Here is November’s installment of “Ask Shelby” with Chester County’s own Marriage and Family Therapist, Shelby Riley:
I feel awful saying this, but I really don’t want to see my brother at the holidays. He hosts us every Christmas and I always dread it. He is mean, sarcastic, and drinks too much. He is harsh with me and my kids, and I feel like I do all the work–trying to make conversation, keeping tabs on the kids, cooking side dishes. His wife doesn’t seem bothered by his behavior, which makes me feel all the more crazy. I want my kids to know their cousins and I want to have the “family holiday” experience, but I don’t know if I should go to my brother’s anymore. I love him, but I certainly don’t like him. Help!
Signed, Fearing Family for the Holidays
I work with a lot of people who have difficult family members. Most people imagine everyone else is having a Norman Rockwell holiday, but a lot of people are in the same position as you. It is actually really common to feel some anxiety around the holidays and to dread falling into the same old dysfuncitonal family patterns year after year.
As for your time with your brother’s family, you have some important decisions to make. I can tell you feel pulled. On the one hand, you love him and his family and want to build good relationships with them. On the other hand, it sounds like you don’t feel emotionally safe when you are around him. I wonder if there is a way to spend some time with him and his family and protect yourself from his abusive behavior.
I often use the image of a bedroom door that is cracked at night–you want it mostly closed, but cracked enough to let a little light in. This door is going to be your protection from your brother’s inappropriate behavior. If you can go and accept that he will be harsh, let the metaphorical door deflect his comments so they cannot get in to your soft spots. If you are prepared for his comments and don’t expect him to be nice, you will not be shocked/surprised/disappointed when the nasty comments come. Often my clients realize that a large part of their pain during these interactions come from letting themselves hope and expect that it will be different. It usually never is. The crack in the door is there to let any positive interactions in, and to let your love out.
Next, you need to consider other boundaries. Decide to work hard enough to feel like you made a good effort to be good company, but don’t work so hard that it exhausts you. If no one else is willing to work at making conversation, don’t feel like you have to carry 100% of the load. Carry your appropriate share, and past that, let them sit around silently while you go check on the kids or stir the soup. Take breaks, step out on the back deck and get some fresh air, let yourself tune out if someone is telling a long winded, self-absorbed story. Also, decide how long you can tolerate being there. Often clients will tell me they can be on their game and tolerate difficult family members for an hour or two, but not a whole day. Plan to visit on your terms, recognizing the time limit you will need to stay sane. It’s easy to overfunction and stay longer out of obligation or guilt. Respect your needs and stick to your plan.
If you think a visit under these circumstances sounds feasible, I say give it a try this year and see how it feels. If you think it will feel abusive under any circumstances, then it may be time to spend some time apart from your brother at the holidays. You can always see if you can have his kids over for a sleep over or a day trip to create some “cousin time” under healthier circumstances.
What I want for you is to feel like you are making the decision from a place of abundance and strength, not fear or guilt. Deciding to go from a place of abundance sounds like, “I love them and want to spend some time with them and I can put some things into place that allow me to feel safe.” Fear and guilt sounds like, “I really don’t want to, it feels awful to go, but what will everyone say if I don’t? I’ll ruin Christmas. They’ll all be so mad.” And remember, it is okay to not go. You have permission to not participate in relationships that are unhealthy.
Your top priority is the safety of you and your family, physical as well as emotional. I know it’s a difficult position to be in, and I hope you are able to make a decision that feels respectful to how you want to live your life.