No, you don’t have to see your toxic family on Thanksgiving

Although the pandemic gave me an excuse not to go home for the holidays, I was left asking myself why I – an adult – never saw it as my right to refuse

Before the pandemic, I had to brace myself for trips home over the holidays. I’d spend the weeks preceding Thanksgiving reading popular holiday survival guides, praying I’d learn some trick to help me leave emotionally intact. I was not alone: the internet abounds with memes of people hiding in toilets or stuck between family arguing at the Thanksgiving dinner table, wishing the night would end.

Now that travel is projected to substantially increase in time for this year’s holiday season and the CDC is no longer pleading for us to stay put during the holidays, many will be rejoicing. Some haven’t seen loved ones for years, finding themselves isolated, trapped in foreign lands or missing important life events – including being unable to visit ill and dying family members during global and national lockdowns.

But others, like me, won’t be.

It’s no secret that Covid – compounded by an era of divisive politics – offered much-needed distance for those in troubled relationships with loved ones. For some, the pandemic presented people with the opportunity to break familial ties. For others, the pandemic at least offered an alibi: social media platforms like Facebook and Reddit were replete with users sharing memes and articles containing pandemic-related excuses to avoid family gatherings over the holidays. That might leave some of us asking why, as adults, we don’t see it as our right to refuse.

The expectation that families should spend the holidays together at all costs is built into the fabric of American culture. You’ll notice this in the many holiday season advertisements that fetishize the idea of a loving nuclear family rather than provide images of friends gathering in mixed groups.

But feeling powerless toward an obligation to return home, regardless of the impacts on our mental health, has far-reaching consequences. It can affect peoples’ finances, their confidence and their relationships.

Not to mention the fact that people overstate the importance of going home when it comes to maintaining a meaningful connection with our families.

“Some people may go home for the holidays because they want to honor the family bond,” says Dr Lindsay Gibson, a licensed psychologist. That could be at cost to the actual relationship, because healthy relationships rely on connections defined by sensitivity, empathy and care rather than just proximity.

Many, like me, have invested ample time going home just to honor that family bond (in the absence of deep emotional connection), but as the Virginia-based psychologist explains: “The person [may] begin to doubt whether they have what it takes to be loved. It’s a deep injury.”

In other words: if going home makes you argue, fight and hate your family, maybe it’s not preserving the relationship as much as you think it is.

A bonded relationship – especially within the context of a dysfunctional or toxic family dynamic – is not necessarily a healthy or loving one. In fact, sometimes, an unhealthy bond can keep us coming back for more, even if it’s not necessarily good for us.

Bonds, Gibson says, “are extremely strong when the rewards of the relationship are intermittent … inconsistent and unpredictable. Lack of predictability sets up one of the most powerful bonds because you keep looking for the treat.”

So if you’re one of the many people asking yourself “Why do I care so much?” the answer is likely: “You care because you don’t know what you’re going to get [from the person],” says Gibson.

Up until recently, opting out of visiting for the holidays seemed akin to blasphemy for my family. That sense of guilt and obligation struck me annually, especially in my 20s and 30s when I’d bought into the belief that being a person worth receiving her family’s love was synonymous with significant self-sacrifice.

Before long, I found myself craving a conversation about the holidays that resisted positioning those at the behest of dysfunctional dynamics as duty-bound to return home at all costs.

So what might a new and improved holiday survival guide look like? “Stop trying to outrun regret,” Dr Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist, said. If you regret not spending time with family over the holidays it doesn’t necessarily mean you made the wrong decision. “The healthy and loving people in your family system can and should respect your boundaries,” she says.

She suggests asking a partner or friend to intercept reactionary emails, texts and phone callsfor those who do opt out of family obligations to avoid the ensuing drama. Don’t force yourself to look at them now, she says – or at all, if you don’t want to. The point is to engage (or disengage) on your own terms.

We also have the right to be happy even if we upset others, but maintaining that happiness may require some practice. “It’s a radical thought that someone else could be upset and you can be as happy as you were before they got upset,” says Gibson, adding: “It’s a mindblower, because it breaks the paradigm that you can only be a good person if you’re self-sacrificing.”

For those choosing to spend the holidays with tricky family members, it’s important to remember that your feelings are just as important as anyone else’s. Gibson suggests doing this actively, reminding yourself: This person is not more important than me. I am just as important as they are.” In doing so, you can set boundaries that work for you, even if that’s uncomfortable to others – like settling on virtual visits, or only attending for part of the evening.

While I certainly love my family, at 41, I am now finally able to put up and maintain reasonable boundaries with them. I’m also beginning to understand that family can be great – at a distance. While I love them and sometimes wish I lived closer, distance, punctuated by the occasional Zoom chat, allows me to better appreciate the time we have when I do choose to return home.

When I do return home, if I find a family member behaving in a way that’s not conducive to a peaceful holiday, I tell myself that’s their decision. Hopefully we’ll have another occasion to celebrate, but if we don’t, I take tremendous comfort in knowing I am not in control of other people’s choices – only my own.

In the meantime, if I find myself perusing guides for holiday survival, I’ll remember that most of them are best suited for Target commercials and not the real-life complications of dysfunctional family dynamics.

Christina Wyman

The GuardianTramp

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