#790: The Thanksgiving Guilt Trip

Hi Captain and Army,

I have a problem with my dad’s girlfriend, namely that she tries to guilt-trip me. My dad had a party recently and at the end of it, as I was leaving, she started talking about Thanksgiving. Dad’s girlfriend said she would like to host this year’s Thanksgiving at her place. The guilt-trip was that since I spend every Thanksgiving at my mom’s I could spend the actual day of the holiday once with my dad. She also said that my sister and mother would be welcome to come too. I told her I’d think about it and get back to her.

My parents are divorced and have been separated for over a decade. My mom has custody of both me and my sister and we see our dad on our terms. We both live with her. My sister is estranged from our father and my parents had an awful divorce and make it a point to never be in the same room as each other. I have tried to see my dad on holidays, usually at a day not of the specific holiday, like a day before or after. My dad has a habit of making himself seem like a victim. I like spending the holidays with my mom, because it is more fun and way less full of awkward things and nobody has any bad history shoved under various rugs.

The problem is that I am sick of her guilt-tripping us. Apparently it is a part of traditional Chinese parenting and she is super traditional about everything including family and respecting parents. Both of them want to have picture perfect holidays at all times even if everybody hates each other. I wouldn’t mind seeing them on a day before or after, but when I hear the gross inaccuracies that she obviously got from my dad I don’t want to go at all. I also don’t want to have to smack down either one further guilt-tripping me for not going. If I don’t go, then I stay at my mom’s but if I go then I have to listen to dad’s girlfriend and dad being happy at ‘family’ while seething. I can’t see other family because they live back east and I refuse to be anything more than politely civil to my dad’s brother.

Is there any way I can call her out on her guilt-tripping that will make it stick? She’s tried to do this before. I don’t think my dad will back me up because he used to do it to me too. Should I tell her I can come for Christmas but not Thanksgiving?

Another year of holiday problems

Dear Holiday Problems,

Your script is:

“Thanks for the invitation, but I won’t be there.” 

Start out by addressing your dad and only your dad, and consider email or text as a medium. “Dad, I wanted to thank you & Girlfriend for your Thanksgiving invitation. I hope it’s a great day! I won’t be there.”

If the guilt trip comes from either your dad or his girlfriend, keep repeating a version of that script.

Him/Her/Them: “But we talked and I thought you were coming!

You: “I said I’d think about it. Thanks so much for the invitation! I won’t be there.”

Him/Her/Them: “But I’ve already made a seating chart and bought the ingredients for the thing you like!” “But we’ve already gone to so much trouble!”

You: “Thanks, that was nice of you! I hope you’ll save me some for (next day) since I won’t be there.”

Her:But your dad will be so disappointed! He was really counting on you coming!

You: “I’ll talk to him directly about that. I hope you have a lovely celebration. Bye!”

Him:But Girlfriend will be so disappointed! She was really looking forward to you coming!

You: “I hope you have a wonderful celebration together!” (Yep, it’s a little bit of a non-sequitur. Trust, you don’t want to get into the conversation about your dad’s girlfriend’s disappointment with your dad.)

Him: But you always spend Thanksgiving with your mom.

You: “Yes, I do! Are we still on for the day after? Let me know.“/“I like spending (actual day-of) Christmas & Thanksgiving with Mom, and I don’t see that changing. I hope you and Girlfriend have a lovely celebration together. Let me know if you want me to come up the day after like I usually do.”

Don’t give reasons. Don’t apologize. Don’t justify it. Repeat it 100 times like a broken record if you have to. Give zero fucks. Just keep saying no. It won’t convince anyone to stop guilt-tripping you, because people who use guilt to manipulate other people can’t really be convinced of anything, but it’s your path to making it absolutely clear that your guilt-trips don’t work.

It isn’t strictly “fair” that you spend actual holidays with your mom and that your dad always gets the day after, as in, this is the stuff of legend and strictly negotiated custody agreements for children of divorce. But you aren’t a child. You have custody of yourself, and you can spend your holidays where & how you want to. Fairness arguments don’t work, fantasies of what could be don’t work, command performances of Happy Family-ness don’t work. Rewarding manipulation doesn’t work.

Blaming whatever your dad’s girlfriend is up to on “traditional Chinese parenting” is a total smokescreen. For one thing, she’s not your parent. The fact that she thinks that your sister and your mom would want to come along to dinner at her place would be laughable if it wasn’t so creepy! If your parents were friendly with each other it would be kind of beautiful and great, but they aren’t, so “Come spend Thanksgiving with your dad and me! Bring his ex-wife and his other daughter who hates his guts! I just found this recipe for Bitter Cranberry Sauce with Tears and Acrimony” is a non-starter. Maybe Girlfriend has always dreamed of hosting big family holiday dinners, and maybe you & your dad’s perfunctory day-after celebrations make her sad, but invitations aren’t commands and none of that is hers to really fix or change. You don’t have to be a background performer in the play she’s scripting about what holidays and family are like. Maybe this play is called “Look At What A Perfect Hostess (+ Wife Candidate!) I Am.” Maybe the play is called “Dating A Divorced Dude Whose Kids Don’t Like Him Really Ruins The Dreams I Had For What My Life Would Be Like By Now.” Maybe it’s called “I Can Fix Boyfriend’s Family For Him. A Holiday Miracle!” Who knows? It is not your problem to find your mark and mumble your lines. This, whatever it is, is between your dad and his girlfriend and it’s not really about you.

If your dad wants to change up your holiday routine, HE can ask you. (And you can still say “Thanks for the invitation, but I won’t be there,” if you want to.) If he’s farming his family relationships out to his girlfriend, that’s not cool. If he’s quietly letting her take over management of them and expects you to go along with her command performances, that’s not cool, either. Another script for you might be, to Girlfriend, “Thanks, but I prefer to talk directly to my dad about this stuff.” And to your dad, “I”m glad you and Girlfriend are happy together and she’s always very kind to me! But (and there is a but) when dealing with our family stuff I prefer to hear whatever it is directly from you.” Guilt trips thrive on triangulation and never addressing anything directly, so the more you insist on talking directly with the source, the more you insist on sticking to only what is said (and ignoring sighs and subtext and implications and unspoken regrets and longings), the more you can straight up ignore the fact that a guilt trip is even happening, the happier you’ll be.

One thing that might improve Holidays (observed) with your dad is suggesting something that’s wildly off script from whatever you usually do. Like, maybe he comes to where you are and you do something there instead of you visiting him at his place. Like, Dad, don’t wait for me to show up to celebrate Thanksgiving! Please celebrate that ON the holiday WITH your girlfriend and enjoy whatever traditions the two of you want to enjoy! When I visit, let’s do something relaxed and fun, like, just the two of us can spend the day together, eat some leftovers, go to the movies, play video games. I’m not 12 anymore, you don’t have to try to make a ‘real Thanksgiving’ for me. Something honest that’s a celebration of whatever the two of you DO have instead of a competition or a whitewashing that just calls attention to what you don’t have. Over time you & your dad could do worse than taking a page from Lilo & Stitch: This is my family. I found it, all on my own. Is little, and broken, but still good. Ya. Still good.

141 thoughts on “#790: The Thanksgiving Guilt Trip

  1. What is it about not coming on a holiday that makes so many people feel like you are Totally Rejecting The Family Unit? It’s a DAY. Yes, a day when millions of other families are generally doing the same activities and generally eating the same kind of meal. But it’s still just a DAY. Love isn’t any less loving and family isn’t any less bonded just because you can’t get together on one specific day. Good grief!

    Please don’t let Girlfriend pressure you into thinking that this DAY is the only DAY that you can spend with your father. I totally agree with the Captain – pick your script, be a broken record, and honor whatever Alternate Visit Plan you come up with. If Dad and Girlfriend don’t get it that there are 364 other days in the year on which you can also eat turkey and stuffing and talk about what you’re grateful for then they can go fly a kite.

    1. What is it? The cultural narrative. Take Christmas, the worst offender I’d say. There are a zillion movies about families all sitting down around the ham/turkey/whatever, the gorgeous heavy wooden table, the sparkling lights, all that. It’s as American as apple pie, as they say. So many movie plots have at least some aspect of “the magic of the holiday will save my family’s broken situation”: Parents stop arguing “because it’s Christmas,” estranged siblings show up looking like adorable scruffy dogs on the doorsteps, rocky marriages get settled, dreams get reaffirmed, and everyone is happy. It’s some sort of sacred magical time where, no matter what god(s) you do or don’t believe in, some higher power steps in and rights all wrongs — but you have to be there and set it up almost ritual-like or the movie magic doesn’t happen.

      When families can’t meet that narrative, some people get very scared, or angry, or anxious. It’s like looking at someone’s Facebook feed and seeing them on their lovely trip to the Caribbean with gorgeous blue water and chicks in bikinis and whatever while you’re slaving away on yet another 12 hour day. Some people wonder what happened to their life, why they can’t be like the artificial, touched-up images that, on one level, they know are fake; on the other, they still want this dream to happen.

      Sorry about the small novel aside. That was just me reflecting on the first question in your response and trying an answer. Obviously, what Girlfriend is doing is not okay, and trying to force someone into the movie-perfect holiday setting is both not going to work and is really not cool.

      1. I would love there to be more movies made about the people who have to work through the holidays and finally get to relax after NYE. Are there movies already out there like this? Like “Love, Actually” but focusing on the retail workers at the jewelry counter, and the teachers who organize the concert, and the airport staff who have to chase small children who break through security?

          1. I am always a super huge fan of things like, “You’re a cop, I’m a nurse, we both work crappy shifts, so when you stand me up at our anniversary dinner at a fancy restaurant because something came up I get it and order you lobster and bring it home in a takeaway box and we eat it at 3am in our pyjamas, because I love being with someone who understands my drive to do meaningful work.”

          2. OMG I love this so hard. Both the idea AND the part where you find inspiration here. Cannot wait to see what you do with it.

          3. I can’t reply to jennykowalski directly because nesting ran out, but my understanding is that the hospitals and police/fire department staff in my hometown, despite the majority being Christian, have had an arrangement for decades where the Jewish/Muslim/non-Xtian employees arrange to trade high holy days off, so everyone can spend time with their families because hospitals and police and fire departments don’t close on Christmas or Diwali or Ramadan or Rosh Hashanah, etc., and they still need people staffing them. I think that is really awesome and thoughtful. I was, to be frank, initially surprised to hear of it, because my hometown is ALSO filled with people who have embarrassing public tantrums over inclusive decorations and if anyone says “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” to them. Those are the people I happen to bump into at, like, Walgreen’s or the grocery store, so they are the ones I see. Now I like to think that they are just a very loud minority being ignorant and hateful about silly things, and that most of us are like the people quietly trading shifts year after year so everyone gets important family time on holidays.

          4. I would also love to see a movie about my holiday experience. Too many of my Christmases and Thanksgivings have involved cleaning poop.

            And afterwards, the flood of extra patients who ignored their heart attacks or strokes because holidays, or aggravated pre existing conditions with heavy food, or were left alone over the holidays by caregivers….

            Of our thirty nurses, only four are okay with working Christmas, and that doesn’t address Thanksgiving. We need six a shift, too. Sigh.

          5. Also: hotel staff. I used to work at a hotel across town from my parents and I took Christmas Eve off to be with them by volunteering to pull a 12-hour shift Christmas night. My Muslim bosses were apparently assuming no one would be working, so they were very surprised. I got paid QUITE well that night. 😉

          6. Out of nesting, but second the clergy one. And anyone who works in churches. My mom was a church organist/choir director when I was growing up and, although I personally love the Christmas season and all the leadup to it, childhood Christmases were way stressful because Mom was running kids’ church pageants and playing for a million services and trying to bake a bazillion cookies and millions of pies for the choir’s Christmas party AND for our teachers and just generally freaking out from holiday stress plus busiest-time-of-year job stress … I always loved candlelight Christmas Eve services not just because I just do, but also because Christmas Eve meant GETTING OUR NICE MOM BACK!

          7. Adding to the pile – nursing home staff! December is hands down the busiest month of the year, as every organization with a heart decides that that is the month to go singing or visiting. My mom is an activities director at a nursing home, and works constantly from November to the New Year. I have several years of memories of passing out presents on Christmas Eve to the residents. That’s one of the reasons I’ve taken to visiting home for the “holidays” in January – so I can actually see my mom.

          8. Incorporating Boxing Day, which anyone working Retail could totally adopt as their very own. I love the whole idea behind Boxing Day, and Industry nights for bar-keepers and waitstaff.

          9. Something else people don’t think about: utilities support staff. I used to work for a phone company, making sure dial up (remember AOL?) networks stayed online, and got paid a pretty penny to work holidays. I always volunteered/swapped shifts so people who WANTED the day off could have it. My family was across the country and ok with me not flying out to see them during holidays, so it was a win for everyone. I got double time and a half and people who wanted the day off could be with their families. (It helped that the paycheck covering Christmas/New Years was always fantastic!)

          10. Farmers! When I was growing up, we never got a Christmas morning. We always had our “morning” around 2pm when Dad would get in from milking the cows, since he traditionally milked Christmas morning so his employees could be with their families.

        1. It’s not nearly as stressful or heroic as police officers, EMT, hospital employees, and the like, but when I first started working in Payroll, I learned that holidays are really just blockades to getting people paid. We have fewer business days to do the same work, and people are much more highly attuned to getting paid ASAP during the holidays. I’ve brought in dozens of doughnuts for my team at 6 a.m. on a Saturday as we worked to get things ready for the short window of banking that would happen on a Monday.

          Quite honestly, for years it helped me keep an arm’s length away from my family holidays! These days, I keep my own holidays and work through as needed so that other folks can get paid and have fun with their hopefully functional family members.

          1. Yep. I AM Payroll… well, I do all the files, and send it to another company for processing things, so I miss the worst of it, but I’ve seen the tapdancing _I_ have to do just to get around the tapdancing THEY have to do so that everybody has their money in time. The real fun is usually trying to get all the hours processed before they’ve actually been worked– we have to guess, which is always interesting.

      2. “When families can’t meet that narrative, some people get very scared, or angry, or anxious.” This. This explains a lot.

        Dealing with blended family issues this holiday season (and anytime a step child function roles around), I get confronted by faaaaamily demanding something, which – and thank you Aurora for your insights – appears to be stemming from their fear, anger, or anxiety. It certainly helps explain their behavior. It doesn’t excuse it, mind you. Especially the guilt and strong arming that LW and CA talk about. But for me, if I know where somewhere is coming from, I know how to better frame my replies.

      3. If this is not a complete derail, I’ve been meditating on the lack of narratives about people who DON’T go home/reconcile/find peace/have the sparkling-lights-family dinner. Both at the holidays and in every day life. (If you watch Librarians, no one cheered more loudly than I did when Jake walked the hell away from his dad on Sunday night.) If you guys have any suggestions (and if the Cap doesn’t feel it’s too off topic), I’d love to consume them. I wonder if LW and other folks might, too?

        1. If it is any help, for me Christmas day is a day I spend with the family I chose and created… ie me, hubby, dog together. Visiting parental relatives comes on another day when hubby won’t be drinking, so he can drive, etc. There are loads of days between Xmas and new year. We make our own traditions, as a new family, and that is that. The day is for us to be together, eating, drinking, enjoying dog walks in our neighborhood, drinking some more, afternoon nap, then more food and more drinking in front of trashy tv.

          Make your own holiday traditions, LW and all! And enjoy and look forward to them.

          1. Let’s see. This year (as last year and the one before) I will be spending Thanksgiving with my husband, the “brother” I chose when I was 39 and he was 62, his wife and daughters, their boyfriends. Maybe a few friends who can’t or choose not to be with their blood families that day, because Reasons. My kids are there on alternate years; this year they’re with their dad and stepmother and I’m good with that. They will have fun. So will I.

            A typical full family table… of whom I am not related by blood to a single one. But we’re related by love, and I like it this way.

        2. For many years my mom’s tradition at Christmas was basically to invite everybody who for whatever reason didn’t have somewhere else to go – some were estranged from family, some didn’t travel home for the holiday for whatever reason, some didn’t celebrate & were just at loose ends on a day when everything was closed, some saw family earlier, then came to our house for a lower-pressure party. The rule was, everybody bring your favorite food, so we’d have turkey sandwiches, lasagna, mushu pork, latkes, ice cream cake… Basically we’d start about noon and eat and laugh and eat and watch movies and eat and read books and eat and play trivial pursuit until we finally ran out of steam. Some of my favorite Christmas memories from my childhood/teen years

      4. +1000000 to the notion of the narrative of what the day is.

        I am Jewish and when I’m in the US specifically that Christmas Eve/Christmas time has always made me feel like I have cabin fever and just want to get out and do something. There are weekends where I’m happy to stay home and do very little. Yesterday I happened to have Veterans Day off – and while later in the day I literally ran into a coworker who told me about her super relaxing massage + booze brunch with friends – I used the day to catch up on cleaning my apartment, cooking stuff to freeze for later, etc. But Christmas…..Christmas I catch the worst case of the I’m-BORED’s. But the year I lived in Ireland, I had none of that response to Christmas and it was more “this is a new cultural experience and really neat to experience”.

        So as much as it’s great to talk about how so many people have very different lived experiences than the movies, the reality is that it totally creeps into our lives and impacts how we see that day vs. Veterans Day or the first Tuesday in April.

      5. Completely agree with you. I am a grateful Al-anon and I moderate an online group – about a week before Thanksgiving I make my famous Norman Rockwell post … I paste in the pic of the happy family around the dinner table with the perfect spread and talk about how this is the image our culture has taught us to crave, but it isn’t the only way to be happy. There is enormous pressure to make the holidays perfect, to paste that illusion over reality – to pretend for just one day that we could be the family in that iconic painting. And when we fall short of that perfection, we may mistake it for a personal failure instead of seeing the ideal as realistically unattainable … expectations, disappointments, fixing, managing, manipulating in the name of looking the part. I remind everyone that there are usually meetings available 24 hours a day on the holidays … for VERY good reasons. That we should find our own picture of what happy is and live up to that instead of someone’s picture of the cultural ideal. That we shouldn’t pretend happy and settle for the illusion – we should actually pursue it and demand the real thing.

    2. I feel like there is A LOT of holiday trashing. As someone who hasn’t been home for the holidays in 5 years because I do not enjoy being told I am selfish/spoiled/vain/self absorbed/annoying/smell bad every few minutes, I can say the holidays are HARD for me. I love Christmas because it’s one of the few things that makes me feel part of my ancestor’s culture – I have so many memories that are steeped in centuries of tradition. Connection to my culture is a big part of my identity and my values. Losing that has been really, really hard and no amount of Harry Potter marathons, or “creating my own traditions!” is going to fill that gap.

      So what I do do is share my culture with my friends and have a special Christmas celebration with all of my cultural traditions and food (and even little posters of the meaning of everything – yes I am That Host) before the actual Christmas day. Then I usually spend Christmas Eve (we don’t care as much about Christmas day) with my partner’s family or if I am partnerless, with friends or volunteering.

      In any case, I find myself getting really agitated when some people minimize the importance holidays have for other people. It’s more than just posting pictures on FB to prove how awesome your life is (tho yah, there is pah-lenty of that), or buying presents, or pretending My Family is the Bestest Evah! For me, it’s a connection to a culture that makes me feel like I belong somewhere and that I am connected to something bigger than myself. And I think it’s ok to mourn that if you can’t have it.

      1. Sing it sister! Or brother, or whatever! I have no trouble turning down holiday invitations, I have trouble getting them. Partner and I are retired with four grown, middle aged children and none of them invite us for ANYTHING. Since I made holidays for 40 years I thought at some point the daughters-in-law/sons would take over. Has never happened and isn’t going to. We have no other family. I realize this is our problem and not theirs, and the picture of a large family celebration is only in MY head, but it still hurts.

        1. Have you spoken to them about this? Do they know that you would like them to invite you for holidays, or to “take over” hosting? Especially because you mention having sons and daughters-in-law but no daughters; obviously I don’t know your sons, but I am pretty familiar with the dynamic where the son just assumes his wife will do All The Lady Hosting Things for his family members, and if she can’t or won’t then he sure as hell isn’t going to.

          1. It’s of course somewhat complicated. Oldest two sons are not married and have never, ever picked up a phone, or sent a card, for Xmas, birthdays, Father’s Day or any occasion in the 32 years I have been married to their dad. My two younger sons are both married. Older daughter in law was happy to come to our house but has never cooked for us. I couldn’t even get her to bring a dish in a “potluck” fashion when I was doing the holiday celebrations. It was a complete mystery to me.

            Last daughter in law let us know she simply didn’t want us in her life, period. Tried talking to my son about what we had done wrong, but just got gaslighting. We were stunned, because we adored her, and honestly I cried over it for a year.

            Sometimes things in your life simply don’t turn out the way you had hoped.

          2. Does she know how to cook? Or enjoy cooking? In our family, it’s my husband who does the holiday baking and cooking, and it would be weird and awkward if I were the one expected to bring the food instead of him. And I have relatives who don’t cook, period; all they do is take-out, eat out in restaurants, and buy microwave meals.

            Cooking a Big Festive Holiday Meal – or even just hosting one – would be tremendously daunting to me, and I’m someone who likes those sort of events. And it feels like Serious Adulting to even contemplate doing so.

            tl;dr version: Have you asked your son’s wife why she’s uninterested in hosting?

          3. @ Been there, done that, it sounds like you’re frustrated by your daughter-in-law’s lack of hosting, but are you just as frustrated at that step-son?

            I say this as a daughter-in-law of woman who expects me to do ALL the hosting. Having her/FIL visit is exhausting for me, because she judges *me* for the quality of the hosting, even though my husband is totally capable of cooking/cleaning/etc. She just views it as my job. When it’s time to cook dinner, she’ll ask my husband to go for a walk with her, saying that “Blackcat can cook and there will be dinner when we get back.” It really gets my hackles up. Sometimes, my FIL helps out a fair amount–in their household, *he’s* the one who does all of the cooking/cleaning. I really don’t understand how I’ve gotten burdened with all of her expectations of being a good, traditional housewife, when that’s not even the way their household operates.

            It’s to the point that I’m much less willing to host them, because while it’s fun “visit with mom and dad” time for my husband, it’s “be a maid and short order cook” time for me. I’ve already decided that post-kids, my in laws won’t be invited to stay with us, because I can’t imagine dealing with that stress *and* a baby. And, yeah, MIL will view it as unfair, because my parents will be invited to stay with us because they go out of their way to make my life easier, not harder.

            So if your daughter in law senses that you/your husband expect her to be the one cooking/hosting, she may be less inclined to do it. And there might be a conversation going on at their house that goes something like
            Son in law: You need to cook to bring something to the meal!
            Daughter in law: Uh, nope, your family, your job.
            Son in law: Fine! I guess we won’t bring anything then.

            That’s on your son in law, not your daughter in law.

          4. I really didn’t want to hijack the original LW thread but I just wanted to add that, yes, I am totally aware that my son’s bare the major responsibility for letting the relationships slide, not the daughters in law. As someone said, we’re “his” parents, not hers.

          5. @Been there done that, I hope you’re not feel criticized because of course it’s natural to wish things were different, and to be hurt when your kids act as though you’re not important to them. I’m sorry you’re going through this.

            Your daughter-in-law who doesn’t cook for you – well, it sounds as though you feel cooking is something women are supposed to do and not cooking is a sign of indifference. I urge you to consider that your older daughter-in-law may not share that view. Maybe she doesn’t like cooking. Maybe she figures that if your son can’t be bothered to cook, that doesn’t mean it’s her job to pick up the slack for him because She’s The Wife. Maybe she comes from a family background where bringing a dish to a hosted dinner is taken as an insult to the host (“oh, you didn’t like my food so you brought your own?”).

            @blackcat – you have a husband problem, but you probably knew that.

          6. I hope that you put the same level of expectation on your unmarried sons as the married ones. As a DIL, I hate that dynamic where unmarried men got off Scot-free from any social/hosting expectations vs. couples , especially the female half of the couple.

            My MIL and her husband never dreamed of fishing for invitations from his unmarried/divorced sons, while not only expecting the married kids to host, but essentially (and without any subtlety) expected the women to do all the work. Not just all the cooking, but all the other stuff that goes with hosting. And they never brought so much as a loaf of bread. MIL’s attitude was that she had done it solo (and resentfully), so she was then entitled to dump on me. Over the course of about 4-5 Thanksgivings, she acted really crappy. The last time, I was sick with a bad cold and a fever, so I’d sleep awhile, then stumble to the kitchen to baste the bird. My husband was somewhat helpful, but not terribly, and she and her husband did not do a damn thing. This was her idea of passing the baton. It was the last time I hosted them. A few years later, after we moved much farther away, I chewed her out via phone and told her that I would never host her again for a holiday, and that she was terrible for treating me in a way that she herself had resented. She acted like she had never considered such a thing, that she was such a hypocrite. She asked my husband this fall if she could visit “in November” and I said no, not at Thanksgiving. So far, so good.

        2. From this and your below post, have you considered what the commonality is in all of your kids limiting contact? I feel like we’re seeing the other side of one of many LWs’ problems…

          1. Wow, Jimbo, that was pretty harsh. How would you like it if I said to you, “Maybe there is a reason your last partner dumped you?” And the one before that…

        3. I so get this and it is difficult. I really am not a cook , other than my soups and casseroles , and would be overwhelmed by hosting a big family gathering. But I do try to reciprocate by taking folks out to eat on those holidays where restaurants are open. Or I bring appetizers that no one else brings. I have even tried buying those premade dinners for the group. I would be open to opening my home for an event if others would do the heavy cooking. It just is not my forte’ and I suppose there is resentment. We each have to work with our own skill sets and energy levels. But with creativity, there are ways to get together – even if meeting at a restaurant . BTW, my favorite Christmas memory with my parents as a grown student was going out to dinner and a movie. Completely stress free and everyone was happy, fed and relaxed.

    3. Well, first, Thanksgiving is obviously important to the LW, because she chooses to spend that specific day with her mother, right? It’s not “just a DAY” to her.

      There are some days that are, for most people, more meaningful than others, because of culture, traditions, religion and so on. Nobody is REQUIRED to care about Thankgiving or whatever if they don’t want to, but many people do, and I don’t understand the point of acting like there is something weird or wrong about not treating every day of exact and equal importance to every other day. Seriously, “It’s just a DAY” is the kind of thing you hear from the jerk boyfriend who couldn’t bother to remember it was your birthday or the anniversary of your mom’s death or whatever.

    4. Being somewhat charitable, I don’t think the real issue is the holiday; the real issue is the family gathering.

      If Family Subset A really wants a family gathering, and Family Subset B really absolutely does not, then yeah, Subset A feels snubbed and rejected. Like, in this example, it’s not like LW would want to come over and hear Dad and GF badmouthing Mom any *other* day of the year either. She wouldn’t want bring Mom and Sister over to Dad’s with her even if it was for mid-March LOTR marathon.

      There’s a lot of reasons you usually see family gatherings *correlating* to major holidays – because a lot of people aren’t working, because there’s an existing religious/social celebration to base the gathering around, because social convention – but Thanksgiving tensions aren’t about the turkey.

      The real issue is: can our family get together and amicably and enjoyably? It makes a lot of sense for some family members to be insulted by the implication that they can’t. It also makes a lot of sense for some family members to recognize that, nope, for themselves and for others, they really really can’t.

      1. I think this is a good point, and bears repeating: the family probably can’t gather amicably on any day of the year. The holiday itself isn’t the problem, it’s just the case in point.

        There’s this pervasive cultural illusion that the dysfunction in families magically vanishes during holidays and special occasions. You see this a lot with weddings, too. “Can’t you just all get along for ONE DAY???” And we are not being selfish, immature, or dramatic if, in the interest of our own self-care, the answer is “No, no we cannot.” We cannot because on this (and every) day, Uncle X will still be perving on the nieces, or Brother-in-law L will go off on an inappropriate political rant, or Dad’s Girlfriend will snub the Highly Sensitive Clan Matriarch and chaos will ensue. Faaaaaamily isn’t a good reason to endure that (but then, it rarely is).

    1. When my husband’s parents told him he was Abandoning Them and that he was a Bad Son (I am not making this up) because we were not spending Christmas with them (or at least, he was not – they didn’t care if I was there), he asked them, “What if Goldie’s mom acted the same way and demanded we spend all holidays with her?”

      There was a shocked silence, and then his dad answered, “But her family is not close.”

      Primo has met most of my 26 cousins. We have stayed many times with my aunts and uncles. We have attended major events for my brother and my sister and my sister has visited here several times, as has my mom, who usually comes once a year. He met my grandmother before she died.

      I have never met a single member of Primo’s family other than his two half brothers and their families. Primo’s mom and dad have visited us once (for our wedding, which was more than enough, as I do not need people getting drunk in my house on the good bourbon we buy for people who still have taste buds).

      Primo has seen his five cousins once in the past 20 years (at the funeral for his father’s sister that his father sent him to, even though it was 500 miles of travel for Primo and only a short train ride for Primo’s half bother Ted. When Primo asked why Ted’s attending was not sufficient, his dad said that Ted was not really “part of the family.”)

      (PS No, I do not know why Primo did not refuse to attend the funeral of someone he had not seen since he was 15 years old.)

  2. Just because someone tries to send you on a guilt trip, doesn’t mean you have to hop aboard the guilty train. You can leave the station and get a tea.

    I also think this doesn’t have to be a big heavy state of the Union conversation about the past, your relationship and the elephants in the room. You can say no thanks per the Captain. It will be ok. If and when you move out eventually and build your own immediate family (however you choose to do that) you’ll get to make choices about how you want your holidays to look like. You might as well start now.

    Great scripts from the Captain as always.

    1. I totally agree with this. Also, not yielding on your boundaries *at all* seems like it would be the best way of successfully dealing with Girlfriend. I feel like making any concessions to manipulation will not slow her down and will likely result in her becoming worse. Why should LW “compromise” on Christmas, anyway, when GFnever deserved input or influence on how she spends her time in the first place? I don’t think GF would even view that as a concession or as an attempt to show good faith. Girlfriend wants LW to alter her actions according to a defined set of principles, not meet halfway.

      LW, Girlfriend’s only leverage in this is her ability to annoy you and my feeling is that she’ll double down on it if she sees it working for her.

      1. As someone who was a stepmom for a while who had gotten a VERY limited and obfuscatory version of past events, I just want to say that the Girlfriend might not be totally evil in this way (I mean, she might be. But she might not be). I was the Lioness of Judah for a while for my former husband — so many people were SO unfair to him, but I had his back! The conflicts with co-workers who were lazy and backstabby! The problems with his family that just required patient healing and dialogue and the opening of hearts which I would facilitate! Yeah.

        Like, for sure, the GF ought to know better, and notice this pattern, and stop deluding herself (spoiler alert: she’s gonna figure it out eventually, if this is what is happening, sadly for her). But she might not be 100% terrible manipulative sauce.

        The Captain’s script for the LW works perfectly either way, though.

        1. +1 to this. I’m basically estranged from my father at the moment, and I have had SO. MANY. PEOPLE. want to be the ambassador of goodwill on his behalf and get me to “just give him a chance.” Most of these people only know his version of events (my mother divorced him and I stopped talking to him, and he just has NO IDEA why I would do such a thing, so obviously my mother – who has her own issues, but that’s a comment for a different day – has poisoned me against him), and they genuinely think they’re “helping” by passing messages/trying to convince me to give him a chance/etc.

          The thing that most of these basically decent, basically well-meaning folks don’t understand is that, while my father is an okay guy to have a beer or watch a football game with, as a parent he’s an emotionally draining narcissist with verbally abusive tendencies, and I’m frankly too old and too cranky to tolerate it anymore. The estrangement isn’t some wild new plot twist in our relationship, the way it appears to outsiders – it’s a natural progression of how he’s treated me for the last three decades while all those well-meaning folks weren’t around to bear witness.

          So while none of this at all changes the Captain’s fine, fine advice (“can’t make it, enjoy your event” on autopilot is pretty effective), I do agree with you, Polychrome, that G/F may be clueless/misled by Bad Dad rather than evil.

          1. as a fellow person with a narcissist father, i salute you!

            my usual response to people like this is a cheerful “I gave him more than thirty years of chances!”, which at least makes most people stop and think that maybe they don’t know everything about my relationship with him. But I wish I didn’t have to do it because what the fuck, people, get out of my face about my father.

          2. Ugh! I feel you on this. My brother may or may not be a sociopath (drug addict, alcoholic, petty thief, felon, abusive husband, deadbeat dad, etc, gives zero fucks about anyone but himself ever), and I cut off all contact 8 or 9 years ago (it had been minimal & not friendly for probably another 10 before that). It is unbelievable the number of people -that KNOW his history!- that are still pestering me to forgive/resume contact him because FAAAAAMILYYY. It just makes my head spin. What about the FAAAMILY that’s gotten screwed over (and over and over) by him over the last 30 years?

        2. True! And fortunately Girlfriend doesn’t have to be evil for LW to say, “thanks so much for the invitation, won’t make it” and send a card or whatnot.

          1. +1000

            The joy of being polite but not yielding on boundary setting is how applicable it is despite the intentions of the other people involved.

        3. The father’s girlfriend doesn’t have to be evil, I agree. In her mind, she’s probably trying to support his relationship with his daughters, and – especially if she doesn’t have personal experience with divorced parents – she might also be buying into some myths about children’s obligations in these situations. It’s fairly easy for someone to think “my partner is so nice, why don’t his kids spend any holidays with him, surely they can skip Thanksgiving with their mom just once?”. This is especially easy to think because it’s natural to feel solidarity and empathy for one’s partner, and maybe less for one’s partner’s children whose point of view might just not be so familiar.
          But I also agree that the boundary needs to be set no matter what the father’s girlfriend’s motivation is.

          1. Hi OP here. Yeah, my dad’s girlfriend isn’t totally evil, she just has a huge blind spot when it comes to my dad. I like her pretty well most of the time until things like this happen. I’m going to say “can’t make it, enjoy your holiday” and see my dad and her some other time. I like how it sounds.

  3. My parents are divorced, too, and I dealt with this for a while – my father trying to subtly guilt trip me for spending more of the holidays with my mom (especially the “you could spend this holiday with me just once!” thing). Well, the things is – like the Captain says – you’re under no obligation to fairly distribute the holidays between your parents. Go with what you prefer. If your father or his girlfriend mention again that you could spend this holiday with them “just once” I would call them out directly and say that this is your personal preference and you don’t feel there’s any obligation on your part to alternate holidays. This may piss them off, but might help to reduce future guilt trips – because they’ll know you just don’t feel guilty about this. Wishing you pleasant holidays!

    1. This. Feelings just aren’t fair, and that is okay, that is the nature of feelings. I’m going to go out on a limb here and take a wild guess that you probably have good reasons for not wanting to be closer to your dad than you are, but what your reasons are is kinda beside the point. You don’t want to spend that day with him. That is reason enough why you should not.

      30ish, I really like your idea of just saying, in response to a guilt trip: “No, I don’t feel like doing that, so I’m not going to.” Say it as calmly as you can, as if you feel no guilt at all, as if what you’re saying isn’t weird or unreasonable or selfish at all. Because it’s not.

  4. “Bitter Cranberry Sauce with Tears and Acrimony” has me laughing and crying in recognition at the same time.

    1. In my family it is usually paired with the Turkey Stuffed with Long-Held Secrets and the after-dinner Awkward Small Talk Pie. And don’t leave out the mashed potatoes! We serve two kinds: Real Mashed with Sour Cream and Resentment, and Vegan Potato Flakes sprinkled with Masked Irritation.

    2. I know, right? In our family the dinners changed from the Warm Turkey Potluck of Inclusion to the Cold Veal of Passive Aggression with a side of Drunken, Tactless Sexy Santa when our family host began dating someone new.

    3. I loved this recipe description too (I just found this recipe for Bitter Cranberry Sauce with Tears and Acrimony). Sooo funny and brilliant.

    4. Me too. And then I realized it would be eaten with the Love-Hate Mixed Salad and finished with Pumpkin Pie a la Sarcasm and the I Can Handle One Drink Damnit Martinis.

      And remembered why I basically hate family get togethers.

    5. Yes! Add a large pack of Cape Cod Cranberries to 3 quarts of water, boil the Bejezus out of them for 2 hours and forget to add any sugar or honey… Bitter….. And guilt, a la a frisky late Autumn Whine of, “WHY Don’t You Ever Come See Me instead of your Mother on Thanksgiving??? We are FAMMMILLLYYY”
      (Even though he may have not contacted you, called, written or texted for 360 days of the past year)….

      Frequently there is too much one-upmanship about the holidays as if it’s a competition to prove who ya love the best. Love doesn’t have to measured that way, it is an everyday, all occasion thing, folks.

  5. I agree with the captain’s suggestion except I would tell them once that ‘I have plans’ and be a bit unresponsive after that. I say do what makes you happy; it is good practice for the rest of your life. I also love the suggestion of spending time alone with your dad-or even both of them- invite them to a movie or the zoo!:-). Good luck!

    1. “I say do what makes you happy; it is good practice for the rest of your life.”

      This is amazing and I am going to make a design of it and put it on my wall. It applies to so many situations!

  6. Just a quick note on ” But you aren’t a child. You have custody of yourself, ”

    I think that may not be strictly true. The LW says “My mom has custody of both me and my sister and we see our dad on our terms,” so it sounds like the LW is, in fact, legally a child (sounds like they’re a late teenager from the letter) over whom an adult has custody, but has agency to determine their time spent with their dad.

    This also may limit their ability to invite Dad to their (their mom’s?) place.

    LW, also, I think the Captain’s advice in previous posts about shutting down conversations you don’t want to have will apply on the day that you do visit your dad. If you get there and he or his girlfriend start laying guilt on you for not doing official holidays with them, you try to change the subject twice and then leave. Eventually they will figure out that they can choose between guilt tripping you and you sticking around, and they will choose one. Hopefully the latter.

    1. And if the LW doesn’t have their own transportation out of there (if LW doesn’t own a car, or isn’t old enough to drive, or Dad lives in a public transit desert) LW can always leave the room. Take a long hot shower. Go for a walk. Pick up a book or cellphone and hide behind it. It might be rude, but Girlfriend’s guilt-tripping is more rude. You don’t have to put up with it.

      1. This idea about leaving the conversation if you’re not able to redirect it is such a good one. LW, I don’t know how old you are, what your transportation situation is like, or what your dad’s neighbourhood is like, but if it’s a safe enough area for a woman your age to walk around alone (and if you haven’t already done this), maybe it would be an idea to do a little research ahead of time and look up some public hangout spots near your dad’s place which you could escape to, in the event that you end up feeling like you really really want a way out. It could be really helpful to have a mental map of the area ahead of time of all the coffee shops, diners, libraries, bookstores, etc you could feasibly get to if you needed to take a breather or call an early end to the fun. If there’s nothing like this within walking distance of your dad’s place, you could also just dress really really warmly, in case you get the urge to go out and take an extended walk.

    2. “This also may limit their ability to invite Dad to their (their mom’s?) place.”

      It could do, but it sounds like an option no one involved (except the gf who is very much an outsider to the situation and probably blissfully ignorant of how bad it could get) would actually consider as a real possibility.

      If they’re anything like my bitterly divorced parents, then having both of them in the same room at the same time is nightmare inducing.

      I have seriously though that if I ever get married I might elope or have 2 ceremonies so avoid having them both involved at the same time.

  7. Declining invitations to Family Holiday Gatherings is super hard the first time, but it gets so much easier the more times you do it. Take it as the opportunity it is: how to spot attempts at guilt-tripping, how to enforce your own boundaries, how to not engage in a conversation/discussion/argument that will go nowhere and that no one will win. Don’t feel guilty that you aren’t going. Feel thankful that Dad’s Girlfriend is giving you this teachable moment!

    1. This is very true. I skip some family holidays, not because of estrangement but because my family’s arrangements accommodate everyone else’s financial and vacation time needs to some degree while expecting me to always travel. The first time I skipped Christmas resulted in screaming. The second time resulted in nagging. By the third time, I got a little subtle guilt tripping, but there was a general level of understanding that my only showing up every other Christmas was the new status quo and that any deviations from that were unlikely.

      It sounds like the LW already has a consistent plan for spending the holidays. I think they’d do well to keep that consistency and to be firm rather than offering to think about things. Dad and Girlfriend may not like it, but they’ll eventually get used to the setup.

    2. It is hard at first, and slightly strange. “You mean all this food is safe and no-one is trying to kill me with a pecan?”

    3. I have not found this be true so far. It has been 5 years since I have attended Holiday Family Torture and this is the year my parents have decided to Have a Discussion About the Holiday Situation Dammit. I am still in my infancy of learning boundaries, recognizing manipulation tactics and shutting it down so perhaps I just haven’t really communicated this is in way that reads This is FINAL. But also, my family exists in a fugue of denial so deep that they seem to think me spending the holidays eating Boston Market alone while binging on TV and wine is not an indication of how awful things are at “home” that I would rather do that, than be with them – but rather incontrovertible proof that I am SELFISH. [I have since found some lovely friends and on the years I haven’t had to work retail for the holidays, I have been with them].

      I am still freaking about this impending discussion and tried to preempt it by emailing a short “I will be staying where I currently live for the holidays this year. Hope you guys have a great holiday!” and they responded “ok call when you can so we talk about this.”

      1. Wow, I can see how that could feel really stressful. But I think you’ve got your answer right there for how to handle it: “I will be staying where I currently live for the holidays this year. Hope you guys have a great holiday!”

        I think that was the smartest possible way you could have handled this. You’ve given them all the information you need to give them. I don’t think you need to reply to their message, or comply with their (rather rudely phrased) demand for a phone call. But if you do feel the need to respond in some way, you could try writing back, “There’s nothing to talk about, I’m staying where I live for the holidays this year. Have a great time celebrating!” Just like the Captain says, you don’t need to give reasons. You don’t need to justify yourself. You’ve informed them of your plans, and if they continue to bring it up and press you and ask why you’re being so selfish and blah-blah-family, blah-blah-holidays, guilt-guilt-guilt — well, you do not need to engage with that, and your life will be so much simpler if you do not. E-mails can be one line, and you’ve already got the perfect script, just repeat it over and over again. If you get sucked into a phone conversation, keep it as short as possible. “I can’t talk right now, and anyway there’s really nothing to talk about. I’m staying here for the holidays. Have a great time! I have to go now.” (and hang up) Remember that your decision to stay away is totally reasonable and is not selfish or weird. Your family can feel how ever they want to feel about it, and you can give them exactly three seconds to sound off about those feelings before you cut them off with “No, I’m just going to stay here. But have a great time! I have to go.”

      2. There’s no Discussion to have, though. If you don’t want to go, then don’t go. You’ve told them you’re not going, so there’s nothing to discuss.

        1. True, I guess I am freaking out over having to set this boundary over and over and over again for the next 2 months. I have terrible anxiety with setting boundaries with my family and letting them down.

      3. Oh dear.

        Don’t call to talk about it. Call to talk about autumn leaves, or the enclosure acts, or Lady Nijo, or your favorite movie.

        Or don’t call at all.

        You are communicating boundaries like a boss. You aren’t required to give people a chance to batter at them.

        How would it be if you didn’t call until January? Which is easier, no call, or hanging up if someone starts haranguing you?

        I ask because I find it helpful sometimes to imagine the what ifs.

        In my case, hanging up would be easier than not calling til January. But I can imagine it the other way.

        Jedi hugs if you want them.

      4. Boston Market is (or was?) soooooooooooo delicious though. To me this is a sign you have your Priorities all In Order.

      5. “ok call when you can so we talk about this.”

        I’d respond with an email that said, “Thanks, but there’s really nothing I need to talk about. Have a great holiday!” It sounds like they want to guilt you into calling so they can impress upon you their Feelings, which are Important, see, and would totally Enlighten you as to why Your Presence Is Requested. So let them know that you don’t really need to talk about anything, and then maybe they’ll get a little more specific that it’s really about THEIR feelings, to which you can respond (still in email) “Oh, I’m sorry you feel that way, hope you feel better soon and have a great holiday! Love you!” Because I would wager that you actually wish good feelings for them, and you probably realize that your presence doesn’t actually result in good feelings for them, and you know that your presence results in bad feelings for you.

        That moment when you realize that you’re free? It’s like gold in your hands.

      6. omgosh you all are sweet and wonderful! Thank you so much for the feedback and support.

        “How would it be if you didn’t call until January? Which is easier, no call, or hanging up if someone starts haranguing you?”

        That really sort of puts it in perspective because honestly, it would feel glorious.

        “It sounds like they want to guilt you into calling so they can impress upon you their Feelings, which are Important, see, and would totally Enlighten you as to why Your Presence Is Requested.”

        Yes, yes, yes. That is what this call would be. Super fun times! (It is admittedly a terrible behavior I have picked up from them and am working HARD at not emulating anymore because it’s a nightmare for the other person).

        “You can also decide to just conveniently forget to ever call.”

        Pretty sure this is why I have also been described as “flighty.” I keep “forgetting” to do stuff I really don’t wanna do. 🙂

      7. “When you can” can mean “never”. You did not open a discussion; you stated a final decision. You DON’T have to reopen that decision for them!

      8. The sucky part of dealing with People In Denial is that you can present them with incontrovertible, gold plated proof, notarized by God, as to why [whatever they are pressuring you for] is a one way ticket to Dysfunction Junction and they still (often) won’t accept it as This Is Final. It’s frustrating and ultimately fruitless. That’s why the scripts that have been presented here are all so good. You don’t have to convince them of anything or worry about whether they accept them or not. You state your boundary and if they squawk, k thnx bye talk to ya later! There may be some pushback, and some can be doggedly persistent, just repeat your scripts as necessary and don’t let them draw you into conflict. Hang in there, and employ whatever means you need for support (Team You, chocolate, spa day, etc). Fingers are crossed for you!

  8. It’s surprising to me that she’s trying to change the way you do holidays. I will say one thing my very traditional family is NOT down for is change. We go to the same family for the same holiday EVERY year and we eat the SAME things. (Though my Aunt keeps changing up the Christmas menu and we all hate it. We want our roast beef and ravioli….don’t ask.)

    Sometimes new people come, sometimes some of us don’t but we do the same stuff every year. (I even usually spend Thanksgiving morning with a close childhood friend while she bakes every year. BECAUSE IT IS A TRADITION.)

    So I think another way to spin it is that you have your Thanksgiving tradition with your Dad where you see each other the day after. It works with everyone’s Thanksgiving plans, and you’re not about to change it because his new girlfriend thinks you should.

    One of the rare times that doing the same thing all the time works in your favor. You worked out this system because it is what works for you and she can freaking live with it.

  9. Once my dad’s girlfriend got easter chocolate for me and my sister (not weird) and my mum (kind of weird) and then we kept joking that we couldn’t eat the emotional manipulation bunny.

    We gave it to my friend with the cryptic explanation of “Do you believe that chocolate can bear an emotional burden and if so would it keep you from eating it?”

    1. I can kids understand (from seeing my mum and step mum interact) that the newer person can feel that perhaps there’s a chance or a civil I not friendly relationship, and come from a place of well meaning. But this obviously doesn’t work in all situations – for various and sundry reasons to do with different people – and sometimes as a person in the know you can see that the campaign is tilting against windmills.

  10. >> the more you insist on sticking to only what is said (and ignoring sighs and subtext and implications and unspoken regrets and longings)

    I just want to testify that this works. I do it with my mom. My sister still tries to find the Hidden Meaning (TM) in everything our mom says, but I don’t spend my energy on that anymore. I take what she says at face value and run with it. My life is so much easier this way.

    The broken record technique works well, too, as does, “Thanks for your advice; we’ll take it into consideration,” both of which I learned here. They’re hard to do at first, especially since the person attempting to control/manipulate you may get angry and insulting when their attempts fail (my mom actually called me a coward when I circumvented her attempt to drag me into a fight she’d picked with my sister by repeating over and over, “that’s between you and Sister” and “you should talk to Sister about that directly”), but if you stick with them, they work.

    So, thanks, Captain. Those are three excellent techniques that have helped me reset my relationship with my mom (whom I do love but who has a lot of trouble relating to me as an adult).

    1. Oh, wow — “Thanks for your advice; I’ll be sure to take it into consideration” is the exact phrasing that, some years ago, I used with my (NPD) mother about NINE TIMES in a single conversation (it was advice about my health or my parenting or my ability as a parent to take care of my daughter’s health, I honestly can’t remember anymore) before she finally got the hint and dropped it.

      She loves to give pushy “Well, why don’t you just–” helpy-type “advice” that turns into badgering if you politely decline it.

      Or even if you say that you tried it and it didn’t work, or that your doctor advised against it, or that it’s not affordable/practical (she has never worked and has had two wealthy husbands; I was a broke single mom, worked my way up to middle-class, and am now disabled and broke again) . . . she keeps pushing.

      Apparently, if you just do the same thing HER way, it’s MAGIC, and if I would just TRY HARDER (and be less fat, and exercise more, and Find A Wealthy Husband To Take Care Of Me, and But You’re So Crafty, Surely You Can Find A Way To Make Tons Of Money Doing Crafty Things), my life would fall into place, as a perfect mirror of her own.


      Thanks for your advice, Mom. I’ll be sure to take it into consideration.

    2. The one piece of advice I’ve given this year that actually had value:

      Secret feelings are the easiest feelings to ignore.

  11. Oh, Letter Writer, at first I thought my sister had written in (until the part where the girlfriend is Chinese.) But we’re at least a decade or two further into this story (I’m in my mid-thirties, and my parents split when I was 5), and I am a well-practiced Child of Divorce, negotiating The Dynamics.

    There’s yet an added layer where my father, who’s a difficult person to get along with, is also alienated from his immediate family, so the holidays growing up were a carefully orchestrated “one Christmas with mom and stepdad/another Christmas with actual father/Christmas dinner with grandparents and uncles” situation and after all these years, we’re actually all very used to the layers of awkward dysfunction and alienated relationships. The core family gets it; it’s finely-tuned dysfunction, and just How We Do.

    For many Reasons of his own making, I don’t speak to my father. My grandmother died about 8 years ago, around the time my father had found his new girlfriend, and weirdly, one uncle had a new girlfriend, too. Both of the New Girlfriends, bless their hearts, thought that the death of my grandmother would be this Great Healing Event, and brothers and alienated children would come together and reconcile. Any of us could have told them that that wouldn’t be the case; my father and his brother played nice that one day (and dear readers: it was SO DISORIENTING), but all the grudges involved are set firmly in stone. At the time, I was pretty tempted to make a, “Hey, NEW GIRLS, you are not fixing decades of dysfunction today, knock it off” comment that day, but the funeral was not the place, they were new, and I refrained, figuring they would learn soon enough.

    My sister still plays nice(r) with my father, sees them infrequently; I see my uncle and his new girlfriend sometimes. Nearly every time we encounter either of these Girlfriends, little comments are made about what a shame it is people don’t get along with each other, yadda. The core family, for the most part, smiles blandly and refuses to rise to the bait. (Our family is little, and broken, and still good.)

    If, however, one of them ever tries to really push it, I’ve had a script in my head to since that funeral to nip it in the bud: “You’re a very nice person, and I know a lot of this feels sad or weird or awkward for you, and I’m sorry for that. I’m also sure you’ve heard some version of events, but through no fault of your own, you are missing years of context. I assure you that everyone here is an adult and has reasons for feeling the way they do, and we respect that. And if anything ever changes, it’s not going to be from an outside influence. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but this is how we are, we’ve accepted it, and I think it may be best that you do, too.” If any of that is helpful, as your dad’s girlfriend seems a bit pushier about things, feel free to adapt that for your situation as needed.

    1. Your version is much kinder than what I would say, and my parents are happily married!

  12. Ugh, the holiday guilt! This year, my boyfriend decided that for Reasons, he could only spend a week in his hometown on the other side of the country for Christmas. When he called his mother a few weeks ago to tell him about it, she immediately tried to bargain with him for three more days, and when he said “we’ll see” she took that to mean “yes.” He called her this weekend to tell her that he’d bought the plane tickets to spend only seven days there and she went OFF on him.

    He used this broken record technique with her, and LW, it worked. She called him back the next day to apologize for losing her temper … sort of, anyway.

    I’m not looking forward to a lifetime’s worth of negotiating holidays with this woman. Boyfriend is her only child and she’s territorial. My parents, while absolutely not perfect, are not prone to Holiday Guilting; they understand that careers, children, romantic relationships, marriages, divorces, etc. make scheduling complicated and they will not see us for every holiday. Because they’re so easygoing about it, they make time spent with them a lot more pleasant, and we actually wind up seeing them more than we see Boyfriend’s parents for this reason! I wish Boyfriend’s mother understood that these guilt trips wind up pushing us away from her, getting her the opposite of what she wants.

      1. Considering many jobs only give two weeks leave a year (or less!), half your holiday time is pretty generous.

        1. He does indeed only have two weeks off. And when he pointed this out to his mother during an earlier discussion, her response was “Why wouldn’t you spend ALL your vacation time with your FAMILY? Don’t you love us?” ADSFLJDSFJKSDFKJWEIJDSKJLSDFKLV.

          It didn’t help that he already spent five days of PTO on vacation with me this summer, so there’s a delightful undercurrent of “SHE’S not family, why spend it on HER”… it’s never stated straight-out, but it’s insinuated.

        1. Christmas break, freshman year, was the last time I spent more than one night at a time (very infrequently at that) under my mother’s roof. And compared to many mothers I read about, my mom’s not even particularly dysfunctional.

    1. Yeah, the mistake was giving her any hope that he would change his mind. Hopefully he won’t make that rookie mistake again.

  13. I would like to add that I don’t know how impossible your father’s girlfriend is, but I have some family members who grew up believing that guilt trips are an appropriate way to get someone to do what you want, but who are otherwise decent human beings. (I’m not sure where this came to seem like a good idea…) When I’m hanging out with small children my philosophy is, “If you throw a temper tantrum, you don’t get what you want,” which most of the time results in better behavior (and if not, they still don’t get it). I made my adult philosophy, “If you throw a guilt trip, you don’t get what you want.” Looking back, I’d probably have gotten faster results if I’d told them this was my philosophy instead of just shutting them down when they tried, but over the long term, this rule managed to stick. When they tried to make me feel guilty I just declared that I wouldn’t do thing X, and because they wanted to spend time with me they slowly learned not to try the guilting. And now we have lovely adult relationships and have a good time together. I won’t say it’s always that easy — sometimes issues still come up — but the guilt trips have stopped, and that was the part that was driving me mad.

    (I still find holidays tricky, since they want me for all of the major holidays and I both want to be there and not… I want to spend the time with them, and I know that I’m the one who moved away and it makes more sense for me to travel than for everyone else, but I still dislike long drives in November/December weather. On the other hand, there are a few kids that I only get to see during those holidays because of custody issues, so it’s hard not to go… So holidays can be tricky even when regular stuff is figured out. But on the years I’ve decided that I absolutely can’t make it, the above rules about not honoring guilt trips have made it doable.)

    1. “Oh, I see you are trying to guilt trip me into something. You have now guaranteed that I will never do that thing.” = GOOD POLICY.

      1. Yeah, I have the semi-horrible habit of being like “even if I’d like to do this, the way you asked means that NOW I CAN’T, possibly EVER AGAIN. Please learn from this.”

        I don’t mind missing out on something short-term to teach people a long-term lesson about how to treat me.

        1. My husband has learned to use this tactic with my MIL because it’s the only way to keep the guilt trips to a minimum. And I get it, I really do, but sometimes it’s annoying. My MIL decided to send us a giant guilt trip out-of-the-blue about how we have to get flu vaccines before seeing my pregnant sister in law, or she will be 100% guaranteed to die of the flu and it will be our fault. But the combination of bad logic + guilt trip means my husband really really doesn’t want the vaccine now, even though it is actually a good idea that he would have done if his mother had just not said anything.

          1. The “Four Tendencies Framework” suggested by Gretchen Rubin has helped me to identify some of these patterns in myself (and others) and been useful in better communication. (If you are interested you can just google “gretchen rubin four tendencies”.)

          2. Yeah, it’s….often a very useful tactic when the other person is actually trying to use guilt to manipulate you (even if they aren’t intentionally doing so). It can be gaslighting and immature when the other person interprets “guilt trip” as “anything you say or ask of me that makes me feel guilty because I know that I’m behaving badly.”

        2. OMG THIS! Actually it’s become a thing where often at weddings and other events my partner and I wont dance until later in the evening. Inevitably at some point someone will come up and start wheedling and guilt tripping him into dancing with me. And then I have to be all like “Well, now we CAN’T dance together, so thanks for ruining my evening manipulative people who can’t mind their own business”

          I’ve noticed this is not a technique my family uses much. (Not to say we don’t all feel guilty for reasons anyway, but… Catholic.) I’m not sure if it’s because it just never worked on me so they stopped trying, or if it is just not a thing they do. But other people’s family try it on me all the time and I”m always like “Is this something you think is likely to be effective?” *head tilt*

          1. “Why aren’t you dancing together?”

            “We can dance together whenever we want. We don’t get to dance with all these other cool people EVER, so we’re taking the opportunity while we have it.”

        3. I might be more sensitive in my boundary-keeping than most… but I’m perfectly willing to take this a step further, and that has served me well. At first, manipulative behavior is met by denial of the goal of the manipulation; but, if the behavior continues, its cessation becomes a condition for the continued relationship. Someone who prioritizes controlling my behavior over having my company at all is not good company – even if they are family.

      2. Yes! This is a sub-case of the general principle that when dealing with intrusive, manipulative, judgmental people who fail to respect boundaries, you never ever reward them for bad behavior. They only get rewards if and when they behave decently and respectfully.

  14. Dear LW

    The only thing I’d add to what the Captain suggests is: it gets easier with practice.

    Jedi hugs if you want them.

  15. LW, the description you give of the context around your dad and his girlfriend make this campaign sound less like a holiday guilt trip than an overall power trip using the holidays as leverage. Use the Captain’s broken-record scripts and ignore any efforts to put a hook in you to reel you in for further engagement. Your strongest defense is not to engage.

    I’m sorry you are having to learn this skill in this context, but it will stand you in good stead through life.

  16. Ugh, I’m having flashbacks to the horrible divorced-kid Thanksgivings of my late teens, when at the end of the day my mother would make up a plate of leftover turkey and stuffing and pie for me to take home to my dad. He would stand behind the front door when he let me in so that he wouldn’t accidentally make eye contact with my stepdad in the car, and then I would give him the food and he would eat it while grumbling that he “didn’t need her scraps.” Super awkward. But the good news, LW, is that eventually custody agreements end, and you have more options than just Mom’s house or Dad’s house for the holidays, and that helps make it feel less like straight-up choosing one of them over the other (although that’s okay too).

  17. I totally relate to you LW! My parents split when I was 11 and we alternated Christmas between Mum and Dad. I’m now 29 and he doesn’t understand why this has changed even though he is now married with two step kids, who we get on fine with, but they live in a small house where there is not space for 4 more adults to celebrate in (the time we tried this has gone down in history amongst my siblings for it’s EPIC FAIL) and where all our holiday traditions are ignored for New Wife’s Family’s. We have been subject to guilt trips and RIDICULOUS proposals (such as with me and my siblings, two coming to visit Christmas Eve and Day, then swapping with the other two for Christmas Day and Boxing Day, which due to the fact none of us drive and there isn’t public transport working is not realistic, plus me and my siblings actually like to spend Christmas TOGETHER!)

    For a while we were at Mum’s every year, and he would moan about it but it was OK. We’ve found that the best way for me and my siblings to avoid excess Christmas Drama was to go to Mum’s every other year, then do something else together on the alternate years – last year my siblings all came to stay at mine which was very chilled and lots of fun. We’re thinking of going abroad maybe next year! Turns out, it wasn’t so much Dad missing us at Christmas, but resenting us being at Mum’s all the time, so this minimises the drama and maximises the fun!

    I’m not suggesting that you need to do this, particularly if you have great holiday times with Mum and Sister – just reiterating that you should make and enjoy your own holiday traditions however you choose!

  18. This was timely for me! There’s something hinky going on in my me-dad-dad’sthirdwife dynamic the moment, which while not actually horrible, is still really irritating.

    My dad’s lovely, and he loves me and he shows it, but as we live on opposite sides of the world our interactions are limited. I’d love to exchange emails, but whenever I try to turn a perfunctory exchange of information into a chat, he promptly redirects me to his wife, who only came on the scene 6 months before I left the country 5 years ago, so I don’t actually know her that well. I like her ok, but we’re not precisely family at a visceral level and it winds me up hearing her grumble about my aunt because she doesn’t seem to realise that – to me – my aunt is closer family than she is, which means she doesn’t get to kvetch about her!

    I think there’s two things at play… firstly, I think Dad and/or his wife are trying to shanghai me into having some sort of a Relationship with her, which is a bit silly and controlling and really just not *necessary*. I also suspect that – despite the fact that I’ve never heard a single sexist remark from my father’s mouth – there’s some sort of middle-age-and-third-wife-induced “women do the social labour of the couple” nonsense going on.

    I can’t really stand against it without causing a Kerfuffle which, apart from anything else, would mean that my brother has to listen to them moan, so I’m just going to have to grit my teeth and bear. But seriously, what is it with HAVING to have a CONNECTION with the woman your father marries when you’re (nearly or actually) an adult?!?! Just, WHY.

    1. But seriously, what is it with HAVING to have a CONNECTION with the woman your father marries when you’re (nearly or actually) an adult?!?! Just, WHY.

      I feel you, that absolutely baffles me too. I am a grownup, dad’s new wife is most certainly not my new mommy. I feel really lucky that I was never made to feel pressured to be best buddies with either of the women my dad married when I was an adult. They’re perfectly nice people who I’m friendly to on the very rare occasions that I see them and outside of that I just don’t think about them very much.

      But I can imagine how I would feel if I had been pressured and it’s making me hunch my shoulders up around my ears.

  19. So, I have a different Thanksgiving-related question: What do you do about the food police? I am kind of fat, and my mom glared at me and told me in front of everyone, how many calories were in the desserts…I left hungry.

    1. Gasp! That is horrifying !
      I would look her in the eye, take a big bite, and go “mmmmmmm, it’s delicious and worth every calorie.”

      1. I thought of saying, “Why don’t you just have a menu board and list all the calories then? Like McDonald’s.” Not that her cooking is cheap or bad, but it’s a good comeback, I think.

        1. Nice one! If it ever happens again, I find “Wow, what a very strange thing to say” to work in situations like this.

    2. I think I would ask her whether she intended to do that next year, so that you could decide in advance whether it would be safe to attend. It’s such an egregious breach of her hosting responsibilities that I’m having trouble getting my head around it.

    3. I have no good advice but I want to throw an arm around your shoulder and glare at her and tell her she’s being an asshole and to let you eat a piece of pie without being insulted and shamed over it. Geez.

    4. Wow, so not OK. I think I”d rather have Thanksgiving for my chosen family and make it damn clear why you weren’t going to your mom’s. And I”d have the mother of all dessert options for said chosen family.

      Hugs from another voluptuous person, if you want ’em. I’d get the loud stage whisper of “Do you think you really need to eat that?”

  20. Great thread – and I wish I had time tonight to read it all.

    The first year I was married one of us had to work on Christmas Day, so we decided we’d just postpone the celebration. It happened that the next “day off” was a Saturday, the 28th if I remember right. So we also postponed holiday shopping. Imagine our delight to discover that practically everything was halfprice on the 26th and 27th and (at least in those days) the stores weren’t crowded. For several years we always had Christmas a few days late, and the kids thought it was a hoot!

    Then came divorce, and moving out of state, and the inevitable negotiation about ‘six weeks every summer, Christmas every other year’. It was totally easy and painless to arrange for Christmas to work well for both sides, because the 25th had never been a critical big deal anyway.

    Fast forward a couple of decades and we did the same thing with Thanksgiving. A couple of adults in the family had had a serious falling out, but nobody wanted to eliminate one or both from the biggest extended family gathering of the year. So we just had the house party from Wednesday to Sunday, with a big dinner on Thursday and another on Saturday, and one of them came for Wednesday-to-Friday and the other for Friday-to-Sunday. Worked well … and eventually they decided between them that it was actually okay to see each other every now and then.

  21. Thank you all so much for the advice. I’m going to make like a broken record and BCC my dad on the email to his girlfriend. I like her a lot except for the times she has a blind spot about my dad. I get the feeling from things she has mentioned that she’s trying to give him an easier life by mending his problems and relationships, but that doesn’t excuse her and is misguided like the Captain says.

    About the chinese upbringing: apparently it is traditional parenting or something to guilt trip. I was reading advice blogs for children of chinese parents, and all of those parents seem to do it too. For whatever reason she keeps trying to parent me and I have to stop it. I dread the day they will ask me to call her “Mom”; i feel like this will happen.

    I thought Girlfriend inviting my mom was creepy even as she said it, because my parents can’t stand to be in the same room as each other. It’s great to know that I’m not the only child of divorced parents who finds holidays a struggle. I’m going to try and see my dad the day after or before and not let Girlfriend’s guilt-tripping derail me.

    RKMK, thank you for telling me your story. It’s nice to know that everything will reach a fragile equilibrium even though it may take years.

  22. I feel like I need to explain the chinese upbringing thing: I think part of it is because both of them were brought up traditionally chinese, with an expectation that children honor their parents and never split from them; I think guilt tripping is a culturally chinese thing because I was looking on forums for children of traditional chinese parents and a lot of them said that they had been guilted as well.

    Girlfriend does love my dad, she makes him a lot easier to be around, but she has this blindspot that makes me feel sad for her. Like a commenter above said, it will come out sometime and I think it will make her miserable.

    1. It does sound like she’s got a touch of NRE, too. New Relationship Energy…you know, when everything your new SO says is witty and insightful, and their farts smell like rainbows. Well maybe not the last bit, but you get the idea. 🙂

  23. Come spend Thanksgiving with your dad and me! Bring his ex-wife and his other daughter who hates his guts! I just found this recipe for Bitter Cranberry Sauce with Tears and Acrimony

    OK, not really related, but… I got divorced about two weeks ago, about which I am sad, and my birthday is the day after Thanksgiving, and… I think I am going to have to refer to the cranberry sauce that way this year. 🙂

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