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.“