses handy. Faking a cold works too if that’s better for you (oh, I feel something coming on, I’ll just lie down and see if I can shake it….no no, you guys have fun!)

  8. LW, advice for you–your in-laws’ ignorance to struggle may be a blessing of sorts. You go to the bathroom in the middle of dinner to have a bit of a cry? They’re like, “hope nothing’s wrong with the food.” You get a bit of chill, even if you don’t get the understanding. Your by-words are: “excuse me–I’ll be back in a minute.” Or half an hour. Or “by dinner.”

    I recommend that you think now about leaving and coming back. Like, during dinner the second floor bathroom is your haven to get ok again, and then you feel all right re-joining dinner even if they’ve moved on from the Cranberry Sauce Course to the turkey. Or whatever.

    Advice for your boyfriend for smoothing things over: reassurance + explanationoid + doable action. You go to the bathroom for ten minutes and his mom asks about it:
    -Reassurance: “she loves you guys and being here.”
    -Explanationoid: something that, you know, resembles an explanation. “Holidays are a bit weird for her this year. She’ll be good!”
    -Doable action: “I’m going to save a plate for her–can you cut a bit of turkey?”

    As the Captain said, you don’t owe them any particular type of explanation. You’re not going to ruin their holidays by being bummed or honest or dishonest or in a weird place or from a fucked-up family. If that ruined holidays, every single holiday across the nation would be ruined, even the “normal” and functional family holidays, and they are not.

    I think you have some wariness about your in-laws’ holiday, and having to act exactly right for it. I think you should let yourself have that, there’s no way to get rid of it after years and years of training to dread these family events. But I think you should continue to talk with your boyfriend beforehand to say, “if I say something really awkward and sad, SAVE ME FROM THE AWKWARD.” And I think you should give yourself some time with your boyfriend AFTERWARD as well.

    That afterward conversation goes, “I did this totally awkward and sad thing around your mom and I felt like she was really upset.” “No, she felt bad for you and expressed it awkwardly too. My family loves you and enjoyed the holidays.” And after the tenth year of going to their holidays, maybe you realize you’re no longer wary and your afterward conversation goes: “I can’t believe your mom gave me the same ugly sweater for the fourth year running. Glad we’re home now, hahaha!” “Me too. I’m going to email her a picture of all four sweaters in our closet.”

    1. Yup, the “doable action” part is very useful, I think. And useful as a more general thing for talking to them if LW decides to — I’m remembering some advice about coming out to parents/relatives/etc., to the effect that it’s often helpful to include an explicit, “here’s why I’m telling you and what I’m asking from you,” and I think that would be relevant here. In this case, it would probably be something like, “so that if I randomly get emotional you know it’s not about you, and that I’m okay, I’ll just need some quiet space for a little bit. And I know it’s weird, but it really helps if you don’t make a big fuss over me if it happens.”

  9. LW, one thing that might help you when planning your holiday (and corollary coping/exit strategies) with BF’s family and allowing yourself to relax into it is to keep this in mind: They might SEEM perfect, but they’re not. No family is. I think you are aware of this when you say they are “ignorant to struggle” — which can mean a family is lucky to not have conflict, or can mean that a family pushes any potential conflict way, way away and pretends it isn’t there. I used to be quite envious of my college roomie’s extended family, with whom I had some nice holidays several years when I was working away from my home state and couldn’t get home to my own folks. They seemed so close! No one ever fought! Except … it turned out years down the road that that was not totally true, and this was revealed to me after she related a Thanksgiving get-together that broke down into two of her (adult) cousins throwing their kids’ toys at each other.

    1. They might SEEM perfect, but they’re not. No family is.

      Yes, this. Now, they may in fact be utterly oblivious to struggle and what it means to have triggers and heavy emotional weights connected to family and holidays — I don’t want to say that no, they will definitely not be earnestly oblivious, because obviously that’s a possibility. And it’s also possible that they put a smiling glossy face over any skeletons in the closet. But it’s also possible that they’re a functional family who understands how to respect boundaries and get along… and still knows struggle enough to recognize it.

      My family is one of those picture-perfect ones, on the surface. And they ARE a great family — I’m extraordinarily lucky in my parents (and extended family), and I’m grateful for that every day. I’ve had multiple friends say “I love your parents, and they’re welcome to visit any time; it’s really nice to see a model of a family that works, you know?” And yet in the backstory are divorces and emotional issues worked through over time and complicated familial relationships (not abusive, but complicated), and “and then I realized that my grandmother’s childhood must have been really horrible and that explained a lot about her” family stories that don’t get trotted out at parties, and “well, Family Friend had pretty awful parents and seemed to really appreciate us so we quietly semi-adopted her and that’s why she came over for holidays a lot,” and so forth.

      They may genuinely be ignorant of major struggle, or they may be invested in ignoring struggle, or they may recognize it perfectly well from their own milder and luckier pasts. But no family is actually perfect, because they have to live in this world, not a Hallmark photo.

      I say this because I think the Captain’s advice is perfect, either way. If LW’s BF says “holidays are a hard time for LW, so they’re really excited to be here but may need to retreat or be emotional some,” his family can fill in the blanks themselves, and they may or may not be accurate in what they fill in. Maybe they’ll think “ouch, kind of sounds like LW has some major family issues; we’ll definitely make them welcome but give them space and let them participate to whatever extent they’re comfortable with,” or maybe they’ll peer at the situation through rosy glasses and think “oh dear, did a beloved grandparent die last year or something? Gosh, it’s a pity LW gets tired early in the evenings and can’t join us for family Scrabble!” But either way, LW doesn’t owe anyone an explanation, and a respectful and genuinely welcoming family won’t demand any.

  10. LW, have you ever tried an Al-Anon meeting? (Like AA but for friends/relatives/partners of alcoholics.) Might not be your bag, but if it is, there are groups in most cities so it could be a good way of creating an instant temporary support unit that you could drop in to if you need while you are holidaying in a strange town. (This is what I’m considering for getting through a Christmas away as another child of an alcoholic with a lot of bad memories and fresh wounds that always feel worse around this time of year.) Lots of love to you.

    1. Al-Anon meetings can be great! I would recommend finding a group that’s your jam before a hard day (i.e. if possible, not trying a meeting newly on a hard day, though you can certainly do that in crisis and you will likely be safe and welcomed ). Just based on my experience, sometimes they’re hard to sit through. But very often they’re awesome!

      1. Yes! And their website has a lot of information to help find the right meeting for you. Some are specific to Adult Children of Alcoholics, some are segregated by gender, some are specifically designed for newcomers, etc.

    2. I was just coming here to suggest this! My mom is an alcoholic (and is/was emotionally, verbally, and occasionally physically abusive). Al-Anon has immeasurably helped my ability to interact with her, and helped my ability to interact with others. Therapists are awesome, but al-anon is a great (and free!) supplement. It’s more like group therapy, but there’s always someone there who’s been through similar things to you and you may find hope and experience of other people very helpful. I’d suggest checking them out, if you haven’t already. Some groups are mostly comprised of the spouses (generally wives) of alcoholics, but there are a lot of children of alcoholics as well (especially good to look for meetings near universities or the “hip” neighborhoods for the groups which will be fewer middle-aged spouses and more the adult children of alcoholics).

      1. Also came to suggest Al-Anon! Just hearing other people describe similar emotions or histories or thoughts is remarkably soothing and validating when you’re feeling raw, anxious, and isolated. Everyone is so supportive and you will not be forced to speak, etc. You may silently sit there with a cup of tea and listen to everyone else’s shares and let the slogans wash over you like a cooling balm. Then quietly leave. People are so respectful and good at boundaries here…because they all know how awful it is to have your boundaries shattered.

        If it’s not too presumptuous, I’d also recommend reading “The Complete ACOA Sourcebook: Adult Children of Alcoholics at Home, at Work and in Love” by Janet G. Woititz. It’s a little outdated at times, but even so, I found it so helpful as an ACOA myself (got the rec from my therapist so it’s still endorsed today, though first edition came out in the ’80s). I’d suggest purchasing an e-version so that you don’t have to haul out a clearly therapeutic handbook in front of near strangers. It’s similar to Al-Anon so if you’re not ready for a group of strangers, this is a nice stepping stone that you can take solely on your own terms. Again, just a thought and no pushing at all. Only try what you want to try.

        So many jedi hugs, friend.

  11. ” 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.”

    this is so nicely put, LW. i think if i were in your situation, i would just state this at the very first indication the conversation was headed in that direction. “dad, i love you, and i think we deserve better than this. please respect my decision as an adult.”

    best of luck – you sound like you are an incredible person as well as a good writer.

  12. “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?” (CA) Man I don’t know either, but I wonder all the time.

    LW, your mileage may vary, but for me, declaring all fall&winter holidays as days of Me-and-my-dog-and-the-park-and-takeout-and-fun-projects-and-tv has served me well since i was 19. I definitely feel the melancholy but there is zero bs. And pets are the best. This year I’m considering finding a volunteer gig for the day-of but we shall see. Anyway you’re not alone, and you sound awesome!

  13. “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. ”

    Merci, Madame Capitaine. Merci.

  14. LW, if it helps you find strength and helps you to feel more okay with the decisions you’re making over the holidays, remember this.

    Not spending every holiday with your birth/childhood family is normal, for adults. It is especially normal for adults in romantic relationships. Your parents could have been the most perfect, the most loving, the most awesome parents on the planet and it is still entirely likely that you would not have spent the holidays with them this year. Most of us at the very least rotate holidays. Some of us don’t even do that. My MIL lives one town over, my grandparents in the next county. But my parents live abroad in Spain and my FIl lives abroad in France, so holidays are split 50/50 between MIL and grandparents, with everyone else being visited at other, less expensive-to-book-flights, times of year. Even my aunt and uncle, who live within the same 50 mile radius of my grandparents that most of my huge, sprawling family does, alternate holidays and will arrange a family supper of some sort with whoever isn’t getting Christmas Day.

    That means you don’t need to think up any justification, if you don’t feel comfortable explaining to your parents why you aren’t holidaying with them this year. Treat it like it’s a normal, expected, understandable thing, if you need to.

    For your boyfriend’s parents, it would probably be better, as you’ve been planning, to give them some warning of your emotional needs. If they’re as drama-free and awesome and picture-perfect as you say, they’ll be glad you told them so they can make sure you have whatever space or care you need. And if that’s also a difficult conversation for you, you could ask Boyfriend to give his parents the talk on your behalf.

    Basically, this is all okay. It will all be okay. And you can handle both the conversation with your parents and the conversation with his parents whichever way will be the least painful for you.

    1. “Not spending every holiday with your birth/childhood family is normal, for adults. It is especially normal for adults in romantic relationships.”

      My first reaction: IT IS?! *peeks out window, looks for dragons and a big green blob in the sky*

      Of course you are right, but it’s impressive how well the programming sticks even now.

      1. Yep totally normal. My extended family is very close and attempts to get everyone together for at least one day out of the year (usually in the days between Christmas and New Years), but it gets harder every year, now that all the grandkids are adults and live far away and some have romantic partners. Sometimes the answer is “I’d love to come but it’s just so expensive to travel for the holidays. I’ll see you this summer.” or “We are going to [partner’s/step-parent’s/other side of the family’s] celebration this year. Maybe next year!” or “We just couldn’t get the time off/have too much on our plates/have other obligations.” or even just “We will not be traveling this year.” To which the answer is “We’ll miss you but I hope you have a good holiday!”

      2. I’m learning this one and it’s hard! Both our families are “normal” but it is so strange not being “home” for one holiday or another.

        PS, I adore your username.

    2. I was going to post this exact thing, and then I saw you had already done it! But also two other things that go along with this:

      1.) At least among the subset of folks I know, it seems that it is normal (or at least very common) to have some level of trepidation about saying to your parents — great parents, good parents, bad parents, abusive parents, “normal” parents, weird parents, the whole gamut of parents — “we are not going to spend anything holiday-adjacent together this year,” especially for the first time. It is a difficult conversation to have! You know you’re disappointing the people who have installed your buttons and know them best. But like the PP says, you’ll have the conversation, it’ll be done, it’ll be OK, and it does generally get better if “not spending Christmas/Thanksgiving together” becomes what’s expected rather than the deviation.

      2.) And you don’t need some sort of justification to not spend Christmas or any other holiday with your folks. Not just in your script, like the Captain says, but it’s okay for your real-life in-your-heart-of-heart reason to be as simple as “I would prefer not to” or something even more frivolous like “I want to spend my Christmas sleeping till noon, then marathoning Arrested Development while drinking champagne” or whatever would make your day just perfect. You don’t have to come up with better plans or something they would accept as “valid.”

      1. Oh, very true! We actually tried to include my abroad parents in the holiday rotation for the first few years we were together, and I felt awful the first time I finally had to tell them that, while we’d still visit them whenever we could, we wouldn’t be able to commit to booking flights and time off over the holidays any more.

        It just got too expensive, and the last time we tried it we had all kinds of problems due to weather stopping flights and having to race the spreading snowstorms from airport to airport. But even having that “excuse” felt really difficult for us.

    3. Yeah, I was going to say, “I’m spending the holidays with Romantic Partner’s Family” is the most airtight, socially acceptable reason to not spend the holidays with your own family.

  15. “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.”

    I’m not sure that he does, tbh. He’s not sorry for the abuse you suffered; in fact he actively denies it ever happened, because it’s easier for him. You were defenceless and suffering as a child, and he participated in that and did nothing to stop it, because it was easier for him. What about that says that you owe him anything?

    So now you get to do what’s easier for you, and that includes telling him you’re not coming in whatever way you want (including not telling him at all). And as a grown-ass adult, he can take care of his own feelings.

      1. One thing I read is that the father seems to have having mental issues related to aging, so honestly, I’m not sure the “forgetting” isn’t at least partly legit. This adds an extra helping of awkward to the situation, because what do you do if a family member who abused you *legitimately* forgets? I can’t imagine what I’d do in that situation. I think my brain would melt. ><

        1. “One thing I read is that the father seems to have having mental issues related to aging, so honestly, I’m not sure the “forgetting” isn’t at least partly legit. This adds an extra helping of awkward to the situation, because what do you do if a family member who abused you *legitimately* forgets? I can’t imagine what I’d do in that situation. I think my brain would melt. ><"

          Yes, that REALLY sucks. Although for me it was easier to deal with because the shell of the person in front of me was so clearly NOT the same as the one I'd known growing up (although not sure if it was at the level of abuse, it was still very unpleasant.)

    1. “The cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man on the moon…”

  16. Hi LW, I can’t speak to your experience with your parents, but I do have a couple words to say about interacting with boyfriend’s parents that I hope will help take that worry off your plate.

    You know that thing the Captain always says? “Reasons are for reasonable people”? The good news for you is that it’s true both ways. I think the Captain is right that the reasons should come from boyfriend and not you, but that script, or anything similar, should be more than sufficient to explain why you need a little extra alone time while you’re visiting. If his family is like mine, the most that will happen is that you will have to put up with the feeling of people being extra nice to you while you’re there, and when his mom says goodbye to you, it might come with a “You’re ALWAYS welcome here at the holidays, dear, and call me if you EVER need ANYTHING.” (These things could also be difficult, depending on what else is going on in your head, but as far as worst case scenarios go, I hope this one is reassuring.)

  17. How timely. After an extremely difficult year with a mother that has had multiple strokes, a move to a nursing home paid for by my credit cards, a nest of roaches falling on my head in the clean up of her apartment and virtually nil help from the older sibling, plus the memory of past abusive fun times, the script has come to me:

    “Actually, I’m not up for hosting the Christmas brunch and dinner this year, see you sometime in March for Mom’s birthday. No, we’re really busy right now. If something opens up before then I’ll call you. Merry Christmas.” (Away from me)

    1. “a nest of roaches falling on my head” — I really wish I could convince myself this was metaphorical. All the jedi hugs to you for this and all you describe. I hope you get to enjoy a restful non-roachy holiday away from anyone you don’t want to see.

  18. Right now, I’ve been lucky. Both my husband and his parents are very understanding on how messed up the holidays can make me and how I will never have anything to do with my own mother and sister. Especially my mother-in-law, since her own parents were toxic (we’ve shared stories). But they respect my need to take a little solo time.

  19. There have been holidays when I purposely didn’t go join the faaaamily. I agree with the Captain. You state it as a fact: “I won’t be able to join you this year” You do NOT need to add a “because….” If you need a script,, I’ve always said, “Oh Mom, the holidays are just DAYS. A visit will be the same no matter what day we do it. I just can’t do it on Holiday.” (In other words, a visit will be miserable no matter when we do it so I’m not going to ruin a holiday/day off/vacation time making myself miserable right now).

    On those holidays when I do see my family, I set my boundaries ahead of time and I’m totally prepared to walk out, go home, and salvage the rest of the holiday in a manner that makes me feel good. Don’t be afraid to honor your own boundaries – and don’t feel any obligation to explain those boundaries to others!

  20. Ha! We’re in the process of resetting our Thanksgiving routine this year. We’ve been doing this whirlwind road trip loop featuring my family and 2 sets of friends for 3 feasts in 24 hours, carpooling with a friend. Just nope. It was too much. Carpool friend just moved away, but even before that, we decided to move in a completely different direction–visiting partner’s sibling for the first time ever! Over the years, I’ve stayed with family. I’ve participated in local Orphan Thanksgivings. I’ve hosted. I’ve stayed home and avoided all celebrations altogether.

    And when we moved in together, partner and I decided that our personal Christmas tradition was to stay home and invite a houseguest to spend the week with us–someone who would otherwise be alone. Then we arrange to see family usually sometime in January. Once as late as February. Last year, we played houseguests to my mom so that she wouldn’t be home alone during Christmas after my stepfather’s passing. We don’t know what we’re going to do for Christmas this year. Some of that’s because we’re separated and I am living in an adorable apartment on my own. Some of it’s because so many variables have changed in the last couple years. So I guess that’s been a short-lived tradition.

    Definitely make the holiday plans that feel right to you, LW. They can be the start of a new tradition. Or they can be a one-off. The goal is to survive the stresses of the holiday season, and maybe wrest some pleasurable moments from it all. Take care of yourself. Your boyfriend and his family sound lovely.

  21. I have been there, done that. The way I did it was that I didn’t give any of the underlying reasons.

    Glomarization: “We’re going to Friend Awesome’s, several states away from here, for Thanksgiving.”

    Family: “Whaaaaaaat? Whyyyyyyyy?”

    Glomarization: “Oh, we had an invitation, and business is going well so I could afford the ticket, and I haven’t seen Friend Awesome in such a long time. Hope your Thanksgiving goes well!”

    Family: “But you can’t! Whyyyyyy?”

    Glomarization: “You know, Friend Awesome hosts this Thanksgiving every year, and this year I could actually afford to go. Hope your Thanksgiving goes well!”

    The conversation was very stilted and awkward and full of quiet pauses, but I just kept up the broken record. For Christmas, it went along the lines of my flatly announcing, “Glomarization, Jr., and I are going to stay in town and go out for Chinese food this year. Hope your Christmas goes well!” And it was a little less weird because it wasn’t the first time we’ve not attended a family holiday gathering.

    Repeat to yourself: You are an adult. You don’t have to go to these things. You don’t have to have a reason not to go to these things. If others get upset, who cares?

  22. My parents have some sort of understanding that they ruined the holidays for my sister and me. I don’t think they fully grasp their role in the trauma associated with Thanksgiving – Christmas (as in, the entire month of December), but they get that they cannot push or guilt us into anything. Note that I am 34 and this has only happened in the last five years.

    Once I married, I got lots of guilt from in-laws. So much holiday trauma from them as well as triggering incidents from my family, who happened to live in the same town. Fast forward to child born, it only got worse. Holidays quickly became the darkest time of my year. Holiday season 2013 began the hell of a depressive episode that took two years, a divorce, and antidepressants to escape.

    Until last year. After my husband and I separated for a bit, I decided I was going to visit friends 3,000 miles away on Thanksgiving. Alone. No baby, no spouse. Just me and the freshness of a holiday with my chosen family. This year, freshly divorced, I’m doing it again. I am slowly reclaiming the holidays for me and my child, who this year will be with my ex on Thanksgiving and me on Christmas. No more in-law guilt, my family is back to respecting my wishes now, and I have made at least part of the season something to look forward to.

    LW – I hope you can find something to look forward to during the holidays, even if it is something small. It took a long time for me (see: 34 years), but I hope it is less for you. Best wishes!

  23. How incredibly timely to my situation as well. LW, I offer all my sympathies and jedi-hugs if you want them.

    Commentariat or Captain, does anyone have any script suggestions for “I will not be sleeping here, even though I will visit with you during the daytime?” I’m not staying in a hotel (I’m taking refuge with friends and other family), but I cannot stay in my childhood home overnight for Reasons, and this Thanksgiving is the first time I’m enforcing the “I won’t be here overnight or maybe for breakfast either” new status quo.

    1. “Thanks, I’m staying at a friend’s house.”

      “How thoughtful! Thanks, I’m staying at a friend’s house.”

      “OK. Thanks, I’m staying at a friend’s house.”

      1. Yep. Tell people what you are doing instead of what you won’t do and treat it like the most reasonable & normal thing in the world.

        1. Yep! And do some variation on the “That’s nice/No thanks/I’m doing X” + Subject change pivot when they start trying to talk you out of it.

        2. One thing I’ve started doing with my mother – who Keeps Score, and wants to know if I’m spending more time with dad than with her – is to respond to BUT WHYYYYY with either

          “Are you sure you want to know that?” —> she can tell the answer isn’t going to be something she likes (she knows I like dad better; I wouldn’t say that, but I will say that I think her friends are kind of boring), and sometimes she’ll back off,
          or with
          “Well, that’s uncomfortable” –> “Why won’t you tell me?!” –> “Can you tell you’re making me uncomfortable? Do you really need to know this?”

          I love returning the awkwardness to sender. I love living a short stroll away from the Fuckits.

        3. Small derail, but I’m curious about how others deal with the fallout that comes from telling people what you are doing/enforcing boundaries in general. In the long term, enforcing boundaries has worked very well for me, but it was very painful in the short term because the family members in question got so FURIOUS when faced with the ‘state boundary + subject change’ method. Plus, I found it *so* difficult to deal with the fury – I rarely was able to just stay calm and not react or engage. Sample exchange:

          me: [state boundary + subject change]

          [etc etc etc]

          me: [crying, depression fallout, life functioning impaired for a period of time.]

          Eventual respect of boundary but wow at such a cost.
          Even getting myself out of the conversation quickly could only damage control to a certain extent because all of the above could be lobbed at me in the space of 5 minutes. God knows how bad it could be if I actually stayed around to engage.

          It’s just so difficult to stay cool in those situations, especially with family because, hey, installed the buttons. Is it just a price that has to be paid? I certainly don’t regret enforcing my boundaries, it has made life immeasurably better, but the process was really wounding.

          1. Not a derail! It’s super-hard, especially the first time, especially if you were groomed by your family to never ever to do it.

            Enforcing boundaries is a habit that can be learned and improved with time, and it definitely helps to have a “broken record” you can repeat in various forms (and practice this if necessary), and it definitely helps to take long breaks from contact with people who give you all of that pushback (which can be very lonely), and it helps to have a good support system to remind you that it’s not you, it’s them. It’s hard to let the tantrum wash over you and repeat inside yourself “this is the reaction they are choosing to have, I did not cause this.”

            I cried so much and was so hurt when I started doing all of this with certain people in my life. I was grieving for the respect and kindness I should have had, psyching myself up against a world of received notions and groomed behaviors. Thanks for the acknowledgement of how lonely and hard it can be to move to the Fuck Its. Once you realize that you can survive their tantrums it does get easier, in my experience.

          2. It sucks. It really sucks. I have been trying for my entire adult life to set enforceable boundaries with my mother, to no avail. Finally I put my foot down and drew the line in the sand, and she went berserk. Said some really hateful, terrible things that no good mother would ever say. So I black-holed her – I haven’t looked at anything she’s sent me or taken her calls in 7+ months now. I know my silence distresses her, and I’m trying to figure out a re-entry point now (it’s probably going to be emails-only for a long time), but my life is much better now that I know I can survive the vitriol and guilt.

            Jedi hugs if you want them; this life is a tough one sometimes.

          3. For me, it’s been to reiterate my boundary and subject-change.

            The first time I did the not-sleep-at-home thing, it was hard. My mom Did Not Understand and was Very Hurt.

            Then she realized she didn’t have to clean the room we would have used, because we hadn’t used it. Nor any of the dishes we would have used. Etc, etc. There were many benefits for her. The subject was dropped.

            I’ve encountered it in other ways that have been harder to rebuff, because of some NPD and ‘propriety’ and so on…. And I just stick with boundary + subject-change. This comes from my grandma, and I will say something along the lines of, “That’s nice, Grandma, but Partner and I will be comfortable at [hotel.] How’s [health issue]?” Or “I’m sure [relative] was fine with us not staying there. How’s church?”

            I’ve come to realize that the relief I feel at not being in my own personal Town of Angry Bees far outweighs the momentary upset/angst of loved ones.

          4. That fallout can be hell. I found it useful to make sure I had my Team Me (in this case, my husband & usually a friend or two who could be counted on to let me vent) lined up ahead of time, and to have run my boundary-enforcing past them as practice. I also had a plan for what I would do afterwards. (I will go home and watch old Star Trek and drink tea, for example.) It helped me remind myself that I had a refuge to go to — I had a plan and support all set up for this Hard Thing I Needed To Do.

            And then afterwards I followed my plan. I vented to my husband and my friends, I drank tea and watched Spock raise his brows at people. It was still awful and emotionally horrible, but…I didn’t have to explain to my Team Me what was going on, they already knew, and Mr Spock entirely refrained from judging my excessive emotionalism. (He knows from asshole fathers.)

          5. Oh, that strikes a chord. For me, it’s Dad telling me *every single time I speak to him* about how he’s dying & it won’t be long now and he’s so alone and can’t do anything and his life sucks and it’s all so awful and… Which is *partly* true (he has very mild Parkinson’s and unacknowledged depression, which means he doesn’t get out much) but it’s upsetting enough to hear for my (totally awesome & together & well-adjusted) sister. I have depression bad enough that I’ve been out of work for 2 years; Dad’s behaviour instantly punts me back into the Pit for a minimum of 2 days crying & self-harming.

            So I’ve been avoiding him (and explaining as compassionately as I can that “When you do x, I feel y and that’s horrible for me, so I need to avoid those situations for my own mental health”. It got to the point that I couldn’t see or talk to him *at all*, because he’d (without fail) take “I need you not to mention this AT ALL” as “Let me know when I’ve gone too far & I’ll stop”. Which, no. Too far = too late, so I said I needed a complete break from him for a few months, and that *I’d* make contact with *him* if / when I felt able.

            Except that he won’t hear that, or forgets, or his (very real) loneliness outweighs his desire not to upset me, and he ploughs straight through over my boundaries, breaks every promise he’s made, and keeps pushing to meet up, and if we did that I *know* (which is an assumption, but one based in 100% experience) he’ll start with the bottomless pit of negativity (Sister’s description, not mine). The initial problem of using me for support when I’m not strong enough has become secondary to the boundary-stomping and lack of respect for my needs.

            Add in the guilt of an elderly relative (he’s 71; I’m 41) being alone over Christmas, and my recovery has pretty much ground to a halt.

            I’m so glad to hear you got through it & that your family now respects your boundaries. It gives me hope that I might get there one day myself. Also, The Captain’s last paragraph was something I really needed to hear; grieving for things never had is so true.

    2. And, if they try to rope you into explaining yourself, deploy something like this on your way out of the door/conversation:

      “Well, that was lovely, see you all tomorrow at lunchtime!”
      “Nope, sorry, cannot change plans now. Friend’s so very excited that I’m staying at their place!”
      “That sounds fun/lovely/wonderful/thoughtful! However, I’m staying with Friend this year.”
      “This year’s system is awesome! I get to spend time with both you guys and Friend!”

      The script you use can be your smokebomb, Druidspell: throw it over your shoulder on your way out and use the resulting confusion/indignant sputtering to make your scape! Feign headphone-induced deafness if they call after you!

      Best of luck and have a great time 🙂

  24. Oh my…My heart goes out to LW and anyone who struggles with the holidays. My husband and I were just talking about them the other day. How neither of us is particularly religious, how we don’t have much money and can’t buy lavish gifts, how we are vegetarians and don’t look forward to the meatfest the holidays are in our family. We have no children or grandkids so we don’t get all excited about the holidays in that regard.

    Since about 1987, Christmas has been a crapshoot. Sometimes it totally sucks; sometimes it’s just OK. Rarely is it ever “great” or “merry.”

    I’ve tried, oh, I’ve tried to not go to family gatherings. One year, we were so totally broke (I mean flat) that I was bitter and angry and decided we would stay home and have our own Christmas. My family didn’t even call us on the phone to wish us a Merry Christmas. Gee, thanks, guys.

    One year, for Thanksgiving, we were both not feeling great and rather exhausted. I emailed my sister to tell her just that, on the Tuesday before. I heard nothing back from her. I emailed her again and she said she was disappointed. A few days after that, I called my mom just to chat. She gave me the cold shoulder and then chewed me out for “being too tired to come and have dinner with your family.” I completely buckled and made up a story to cover my ass.

    Last year we went for both holidays. Christmas was not good, for reasons of my own. Generally, no fights break out, no one mistreats us, or anything like that. But we’re, like, over 50, and is it a crime to want to have holidays on our own sometimes?

    I want to add that for some reason, my brother and his family (wife, kid and mom-in-law) are exempt from showing up for holidays. They have “problems in their marriage” and are somehow allowed to celebrate alone.

    As we’re rolling along in November now, all this is on my mind. It’s almost as if the message is, “Hey, you have no kids and your marriage is OK and you have nothing better to do. So you’d better be here.”

      1. Maybe you could have some “marriage issues” and need to spend the time working it out. Then you get into the same class as your brother. They don’t need to know that the issue is spending time with them and working it out is deciding how to spend your time with spouse away from them.

  25. Dear LW, I support your decision to do something self-caring during the holidays, whether that is time with boyfriend and his family, time by yourself, time with friends (or some each of columns A, B, and C).

    I stay with The Partner’s family at Christmas. I recognize the combination of gratitude and envy, happiness and sadness you describe, from hanging out with them. They respect boundaries, closed doors, me: even if they’re tired, sick, or stressed out, they are kind and don’t yell. (What is this sorcery?!) TP’s parents live less than a mile from my own family, so if I *do* choose to spend time with my own family– say, hanging out with my brother, SIL, and their lovely kids– I can nope out relatively easily if I need to.

    It was really uncomfortable to say to my parents, the first time, “I’m coming to Hometown for Christmas and am not staying with you.” But they don’t “WHYYYY?” at me anymore, and it means I can maintain some contact with the parts of my family I like without having to engage with my abusive parent or act as an unpaid marriage counselor.

  26. Christmas has been a bad time for me since about 1988, when my dad was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Things were never the same after that. Spouse has never really liked the holidays. They are triggers for him. We’ve never really been able to come up with a solution after 30 years together. Sometimes we’ve had terrible fights on the holidays. Sometimes we muddle through. Sometimes it’s actually OK.

    We’re both over 50 now, and my family (he is not in touch with his) thinks there’s some kind of rule that we have to be there for every single holiday. A couple of years ago, we bowed out of the family celebration two days before Thanksgiving. My mother gave me the cold shoulder and chewed me out on the telephone because my reason was we were both very tired (which we were) and not up to attending. You would have sworn I’d blown the family fortune on cheap booze and horses. LOL

    One year, we decided not to go to the family Xmas. Not one person called us to wish us a Merry Christmas. Thanks, guys.

    We are not religious, we don’t eat meat and we don’t have a lot of money for gift-giving. So it’s always uncomfortable on some level. But I’m afraid that we will offend everyone if we decide to stay home.

    Funnily enough, my brother and his family are allowed to have their own celebration. It has something to do with an infirm mother-in-law, a marital separation and a difficult child. But I guess because we don’t have kids and nowhere else to go, we have to show up.


    1. The first year I stayed home alone from Xmas, my family raised hell about it, but they missed me SO MUCH and were SO EAGER to wish me a merry holiday that they didn’t bother to telephone me until about 9:30 or 10 PM, after the nieces I adore were already in bed and my brother’s in-laws (also very well-liked) were long gone. So I got tired brother, tired/pissed-off-with-my-mom SIL, and drunk/angry-at-me-for-ruining-perfect-holiday narcissist mom for about five minutes.

      So this is a very likely scenario. They’ll swear they will be bereft without you making the arduous trek (both distance-wise and via the emotional wringer) and miss you SO MUCH, and your absense is ABSOLUTELY going to TOTALLY RUIN Xmas FOREVER…but you’ll probably find that they don’t even remember you aren’t actually there long enough to call you at a reasonable hour of the day when everyone is available to speak, and when they do call, IF THEY DO, it is likely to be terse and loaded with guilt-bombs. Shrug.

  27. I posted twice and my comments don’t seem to be appearing. Rather than type it all again, let me say my heart goes out to the LW and everyone who struggles at this time of year. I do, too.

  28. I had some success with “I’m pretty emotional this Christmas so I might need to leave early” 4 years ago. Everyone basically just said no problem, thanks for coming, do whatever you want.

    We ended up spending most of the night playing pool and trading lame jokes. I was glad I went. LW you absolutely don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, but please don’t let worries about your effect on others stop you from going and maybe enjoying yourself. I promise you won’t bother anyone who matters.

    Holiday feels are the worst. The guilt started early this year on my end too. I’ve said “I’m sorry, it just isn’t practical for us to visit at Christmas” so many times I probably say it in my sleep. But it beats FEELINGS ARGUMENT where everyone is sad and angry and shouty.

  29. Sith Inquisitor hugs, here, LW. I’ve been there, done that, and had the screaming phone calls from my mom because I wasn’t coming “home” for the holidays. Last time the topic came up, she wanted me to bail on my birthday (that I share with my SO) and my SO’s sibling’s wedding.

    Some tips: Normal people (that is, from functional families) do get that not everyone has great families, and will respect boundaries. I’ve noticed with my SO’s family, a simple “I’m not doing X with them this year,” or “We’re not that close” is respected. And not pressured for more. It’s hard to understand that you don’t really owe them any justification, nor will they ask for one. (That last bit wigged me out.)

    And if things get to be too much, you melt down, cry, or whatever, functional people won’t hold it against you. Honest. One of the hardest things to realize was that, yes, my in-laws were fine with me hanging out in a quiet room with a cup of tea.

    Do you have a Team Me? Holidays are great times to mobilize them, if nothing else for a supportive text in the middle of a holiday party.

    May the Force serve you well!

    1. Some tips: Normal people (that is, from functional families) do get that not everyone has great families, and will respect boundaries

      Yep. I can’t claim my family is by any means perfect, but I’ve been sitting here reading with O.O eyes because I can’t imagine that level of pressure and command performance.

      One year my mom got drunk on Christmas eve and called my brother and me “the most selfish people in the world”. I was really upset and went and hid in my bedroom. The next morning, after presents were opened, I went to her and said, “What you said last night really hurt, and I’m going to go to [good friend]’s house for Christmas dinner because I need some time to get over it.” And Mom? Said, “Oh my god, I don’t even remember saying that but I am so very sorry, I would never want to hurt you like that. I understand if you need some space.” I had Christmas dinner somewhere else and she made my excuses for me to the visiting relatives. And then when I said a week later, “I’m not comfortable staying here for New Year’s if you’re going to be drinking because of what happened Christmas Eve,” she said, “Okay, then I won’t drink,” and stayed sober all evening.

      Families: usually try NOT to hurt each other!

      1. Yeah, I was *stunned* when father-of-SO apologized for something that happened when they were kids. (And it wasn’t even that bad, by normal person standards.)

  30. My father’s mother is a truly awful person. I could go on and on (and on and on and on) about all the ways she’s been horrible but I’m going to sum it up with; “For years my Christmas dinner would be Jack in the Box because she made nothing but pork products even though I’m allergic to pork, so from 12-18 I’d have to go to fast food after everyone else ate”.

    When I was eighteen and in the car on the way home I blurted out; “That woman is not my grandmother and you can’t make me call her that.” There was this long silence where I expected to be lectured, and then my mom said; “Okay.” very slowly. My father never said anything. It was one of the most emotionally freeing things I have ever done for myself, and she’s been Glenna (to me) ever since.

    She’s dying now. I feel a big fat nothing about it (and I’m okay with that! It’s better than hate!) but my father has decided to make going to see Glenna a condition of going to put the tiny Christmas tree on mom’s grave like we have for the last five years.

    I’m going to be going to visit mom on my own, with some friends for moral support. I’ve decided I’m going to bring an ornament to hang on the tree. It really hurts to not be going with my dad and sister and dad’s new wife (I really like her!) when they set up the tree…but I’m not going to see Glenna. Christmas is hard enough without seeing someone that I adamantly dislike enough to have disowned.

    LW, do what you need to do in order to get through things. A little hurt now will save later a bunch.

    1. “…but my father has decided to make going to see Glenna a condition of going to put the tiny Christmas tree on mom’s grave like we have for the last five years.”

      I read that and went “Noooooooo!” That sucks, Madb, and I’m happy for you that you’ve found another way to honor your mom. Jedi Hugs, if you want them.

    2. Christmas is hard enough without seeing someone that I adamantly dislike enough to have disowned.

      Big hug and hang in there. (My husband’s mother died this summer and all I feel is – relief.)

  31. I haven’t gone home for Christmas or Thanksgiving in 4 years, and it rocks. The first time I did this, I said I would visit for 2 days around my mother’s birthday instead (at that point, I was in town for less than 24 hours for holidays).

    It’s much easier to deal with my family one on one during some time other than the holidays, and I can choose to not see particular family members (which isn’t an option during holidays). I got a lot of push back for refusing to see certain family members, but I was firm, and I kept my phone on me in case I needed to Uber/Lyft my way back to my car if I was tricked.

    I also find the holidays triggering, even with other normal families. I’m always hyper-aware of slights and passive aggressive responses, and being around unfamiliar, older men makes me terribly uneasy. I’ve found entertaining small children is a great way to get away from my stressors. Kids don’t do passive aggressive, and the parents are so glad to have a few hours of peace that they’re totally fine to leave me alone.

    1. “I got a lot of push back for refusing to see certain family members, but I was firm, and I kept my phone on me in case I needed to Uber/Lyft my way back to my car if I was tricked.”

      I think you make an excellent point, TN. I think it’s great to have a plan for a way to leave early in case you need one. I have had times of visiting my parents (who live very rurally, also I don’t have a car) where friends or sweeties have been the point person for “If you need it LdyEkt I will be the cavalry and come and rescue you.” Very helpful for an area with irregular public transit. LW, you may wish to consider an exit strategy just in case. Perhaps Boyfriend can assist with this?

  32. This advice is very kind and compassionate. I concur that when spending Christmas with your boyfriend’s family, it’s okay to not be ‘on’ all the time.

    This will probably be really hard for you to do, but I think it’s important to remember that this is something that happens *all the time* in families where the kids are grown up. It’s not weird or unreasonable for you to want to spend time with your boyfriend and his family. It wouldn’t be weird or unreasonable even if you had the greatest parents in the world and you loved spending time with them and never ever had your shoulders up around your ears.

    I hope it all works out and you have a great Christmas!

  33. LW, if you’ve ever worked retail, I feel it’s perfectly reasonable to blame any stress symptoms you have around the Festival of Tinsel And Party Lights to having worked retail during a very stressful time of the year. Certainly I get less questions about my own twitchiness regarding the whole Season of High Stress Interactions when I blame them on post-retail syndrome rather than the fact my mother was busy having anniversary flashbacks to her own traumas at a time when she felt socially required to be forever “on” and happy.

    (To be honest, the only real trauma I have from the whole “ten years of retail” thing is a very strong dislike of US Winter Solstice songs; and I blame that one on the fact that it’s very difficult to go from a day of strong air-conditioning and constant “Let It Snow”, “Frosty the Snowman”, and “Winter Wonderland” to a shopping centre carpark which hits you with a barrage of hot (like 35 – 40C+ hot) air in the face the moment you step outside. But there’s enough people who find doing the Christmas shopping to be extremely stressful and confronting, and who are quite willing to extrapolate that to having the staff at the stores being extremely stressed and confronted, that I can basically camouflage my “bad family” hangups in their “bad retail” ones).

    Oh, and if you don’t have a retail background? You’re welcome to borrow mine. Nobody needs to know.

    (PS: The invitation to borrow my retail background is available to all and sundry.)

        1. Cane toad here (from Brisvegas, and a vegan, hence the nym). I am loving images of your wildflower season this year.

          I totally felt your post about hot Christmas! What a great option to blame family blahs on retail work.

          (For the non-Aussies scratching your heads: Several states of Australia have a slang nickname for residents named after a local animal or pest, eg Sandgropers are from Western Australia, Cane toads are from Queensland, where the cane toad pest is rampant, people from NSW are Cockroaches, from under Queensland etc. It’s fond and/because insulting at the same time, in the traditional Aussie way.)

    1. I absolutely LOATHE Christmas music of all kinds and 85% of my loathing is due to working in retail and/or restaurants for years (I’m guessing a total, on and off, often as a second job, of about 15 years). The other 15% is being forced to listen to shitty Christmas music non-stop growing up in my house, complete with forced sing-alongs at the piano while my N-mom performs. I fucking hate it. It doesn’t help that I have been an atheist since forever (pretty much since I read the Bible cover-to-cover and was appalled at some of the contents thereof, and I started reading at an early age). Xmas music also has an unfortunate tendency, due to familiarity and repetition, to stick in my head as an earworm for HOURS. It is torturous. ALL THE DISLIKE I CAN MUSTER.

      (Ironically, the songs I hate the least are, in fact, non-secular Xmas tunes like “O Holy Night.” I have nothing against the faithful, and hymns are often quite aesthetically pleasing. But “Let It Snow” with all its rapey undertones and “Rudolph” with all the lyrics about ostracizing Others for being different like it’s no big thing, “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” because I don’t find hokey redneck humor entertaining while being surrounded by them being terrible neighbors all year long, and “Little Drummer Boy” because it just plain sucks–and the Claymation holiday special traumatized me as a kid for some reason–can ALL go die in a fire.)

      This, quite frankly, is one of the reasons I found to REALLY enjoy not spending Xmas with family. No horrific holiday music to endure. Now THAT is something to sing hallelujah about, amirite or amirite?

      1. My Christmas mix list is mostly traditional carols, along with some rather cynical songs about the results of the season, such as “The St Stephen’s Day Murders” (a lovely tune by Elvis Costello and the Chieftains, about the joys of homicide inspired by the Traditional Family Celebration), “The Rebel Jesus” (Jackson Browne’s exploration of how people get all enthused about the trappings of Retail Christmas and Calvinist Protestant Christianity, and miss how far they’ve come from what Christ was actually teaching[1]), “Jolly Old Christmas Time” (an Australian one by Weddings Parties Anything, exploring the particular annoyances of the Australian Christmas Experience), and “The Galaxy Song” by Monty Python (which isn’t quite Christmassy in theme, but certainly encompasses a lot of the annoyance I feel with my fellow human beings).

        Winter Wonderland“, meanwhile, became almost tolerable once I found the lyrics to “Walking Round In Women’s Underwear”. Now I run those through my head when the song comes on the PA, and enjoy restraining my giggles.

        [1] My reason for non-Christianity is largely that I recognised too young that Christianity was, as someone put it, not an idea which had been tried and rejected as too hard, but rather an idea which had been recognised as difficult and never tried at all.

  34. My partner has a toxic family. The first year they spent TG with my family, they were out of their mind with anxiety. They asked me over and over to describe in detail exactly what would happen during the two days we were going to be there. And every time things went exactly like I said they would, they turned to me and said like it was a freaking miracle that I had been right. Two of my relatives asked me if they were okay, ”because it seems like they are waiting for something bad to happen”. We did this for a few years (partner’s family is Canadian, so does TG on a different day). Then partner started to relax and eventually confided that they had been CERTAIN that there was some humiliating awful family ritual that would happen and they were LITERALLY waiting for this terrible thing to happen. And it just didn’t. And eventually they trusted that it never would.

    My family is not perfect, but we treat other people civilly and with respect. Even now, when we have been together for 25 years and more, my partner sometimes worries that they will not be accepted by my family. It’s the legacy of having grown up in a profoundly unsafe family, I think. All we can do is love my partner and give them space to process their stuff when it comes up. We’re about to go spend a week with my family for TG, most of which will be spent with a bunch of introverts sitting around reading books and occasionally making short conversations. No one will worry when my partner goes for long solo walks on the beach or retreats into our bedroom. And they won’t require reasons, either. They accept that this is how my partner is at family holidays.

    A normal family holiday can feel scary and unusual if you grew up in a battlezone. You may find that it brings up grief for what you didn’t have, or profound distrust for what seems to be happening. Your BF sounds willing to help, so let him. Let him run interference if you need space. Let him be a safe place to cuddle at night. But mostly, trust that it’s natural to be uncertain in this kind of situation, that adjusting takes time, and that you have that time. You don’t have to trust the unknown right away. Trust what you can and be kind to yourself for the rest.

  35. My holiday tradition “giving the gift for work coverage to whomever needs it Christmas week” and then decompressing from the year the week of new year’s. If work is an OK place to be for the holidays, I find that this is generally received positively. Especially if it’s served with a side of “helping my coworkers who have children/long trips/for whom Christmas is very importabt .

    (Christmas particularly is fraught for me for religion reasons–when I do visit home I go the week of thanksgiving, so that I can be around my family without their deep and sincere concern for the state of my immortal soul for the entire. Week.)

    1. Yup. For a few years I worked a job that had people staffed round-the-clock. On holidays we went to a reduced staff schedule, but I generally volunteered to work Christmas in exchange for having New Year’s off. Those that had kids and families were ecstatic to make the trade. I also seem to remember one year I worked Thanksgiving, and the company actually brought in a turkey for us. So, that also worked out well.

      1. Wow, Nope Octopus and Ebe51 – you totally rock. I think it’s so cool you managed to work out something good for yourself that is also so incredibly kind and helpful for your co-workers.

  36. LW, the most important things are 1)take care of yourself, 2)let the good people know what’s happening, and 3)don’t beat yourself up over having feelings. (This is “do as I say, not as I do” advice).

    I’m lucky to have a wonderful family, but I haven’t seen my grandmother in 2 years. Because I have depression and anxiety along with very few spoons and long visits with ANYONE make me need to escape. The only thing that mattered to the people who cared about me (like grandma) was hearing “Oh, her mood’s misbehaving now, needs to rest.” And my actually resting (“resting” being code for not flagulating myself for not being perfect and then feeling better).

    The people who care, nice decent people, only have to know a vague top-layer level of what’s happening and what you need. All they will care about is you being okay.

    The other people? They neither need nor deserve any info. After the first few anxious-guilt-jolts, you’ll be surprised how freeing and relieving saying “Fuck them!” will be.

  37. I still miss my ex-mother-in-law. She understood my intense introversion from the getgo, without me ever having to say anything, and always gave me and the ex the upstairs out-of-the-way bedroom whenever we’d come to visit (there were other, more convenient options, but she *knew.* It got to be a family joke after a while. “Where’s Megaera?” “She’s hiding out upstairs.” It wasn’t that I had bad memories of the holidays. It was that I’d been the only kid at home from the time I was twelve, and my ex had seven brothers and sisters. My ex-mother-in-law was a good woman, and I survived six years of those visits because of her.

  38. Hi LW, I just wanted to tell you I sympathize. Christmas with my dad was a horrible, stressful, no good time and even though I no longer talk to him I still find it a very unpleasant time.

    I also wanted to tell you that it’s ok if you go to Christmas with your boyfriends family and decide that you just have to much of a history with the holiday and don’t want to celebrate it with anyone. My wonderful Mom and Step-dad (Hi Step-dad!) are actually sending me to Hawaii for Christmas this year because I’ve had a hard year and they know how stressful I find the holiday. It’s ok if certain (or all) holidays are just to much for you. Figure out what you want to do and do it. The important thing is to take care of yourself! Good luck!

  39. LW, I was really worried about my first holiday with now-husband’s family, because they were so *all about holiday* and there were so freaking many of them, and I get overwhelmed easily, and my FOO holidays tended to be very intense and slightly reminiscent of “The Counting” at Cold Comfort Farm. I made multiple escape plans and excuses of how to get away, decompress, etc.

    And I wound up not really needing excuses at all. They were just enjoying themselves and coming and going, not watching me! They were happy to see me, but they weren’t keeping tabs because they didn’t have any stakes attached to my exact whereabouts or investment in the activity of the moment. I learned a lot of new things about my FOO from that experience, and got a new mental image of a not-perfect but functioning family.

    I hope you have a similar happy surprise and relief.

  40. Skipping over a bunch of comments to just say: Do you, LW. And it’s totally okay if you don’t know what that looks like yet.

    I stopped spending holidays with any of my far-flung family a few years ago when the stress of northern latitudes weather *on top of* everything else made it just shitty. I spent a few holidays alone (reasonably contently). Last year, for the first time, I spent Christmas with my significant other’s family, and it was a little brutal. I had to tell my family that I was going to travel to see someone else’s family. I had to make space for my own FEELINGS while trying not to tank someone else’s holiday celebrations.

    You know what? It was really not perfect. But it also turned out okay. I had a (relatively quiet) meltdown. I got to go have some truly amazing cupcakes. I was exhausted. And I got to see two kids have holidays — one of them, her first. I took care of myself AND did something that terrified me.

    New holiday traditions are a really good and highly under-rated thing. I hope your first explorations go well.

  41. Oh man, I stay away from family on holidays like the plague. I live far enough away that it’s been easy to avoid (and at this point people know not to even ask most of the time), but I’ve spent virtually every Thanksgiving and Christmas by myself for the past… 20 years or so. Admittedly I’ve never been much of a fan of Xmas anyway, partially due to my parents fighting tooth and nail – every. single. year – about whether we’d open presents on Xmas eve or Xmas day. I mean… really, guys? That’s the battle you pick?

    Thanksgiving alone I actually really enjoy. I literally make a whole turkey dinner for myself and watch the national dog show on TV. That way I get to make whatever I want without worrying about other people complaining. One year I went totally rogue and tried a big cajun/cuban crab feast mashup. It… was a total disaster but I had fun in the attempt.

    The point being: do what you need to do. Just because it’s a ‘holiday’ doesn’t mean that you have to follow the expected pattern. And if the boyfriend doesn’t work out in the long run… you STILL don’t have to go home if you don’t want to!

  42. I was wondering, LW, if some of your stress is coming from facing a double whammy of saying no to the parental holiday assumptions while simultaneously saying yes to the BF’s family & some unknown traditions & assumptions.

    Would you rather take it in stages? This year, no to the parents & be on your own doing whatever you want, giving yourself some transition time w/ no expectations. Next year, maybe have a plan in mind for yourself; maybe have a plan that includes BF; maybe a plan that includes a day or so w/ his family.

    You are bound to be feeling stressed & maybe overwhelmed this year, initiating your own ideas, & next year you may well be feeling more resilient & ready to face the BF’s family.

    Just a thought.

  43. I’ve spent the last four or five Xmases home alone due to being unable to afford it and my family being willing to scold and abuse me about staying home but not at all willing to help me afford to travel, and it was really hard the first year or two. Now I have a new job and I could, technically, go, and I’m seriously considering not bothering because it is unpleasant for me 75% of the time.

    Also, without me on site as a meat shield, my narcissist mom focuses her worst emotional predations on my SIL and nieces, which is waking my brother up to her behavior after many decades where he just couldn’t grok why I was frequently quiet and unhappy while spending time around my mother, blaming my depression for it, and now he’s getting a ring-side seat to how she behaves and acquiring a clue.

    So I’m leaning really heavily towards not going again this year. I’m OK with that. I’ll miss my out-of-town friends, as I don’t have a reliable circle of friends where I am (understatement!), but I won’t miss the hassle of packing, managing the housing for me and two small exotic pets, paying to winterize and then traveling in an old POS car, paying for lots of gasoline, dealing with holiday traffic, dealing with cold weather when none of my nice winter clothes fit me (or are in a bin at the back of a PODS due to demolition projects inside my house), unpacking, dealing with family bullshit, dealing with lots and lots of over-excited and under-rested children when my Childfree-by-choice Dealing With Kids meters are chronically a bit low, repacking, more traveling, unpacking….

    You get the idea.

    And after I got over focusing on what I missed (hint: my friends and seeing people’s faces when they opened gifts from me to them), it was pretty blissful.

  44. I’ll be either side of 21 this holiday season, and living away from my parents for the first time. Holiday plans and traditions are in a state of flux right now.

    Thanksgiving has always been a big deal for my family on both sides, but it’s my dad’s family that does it best. Most of my Thanksgivings have been with them, and I have plane tickets to spend it with them again this year. All’s well on that front. (Except the new vegetarianism. That’s going to cause some ripples.)

    Christmas was not a thing for me growing up. We didn’t celebrate it. So when I was 18 and my long-term boyfriend invited me to his family’s Christmas dinner, I tentatively accepted and shyly attended. I was welcomed like family. I’m planning to take a bus 200 miles on Christmas day to spend the afternoon/evening with them again this year (it’ll be my third). As long as all those pieces work out, all’s well on that front. It’s very convenient for me to have that holiday I can specifically spend with them, since it doesn’t exist for my family.

    New Year is a problem though. New Year is a big deal for my family, partially because of the lack of Christmas. Like it’s a big thing with a family party and such. As much as I’d love for my boyfriend to come, I know he won’t because he likes to go out with friends on New Year’s Eve — I guess it’s not such a big family thing for him. This plan appeals to me: Thanksgiving with my nuclear and dad’s-side-extended family, Christmas with my eventual in-laws, and New Year with my boyfriend and friends (common, his, and mine if any of them wanted to get together). On the other hand, my mom’s mother and sister are left out of the holiday stuff if I don’t attend New Year with my family. But I actually hate the New Year thing with them because it always feels like everyone is in pairs but me (my parents, my grandparents — though Grandpa died last year — my aunt and her boyfriend; and my little brothers are their own pair somehow) and my partner is out doing his own thing at midnight. So if I go out I’ll feel guilty, but if I stay in I’ll feel lonely.

    I’m very conflicted on what to do. Maybe the answer is to spend some time with my grandmother and aunt in that week, so they’re still getting the benefit of my presence/attention, and then just go out on New Year’s Eve. Time to make my own traditions? I don’t know. Even in pretty chill families, holiday changes can be pretty fraught.

  45. Folks, you are making this too complicated. Just say “I have the flu” or “I have a stomach virus.” See how easy it is!

    1. There are situations in which illness as an excuse works great to avoid people you want to avoid. I don’t think the LW’s situation is one of them. They’d just have to pile on lie after lie: (1) the distance is so great they’d have to pretend they were making travel plans; (2) they already don’t celebrate with their parents on Christmas Day itself, so there is the possibility of “Sorry to hear you’re ill and December 11 won’t work; what about December 28?”; (3) they would have to lie until their parents die about having spent Christmas with the boyfriend’s family in order to avoid a fight. Better just to face it now.

    2. I hear you, OT, but that’s not really going to work in LW’s case. It’s already framed as an excuse as in, “I cannot come to holiday X thing this year BECAUSE I am sick”. This leaves the door open just enough for LW’s parents to poke at the excuse with lots of “but are you feeling better today?!!” and “just buy the tickets now because you’ll PROBABLY get over that bug” and “well, if you are SO SICK you can’t make Christmas, we expect to see you at New Year’s…” etc., etc.

      It is also a last-minute ploy meaning that LW must anxiously sit on their plans until they can finally reveal – day of holiday or two days before – said excuse and then sit with allllllllllll the recriminations and manipulations thrown at them on the way to the Xmas dinner or whathaveyou when they are just trying to survive a new version of the holiday with their partner.

      If the phrase “I have the flu” was a magical bandaid, I’d be using it right and left with my alcoholic father. From experience, I can tell you, it is not.

  46. This is a lovely and kind post– I wanted to throw in my two cents as a member of a purportedly “normal” family who had the honour of growing our celebration with my siblings’ significant others last Christmas. Maybe it’ll help the boyfriend? I come from a Christmas-threw-up house and one of the things that my mom loves is feeding people, and so we were thrilled when the sig-ots decided to share some of the time with us. And what worked for us and for the new family was to give each other lots of space (as the Captain suggests) and try to incorporate questions and remind them how loved they were.

    There’s lots of reasons for people not to spend time with their family! Some of them are unpleasant reasons (“This is the first Christmas I’ve ever had where no one shouted.”) and some of them are medium reasons (shiftwork and family three hours away) and some of them are positive (I’ve a friend here who chooses not to make the ten hour trek home when she could just as well watch Buffy and spoil her rabbit in her own damn house.) It would be kind of the boyfriend to his family, I think, to let them know which category the LW falls into. Not details, that’s so your own business, but it softened the sense of rudeness for us and dictated what questions we asked. My brother’s GF couldn’t go home and wanted to, so we asked about her little brother and incorporated her family traditions into tree decorating. My sister’s BF didn’t WANT to go home, and we loudly talked about sports and made fun of other members of the family to show him he fit with us and we were ridiculous, poorly adapted human beings who were glad he was there.

    The LW gets to decide how far she wants in, but I think/hope the air-quotes-normal is also self aware enough to say hey, cool, of course you don’t want to go on our annual five hour midnight caroling adventure– you know where the rum is, the netflix is unlocked, help yourself to whatever you like! And if there are moments where you as the LW want to cry or mourn Christmas-that-wasn’t or decide that you never wanted canned cranberry sauce again that is SO in your right. Like the Captain says, you don’t owe people normal. And if you want to be unhappy, it was our experience that the reaction is to let you have your feelings while feeling terrible that we can’t fix it. (We’re a family of Fixers.) THAT STILL DOESN’T MEAN YOU OWE NORMAL. It means that you’re growing a chosen family that WANTS YOU TO BE HAPPY, which is I think what family ought to do.

    So take as much space as you want and engage when you want. You’re giving yourself a break from a tradition that you don’t much like– also take the opportunity to figure out what you DO like and do that as hard as you can.

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