Advice on how to get through the holiday season without losing my mind and my temper?
November 21, 2007 10:31 AM   Subscribe

What are your tips on surviving holiday family dysfunction?

I dread spending the holidays with my family. My relationship with my parents and siblings is tenuous at best. I am the black sheep and the scapegoat in a family with a history of alcoholism, mental illness and verbal abuse and have lots of over anger and resentment. Despite years of therapy and alcohol treatment, my family falls into old behavioral routines over the holidays. Basically, someone in the family will do or say something passive aggressive directed at me and I respond with with biting sarcasm. Drama ensues.

One reoccurring example of my family's behavior is: they will tell me and my husband to come over at a certain time. We arrive on time, and find that everyone is almost done eating, or the birthday candles have been blown out or everyone is in the midst of opening their Christmas presents. My mom gets a kick out of calling my husband by my ex boyfriend's name and making little mean jokey comments about his family.

Basically holidays with my family are hell. If it were not for my wonderful nieces and nephew, whom I rarely get to see, I would avoid family holidays entirely. For the sake of the kids, I want to avoid any confrontations or escalation of drama, so I end up bottling all my holiday rage up inside and feeling like crap.

My family all lives locally, so it's not a multi-day or overnight holiday ordeal.

Any advice on how to get through the holiday season without losing my mind and my temper? How do other people with wildly dysfunctional families get through the holidays?
posted by pluckysparrow to Human Relations (45 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Don't go.
posted by k8t at 10:32 AM on November 21, 2007 [7 favorites]

"We arrive on time, and find that everyone is almost done eating .... My mom gets a kick out of calling my husband by my ex boyfriend's name and making little mean jokey comments about his family."

Don't go. You're under no obligation to suffer this kind of behavior. Invite the kids over to hang out for the day.
posted by majick at 10:34 AM on November 21, 2007 [3 favorites]

If you go, take walks.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:37 AM on November 21, 2007

This is why I'm planning to take a road trip with my dog.

If you can't get out of it, my advice is this... you know what the triggers are for the drama. You've been through it over and over. Your family pushes eachother's buttons because they put them there. So when you see those triggers appear, respond DIFFERENTLY. Try new things. Shake it up a bit. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over & over and expecting different results.

Whatever you normally do on holidays, try to break up the habits. Distract people from intense conversation by getting them to play board games. Take the kids for a walk in a park or something while dinner's being made. Don't let those triggers and the old habits take over.

Another thing I've found works well sometimes is inviting outside friends to join you. Amazing how that new blood in the room can put people onto different and sometimes far better behavior.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:39 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Take walks, talk to the under-20 set, drink a lot of wine.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:42 AM on November 21, 2007

Stay sober for one thing.
posted by caddis at 10:43 AM on November 21, 2007

I second the "don't go" comment. There is no reason to spend precious hours with miserable SOB's who do nothing but dredge up ancient history and play little petty games like calling your husband by the wrong name. Why go through it? Start your own more positive holiday tradition--volunteering, traveling, spending it alone or with close friends...whatever floats your boat. The point is, you do not owe those people anything and you do owe it to yourself to protect yourself from soul crushing creeps who suck you dry and give you nothing in return.
posted by 45moore45 at 10:48 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have a little something I called Ativan, which I find works wonderfully for situations just like this.
posted by kbanas at 10:56 AM on November 21, 2007 [5 favorites]

Why do you go? Why do you put up with being treated this way? What's good about it? Do you go just because they're your family and you feel like you have to? As the others have said, don't go. Holidays are for joyful celebration with people you love, who love you back. This may or may not include family; in your case, it doesn't sound like there's much joy involved. Visit your hubby's family instead or start your own traditions with good friends who don't have family nearby.

Your description of how your family treats you made me really sad. Please just don't go.
posted by Kangaroo at 10:57 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

It sounds like the time is ripe to create a fun tradition of your own that doesn't involve soul-draining misery. If you do go, make sure you have a "safety valve" like a friend on hand you can call and vent to, or plans to leave afterwards and go see a movie, etc.

I wish you much luck -- unfortunately I totally sympathize. The truth is that the more power you give these people, the more they will lord it over you. Tread lightly, and take care of yourself.
posted by mynameisluka at 10:58 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

One reoccurring example of my family's behavior is: they will tell me and my husband to come over at a certain time. We arrive on time, and find that everyone is almost done eating, or the birthday candles have been blown out or everyone is in the midst of opening their Christmas presents.

Seriously? That is BULLSHIT, and goes way beyond the acceptable range of holiday family dysfunction. Walk away, and don't look back. You're a grown-ass adult, and there's no reason to tolerate this kind of crap. If your family has the stones to ask why you didn't show, tell them exactly why.

As for the kids, invite them to your house and let them experience normal, functional adults for a change.
posted by timetoevolve at 10:59 AM on November 21, 2007 [13 favorites]

I agree with not going, there is no reason for you to subject yourself to such misery, and you don't need to make any elaborate excuses: "We just don't feel like it this year, but thank you so much for the invite".

But... You love the children and I imagine you are one of their favourites, so if the family is all local why not throw a special "nieces & nephews only" party for them? My guess is that they would really appreciate a holiday get together that's free of the crazy adults. It's not like they don't know and feel the negative family dynamics, no matter how young some of them might be.
posted by zarah at 11:00 AM on November 21, 2007

I have a family member who is particularly cantankerous. I tend to ignore this person as much as I possibly can. I'll engage them in polite conversation if they initiate. But once I think they've crossed the line, I stop talking completely.

And when, inevitably, this person asks why I've stopped responding, I let them know that I don't feel the need to speak with them further.

Know where your buttons are and don't let them get pushed, if you can help it. And if they want to continue acting like an antagonist toward you, let them act like an idiot with your silence as their backdrop.
posted by thewalrusispaul at 11:00 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Drink. Drink. Drink. Smoke pot. Drink.
posted by notmydesk at 11:02 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

I finally got sick of the petty games my father's wife used to play (letting me set up a visit and then telling me not to come at the last minute, telling us we had to wait for an invitation that never came, not letting my father know that I had called, visiting her alcoholic wife-beating son who lived a couple of miles from us but never letting us know they were in town, cutting out his natural grandchildren in favor of his stepgrandchildren at family events in a mean and pointed way, telling me my father couldn't handle my children coming over because he was "too old"-65- when in fact he was soloing with his catastrophically ill step granddaughter, and on and on). I finally just stopped calling, and they never initiated a call themselves; haven't seen my father in 15 years, haven't spoken to him in 12; just a handful of emails now and then.

This situation hurts me daily; I will never get over it, or forgive my father's wife for more or less forcing the issue. It was a gut-wrenching decision to make, but I just couldn't face the kind of emotional trauma the contact was putting me through.

So don't go. Maybe they'll wake up and change if you put it to this test (didn't happen for me--my father just let his wife get away with this, and has never once picked up the phone to call me in 15 years. But he loses, because he's never met his wonderful grandchildren. And at least I'm not getting ulcers over it anymore.) Find another way to connect with the neices and nephews.

And thanks for the therapy session, AskMe. Don't usually talk about this.
posted by nax at 11:06 AM on November 21, 2007 [4 favorites]

No, you should probably still make an appearance. Say you can only stay / can’t stay for dinner. Your nieces and nephews will appreciate seeing you on during Thanksgiving. Take it a half hour at a time, and mention when you will be arriving.
posted by thetenthstory at 11:07 AM on November 21, 2007

I have a short and long term strategies.

My short term strategy is to clean the kitchen, where people are happy to leave me alone and I am happy to be alone: "Its OK, I got it. Go watch the game!"

My long term strategy is to try and focus on where I can be useful, where can I help the holiday to go better and help my family have a good time.

But you have every right to call your mom on her shit. Dont expect her to change, but just point it out to her.
posted by shothotbot at 11:10 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Holidays are not necessarily for spending time with family but with loved ones. I understand that you want to see your nieces and nephews. However, the rest of your family isn’t showing much love for you.

If you do continue to go, I would sit down with your parents and ask them if they really want you around when the family gets together. Tell them how you feel. Let them know what behaviors hurt you. Ask them if anything you are doing now elicits this treatment. If it continues, seriously think about starting your own traditions.
posted by studentbaker at 11:10 AM on November 21, 2007

If they're inviting you at the wrong time, they don't want you there. Don't go.

However, if you really feel the need to go, play it super straight-sincere. The only way to battle passive aggresion is to take them at their word.

If Mom pulls the "Derwood" thing from Bewitched, look sad, not mad, and pull your mom aside and ask her, seriously, if she has had a doctor's appointment recently. "I don't want to embarass you, but you actually just called Jim Richard. At your age, I understand that it's the time to watch out for your memory."

If you do it in front of everyone, you're being an ass. If you do it like that, you'll throw her for a complete loop, either rendering her silent or forcing her to state whatever bs she's trying to imply.

If they're eating when you get there, turn to Aunt Suzie and apologize. Say that you wrote it down as 3pm and ask what time was it supposed to be. Sincerity makes passive aggressive stuff just embarassing.

Just take them at their word so they have to change tactics. Feel sorry for them, because truly, what they're doing is pathetic. And do whatever it takes to just let it slide. If they haven't been able to change over the years, a little more sarcasm isn't going to fix it.

I'd suggest compassion exercises like Pema Chondron recommends in When Things Fall Apart if you're not adverse to Buddhism without the religion stuff. It really worked for me.

My folks just smoked a whole lot of pot before we rolled into Grandma's for years. I wouldn't recommend it, but it did allow them to just let shit slide and ignore everything.
posted by Gucky at 11:11 AM on November 21, 2007 [21 favorites]

Yeah, I would agree on opting out for the actual day, and starting a new tradition of your own instead. As others have said, invite a friend or two if the troublesome adults are coming, definitely invite the kids, and find something prior to the December holidays that you can do together, like lighting ceremonies. Take all the kids to see Santa (if that's age-appropriate). Maybe take just the kids present shopping for their parents or help them make a gift for their parents. (Ask them to bring their allowances and chip in if you want to, if shopping. It doesn't have to be anything special, but it's a fun thing for kids to do.) Stay at home and be relaxed and comfortable on the actual holiday itself, and have a nice meal with your husband. Stay home for Thanksgiving too, and revel in the turkey glow (or something else delicious) that you get to share with your husband and no one else.

For birthdays, invite that person and their immediate family over to your house or out. There's probably a much lower chance of drama if the whole family is not included, and at the very least, you would know the real time the event is starting.

Happy Thanksgiving - I hope you really enjoy it.
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 11:19 AM on November 21, 2007

Your family's behavior sounds as if it steers clear of 'normal family disfunction' and careens right into 'crazy asshole jerk' territory. Why would they feel the need to demean your husband? Why would they not invite you to things, or invite you knowing you'd only show up at the end? Either there's something you're not letting on here or your family are a particularly ugsome and mean-spirited group of people.

Which is why it's such a happy conincidence that you have a new family (your husband, any kids you'll eventually have, starry-eyed strangers who might casually treat you better than your own family; whoever you want, basically). Stick with your old man and begin building your life together, sans the Grinch-out you face at home.

It's angering to hear people describe family lives like this. Somewhat comforting too, sadly.
posted by Pecinpah at 11:21 AM on November 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

I like to pretend that I am in a hilarious sitcom, and that I am the straight man and all of my family members are the quirky neighbors. Each has their own annoying habits, and I just think of them as their "catchphrases." Oh, there goes my mom's cousin again, talking about how poor people don't deserve healthcare...[insert laugh track]

Most family gatherings are more pleasant when you think that you are being filmed and that some nice people back home in their living rooms are cracking up thinking about your situation. Also, remember that it only has to be an hour-long show. Or even a half-hour. Then you can say "cut" and walk off screen and out of the house.

My sister and I compare the best lines and moments from the day. If you have someone in your family who can act as your confidante, maybe a post-holiday bitchfest would make the actual day more bearable.
posted by rmless at 11:25 AM on November 21, 2007 [7 favorites]

ugh, don't go. spend the day with your husband's family and invite the kids for a holiday-related outing another day instead.
posted by thinkingwoman at 11:33 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Either don't go, or if you do go, tell your mom ahead of time that if she pulls any bullshit you're leaving. Why do you maintain a relationship with them in the first place? Do your siblings think your parents suck, too, or are their kids the only other good ones in the family? If they're local, try to make another way to see them that doesn't involve your mother.

This Thanksgiving I'm thankful for a family full of alcoholics that only talk shit about each other behind their backs instead of to their faces. I'm sorry your family members have to be so crappy to you.
posted by fructose at 11:44 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Take a video camera. Whenever anybody does or says something especially stupid, ask them to repeat it "for posterity".
posted by signal at 11:49 AM on November 21, 2007

Yikes. Don't go, please, for the sake of your physical and mental health.
posted by LN at 11:56 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Have you thought about having your own dinner in your own home? You could invite your friends and family and be in complete control of the environment. I'd do it not as a "replacement" for your family's traditional dinner, but as something on the side, perhaps a day or two before or after the regular dinner. And I wouldn't attend the regular dinner.

This way you could still maintain contact with your family (and maybe insure some better behavior from them) while also maintaining control of the environment. If someone acts out of line you can pull them aside and say, "Look, in my house, we don't put people down... please respect our home."

Good luck!
posted by wfrgms at 12:14 PM on November 21, 2007

You have a new family with your husband. Enjoy the day, just the two of you. And keep up with your own therapy. Family dysfunction takes years to work through. Good luck. My craziness is not your craziness, but it's craziness just the same.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 12:31 PM on November 21, 2007

They obviously know how to upset you. You have a few options:
1) put up with it like you have been
2) don't go. IF they ask where were you, just very coolly say you don't feel welcome by past year's behaviors and you've decided to pass on their holiday for the sake of your own family's holiday (even if it's just you and the husband). Next year, try to do a less-stress holiday with family and maybe even the younger relatives you enjoy, even if it's after Thanksgiving day.
3) go, but play with their little brains. Previous posters have given you ideas on that. You could humiliate them to tears, if you tried.

Whatever you do, please don't go just because they're family. You'll never be able to change them, so don't go believing anything you do (even not going) will make them behave. You can only play along to get along OR move on. After years of bad behavior (and much worse) from my family, I've cutoff contact with them. It's the most "sane" I've felt since I can remember and I'll never go back! Some Thanksgivings have just been me and the kid, others with friends, others with ex-family (divorced), who knows where we'll end up next year.
posted by ick at 12:47 PM on November 21, 2007

Show up late and play with the kids.
posted by MiffyCLB at 1:36 PM on November 21, 2007

Show up late and play with the kids.

It's sort of passive aggressive itself, and sort of self protective too as you forgo the whole important dinner ritual that they seem to taunt you with. I can't decide how I feel about this advice. My head says no, but I can see the advantage. I guess it just has too much potential to make things even worse to make it something I would do in a similar situation. I think your best bet is to steel yourself to some crappy abuse which you will ignore so that you can interact with the relatives you care about and you will take steps like staying sober and not working yourself up prior to the event to reduce your part in building tension. Taking a tranquilizer, as at least one person has already suggested, is a reasonable idea, but these are dangerous things so tread lightly there. (They are highly addictive, and if you are from the part of the family with alcohol issues etc. then be even more cautious, if not then it is probably already too late to get some, but that would ease your tension an awful lot.)
posted by caddis at 2:17 PM on November 21, 2007

I take half a narcotic pain reliever. Not enough to feel great, just to take the edge off. it is probably more of a placebo effect.
posted by TheLibrarian at 2:29 PM on November 21, 2007

kidnap your nephews and nieces. go have fun away from those loons.
posted by TheLibrarian at 2:33 PM on November 21, 2007

I suggest substance abuse, as have several folks already.
posted by Netzapper at 2:45 PM on November 21, 2007

my family holidays historically have been painful affairs as well. one year my father wore headphones throughout the entire meal and listened to the game. he did that to avoid the sniping and fighting that characterized pretty much every dinner.

since my family doesn't eat together other than on 'special' occasions, holidays seemed to be considered a great time to catch up on all that fighting that couldn't be done the rest of the year. fighting gets congealed/compressed into one SuperFight explosion.

my family doesn't drink, so i wasn't even able to delve into the joys of intoxication. (i've always been driving home alone after the meal... typically immediately after the meal ;)

i really liked the suggestion to sincerely inquire what time the meal was supposed to begin, why your mom calls your
husband by your ex-boyfriend's name, etc. it sounds like your coping strategy so far has been to let them get away with doing these things to you for the sake of not creating a scene. but i think it's worth confronting them... it doesn't make the kids feel better to hear someone being cruel to you and you just sitting there and taking it.
posted by groovinkim at 3:14 PM on November 21, 2007

Champagne takes the pain out of most situations. Mix it with orange juice or cranberry juice and you have something almost healthy.

Barring that approach. Don't go. Volunteer at a shelter, etc, --then the day after Thanksgiving - Friday -- have Thankful Day Dinner and invite only those people that you are actually thankful to have at your table. It puts a totally different spin on the occasion. I recommend it highly.
posted by peace_love_hope at 5:23 PM on November 21, 2007

My wife and I pretend to work. We both have jobs where it's conceivable that one of us would have to work on holidays. It helps that we live far from all our relatives.

"Sorry Ma, I got stuck working again... No, I tried to get out of it. You guys are welcome to come here...I see, yeah I understand how much Dad hates travel...Maybe next year."

And then my wife and I cook a huge meal, get totally drunk off great wine, and think about how thankful we are to have a relaxing day off.

Yes, of course I'm a horrible person. Your point?
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 6:54 PM on November 21, 2007

I'm going to go against the grain and suggest you show up unannounced and early, much earlier than the announced dinner seating, just to pay your familial respects on the way to somewhere else, even if somewhere is just back to your house.

Wear something stunning, and get your hair done beforehand, so they think you have somewhere much better to be. Bring and leave them an amazing dessert, catch up with the kids for ten minutes, tell the whole nasty lot of them that you love them and get out before they know what hit them.

It's familial theater, and you can be the star. Break a leg!
posted by Scram at 6:59 PM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

the first answer nailed it..

don't go
posted by HuronBob at 7:18 PM on November 21, 2007

I come from an eerily similar family. And you know what? My holidays have improved tremendously since I decided to stop buying into their passive-aggressive bullshit and create traditions of my own.

Now I get to celebrate the fact that - family or not - I'm not obligated to spend time with people who try to make me feel like shit.

I realize that with families this dysfunctional, it's not as easy as 'just don't go over there.' It's a process of drawing healthy boundaries, which takes time. What helped me let go of the residual guilt of severing ties was the knowledge that their behavior was deliberately hurtful and unchanging. And I deserve better... we all do.

Host your nieces and nephew and help them create some happy memories, away from the drama. Whatever you choose to do, good luck.

Looking forward to Fakesgiving and Solstice.
posted by Space Kitty at 7:56 PM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Do what gucky said and let us know how it goes.

Seriously - don't go. These people are poison and you're killing yourself bit by bit every time you put up with their shit. Blood relatives or not, they are not worth your time or energy.
posted by deborah at 10:51 PM on November 21, 2007

My holidays have improved tremendously since I decided to stop buying into their passive-aggressive bullshit and create traditions of my own.

Amen, sister. My family situation is not as toxic but extended family-type holidays are full of cues that I am not wanted. So, I don't go. My father used to give me grief about it but now accepts it.

In fact, I called him today to wish him a happy Thanksgiving. He asked what I was doing with mine. I told him we were having an Orphans' Thanksgiving. He asked me what that meant.

I have told him about such events many times before. I have been hosting some variant of them ever since college. So I explained it, again. He began scoffing and asked, "Why would someone go to something like that?".

"It's for people with no family or who can't travel to theirs, so that they won't be alone that day..." I began, while he continued to laugh, "...or people whose families are so damn annoying they don't want to deal with them during Thanksgiving."

He laughed some more, then told me he had to go because Uncle What'shisface (who knew he was on the phone with me) had turned up the TV while we were talking.

So yeah, your own traditions, and time with your nephew and nieces that don't involve holidays when the whole gang is there to eat your soul. Or, if you must go, do what Gucky says, because it's absolutely brilliant.

Happy Thank God I'm Grown Day, everybody!
posted by melissa may at 10:55 PM on November 21, 2007

When you silently endure people treating you like crap, you are sending the message to your kids that it is okay to let people treat you like crap. This DOES affect kids, and they do or will notice it. So don't go. If anyone asks why, give an appropriately truthful response.
posted by !Jim at 11:23 PM on November 21, 2007

After every comment from a family member take a long deep breath, say to yourself: I'm here to see the kids, then exhale slowly. Count to 10. This stops you from responding and feeding the monster. Their behavior is sad and mean, have yours be above that.
posted by dog food sugar at 5:09 AM on November 22, 2007

What Gucky said. Your family's attitude is pathetic. Don't let it get under your skin, don't get sucked into caring about their games, and make a game out of how gosh-darned-sincere you can be. Roll with whatever they try to dish out and turn it around. If the family is just finishing dinner, well, you were just there to play with the kids anyway. Pollyanna your way through the day.

Later that night you should drink heavily if desired and indulge in some sort of hedonistic behavior just to balance out your mental health, of course.
posted by desuetude at 1:01 PM on November 23, 2007

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