Choosing Whether or Not to Spend Holidays with Abusive Family Members

How to support your spouse/partner if they are struggling with a lack of family contact around the holidays:

Yes, I realize the title sounds a bit ridiculous. Some would react after reading it, thinking, “Well of course you wouldn’t spend the holidays with abusive family! Who would?”

Unfortunately this is not as easily answered, as it appears. The commercials would have you believe that holidays are nothing but joy, laughter and expressions of surprise and delight as you open that perfect gift. On the other hand, the familial reality for some, is not the carefully orchestrated picture in the consumer-targeted commercials. Spending time with extended family, whether it is your own or your in-laws, can be arduous and rife with emotional turmoil. However, there are some unique challenges to navigate when you or your spouse is grappling with whether or not to spend time with relatives who have a long history of being abusive.

There are studies that firmly conclude that we are biologically programmed to yearn and seek out familial connection and contact. And there are also numerous statistics clearly illustrating that many people do not grow up in idyllic family situations. As a child, there was no option but to endure the abusive environment and tolerate the onslaught, but now, as an adult how do you handle this, how do you go against your own biological wiring?

The obligatory familial contact

Familial contact, particularly around the holidays can be described for some as, obligatory, there may be a sense of guilt and/or pressure to interact with family. There may be great importance placed on maintaining the facade, likely decades or even generations in the making, that all is well within the family unit. When the cameras come out, the pressure is on again, to pose and partake, play your role in the happy family portrait. But if you or your spouse is spending holidays with family where there is a history of abuse, how do you cope?

Establish clear boundaries

Before attending a family gathering, have a clear vision about what you will and will not tolerate. You also need to consider what you will do if your boundaries are breached. Will you verbally advised that a line has been crossed? Will you leave the location? Will you accept the breach for what it is, stay silent, keep the peace, and vent with a trusted confidante later?

Ask your spouse or partner to have your back

Discuss this with your spouse ahead of time and ask them to support you. It can also be helpful to talk about your “support expectations” with your spouse. Do you want them to verbally engage with your relative(s) if they are crossing your boundaries or do you want your partner to just be by your side, supporting you silently with their presence. Check in with your spouse and make sure they are comfortable with the role you would like them to play. If your partner is not comfortable, try to negotiate something that works for both of you.

Bring distractions

It may be pictures from a recent trip or a board game, bring items that you can use as a diversion. If conversations/behaviour start moving in a direction that you find offensive or difficult, and you are not comfortable addressing this, pull out your “distractions” as a way to redirect the topic of conversation, while preserving the peace.

Set a time limit

Plan ahead how long you intend to stay at a family gathering. If you know things tend to go downhill after dinner, make a quick exit after helping to clear dinner dishes. Make other plans. For example, arrange to work a shift serving a meal at a local homeless shelter. This serves a number of purposes; you have a valid excuse to leave and you are contributing to your community, which in turn can boost your self-esteem.

For some people, the level of toxicity and dysfunction in their family has escalated to the point that they no longer have any contact. Typically this decision is not made lightly and becomes a last resort, when all other attempts to functionally interact have failed. While the severed relationship does prevent the person from being exposed to further abuse, the familial disconnect comes with it’s own set of ramifications.

Many people feel guilt about not spending time, especially holidays with relatives, even if there is a history of abuse. Our society inundates us with messages that herald clichés like, “family comes first!” These messages can leave people who have fractured families, feeling like they have failed or are inept in some way.  There can also be intense feelings of grief and loss, not just due to the absence of extended family, but grieving what will never be – a functional, loving extended family.

If you have made the decision to not be around abusive relatives, first and foremost, learn to be okay with your decision. Is it ideal? No, but in reality the decision you have made has been for you, for your peace of mind and well-being.

How to support your spouse/partner if they are struggling with a lack of family contact around the holidays:

How to support your spouse/partner if they are struggling with a lack of family contact around the holidays:

Establish your own traditions

Start creating the holiday experiences you always wanted, but never had. Observe and give yourself permission to enjoy the little things, like the lack of tension in your holiday gathering. Relish this, it is a reward for the sacrifice you have made.

Spend time with other people

These may be friends, co-workers, etc. Make sure the people you choose to be around during the holidays are positive and supportive. The last thing you or your partner need, is being judged by a friend for not spending the holidays with family, and then feeling like you have to rehash the abuse you suffered, in order to justify your decision.

Acknowledge your feelings

Have someone you can talk with about how you’re feeling, and the void you may be encountering. It is not ideal to try to cover these feelings with “stuff”.  Live the experience. Again, give yourself permission to feel, sadness, loss etc. when it strikes, feeling is an important part of learning to heal. Numbing your feelings and not dealing with them, leads to a blockage in the healing process. However, keep these feelings in perspective. Remind yourself of why you made the decision to forego family contact.

Recognize that you cannot change or control people

 You can only be responsible for your actions, you cannot dictate how other people think and behave.

Know that whatever decision you make, you are brave. It is not easy to attempt to maintain a relationship with people who choose abuse as a way of interacting. And on the other side, it is not easy to walk away from your extended family, even if it’s for your own well-being. A good mindset to adopt, is one that supports discovering the outcome that works best for you, striking a balance that makes you feel like you are going to be okay.

Stephanie has an experience of 15 years in counseling children and adults belonging to different age groups. She helps them with problems such as anxiety, depression, anger, grief, loss, parenting challenges and relationship issues. She has a Masters degree in Social Work from University of Calgary. She has also done additional training in counseling for helping adults and children with developmental disabilities.
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