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Auntie SparkNotes: A Toxic Christmas Conundrum

Dear Auntie SparkNotes,

Every year, my sister and I visit our family on my father’s side for Christmas and stay at our grandparents’ house. We’ve visited them for a week at Christmas our entire lives. Since they live over a thousand miles away, we have to spend a lot of money on plane tickets. This is a sacrifice since we’re both college students who struggle with finances. However, this isn’t the biggest issue.

My father is the worst person I know. He has been verbally and emotionally abusive to Sister and me all our lives, with the occasional dip into physical abuse. He is also a narcissist. When he is “lecturing” us, it usually is just a tirade of how we’re worthless, pathetic pieces of garbage who will never amount to anything.

He used to buy our plane tickets for us, but the last time he did, two years ago, we had to stay with him and our stepmother for the entirety of the trip. We only got to see our grandparents for a little over 24 hours because my dad lives two hours away from them and we had no independent transportation. Last year, Sister and I decided to buy our own tickets so we could spend time with our grandparents and not be under his thumb. He was so furious with us, and our grandparents for supporting us, he refused to come to Christmas at all.

The rest of the family isn’t great. My grandpa treats my grandmother horribly and makes us feel like we’re not wanted there. My grandmother has dementia and constantly criticizes my sister for being overweight. My uncles and cousins have zero interest in our lives. Last year, after three hours of being ignored, my sister wanted the two of us to walk back to our grandparents’ house early. My grandpa got very irritated with her and told her that that is how our family is and she was overreacting. We were both miserable there last year.

This year, my dad’s going to be there for Christmas. We’ll have to share a bathroom with him, and walk through his bedroom to use the shower. There is no doubt in my mind that he’ll be giving us a “lecture”; he has no boundaries or brakes, so asking him to stop or leaving the room won’t work, because he follows us and just gets angrier.

Despite knowing all this, my sister is absolutely insistent that we put ourselves in this situation, because it’s the only time we see our grandparents. She has an idealized version of how Christmas should be, and does not want to go visit them on a different holiday, since Christmas is very emotionally important to her.

My question is this: how do I convince my sister that our safety and happiness is more important than visiting our aging grandparents and the rest of our relatives for Christmas? I have tried before but she calls me selfish and refuses to listen. A hotel or Airbnb would cost too much and we don’t have transportation. I would never let her go by herself, especially with my dad there. Is there any good solution or alternative to this dilemma?

Let’s start by stating the obvious, Sparkler: the 2017 holiday season has already come and gone, which means that it’s a little too late for this advice to be immediately useful. On the plus side, however, it’ll give you a nice, long, eleven-month head start on next Christmas… which is probably about how long you’ll need to do the work of coming to terms with your family’s shortcomings and making plans accordingly.

And don’t get me wrong, you’re doing a good job so far. In fact, you’ve already cleared the first hurdle by realizing that your dad, grandparents, uncles, and cousins will always respond to your holiday visits by being exactly who they are: miserable, critical, fault-finding, abusive, or just generally uninterested in you as a person. Well, okay. Does that suck? Sure, it does! But if you accept that — if you simply take it as a given that any Christmas visit to your dad’s family will suck in this particular way—you still have room within that framework to make the best of things.

For instance: Just because your dad is doling out abuse, that doesn’t mean you have to take it. You can politely refuse to listen (“Nope! Not doing this!” you will say, cheerfully, as you grab your coat and head out for a walk). You can buy an air horn and blast it like you’re calling a basketball foul every time he insults you. You can interrupt every point he tries to make by babbling in gibberish at him like Yondu from Guardians of the Galaxy. You can even whip out your phone and start shooting video. Tell him this is your favorite Christmas tradition and you want to preserve it for posterity, so you can always remember him just this way. Tell him you’re going to get his comments embroidered on a decorative pillow. (Bonus points if you actually do it. Additional bonus points if you send him the pillow.) And when your grandmother insults your sister? You know she’s going to do it; why not cheerfully reply, “Wow, that was a horrible thing to say!” and escort your Sis out of the room? Or respond in kind, like you’re talking about the weather (“Cool, Grammy, you’re looking pretty flabby yourself!”) Or turn her meanness into a game: when she says something awful, take a sip of your favorite beverage and make a big show of jotting it down in a notebook with “101 Mean Old Lady Quotes” written on the front.

And of course, you can also give yourself a little distance—or at least an exit strategy—so that you’re not literally trapped for a week in a house where your family members are abusing you. Maybe a hotel room and rental car are out of reach, but Ubers, buses, and long walks are always available (in decreasing order of expense). Maybe this will be the year that you set aside a little cash at the beginning of each month in an Uber-and-movie fund, so that you and Sis can treat yourselves to an afternoon out if things get too unpleasant.

Or, maybe this will be the year that you decide you’re done making this annual cross-country pilgrimage to be abused or ignored by your family members—and done being guilt-tripped and manipulated by your sister, who clearly is taking a few moves out of the Dysfunctional Family Playbook herself. (She won’t tolerate the slightest alteration to your travel plans because it interferes with her impossible, delusional fantasy of having a perfect Hallmark holiday… and you’re the selfish one? Uh, okay.)

Because when you ask about good alternatives to the current, endless cycle of dread and disappointment, the answer is that you have limitless options. You are not obligated to get on a plane and spend a week with people who treat you badly, whether they’re family or not, whether it’s tradition or not. And even if you want to do that, you aren’t obligated to do it every Christmas if it’s inconvenient, or expensive, or too much to bear after a difficult year. You just have to accept first that you are allowed to be happy, to put your own needs first, and to decline to participate in a tradition that leaves you feeling drained, miserable, and unloved… and at least occasionally, to take the money you would’ve spent traveling to visit your abusive family and use it to buy yourself something that makes you happy—i.e. a pizza, a good book, and/or a cardboard cut-out of Chris Hemsworth—instead.
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