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When Can I Finally Make My Own Family Plans and Ditch the Guilt Trip?

In the first installment of Ask Me Instead, we look at why we're always doomed to bad Christmas blockbusters.

by Gretchen Brown
October 22, 2020 | Love

This is Ask Me Instead, a column in which Gretchen Brown answers your questions about life as a young-ish human.

As a writer, she's asked a lot of smart people about important topics. But as a young-ish human, she's made her own mistakes navigating early adulthood. She'll tell you what she thinks without any judgment but also without any guarantee of success!

colorful thought bubbles surround the column name, Ask Me Instead.

Dear Ask Me Instead,

Here goes: both my parents and those of my partner, Leslie, are divorced. Making plans for the holidays is challenging because everyone lives in different parts of the U.S. And it's just not realistic we can see more than one of them for any given holiday. 

We don't have the income to be the ones traveling all the time. When we try to coordinate with our siblings about who will be where, far in advance, it often feels like a race to decide first. Whichever sibling and respective partner (on either side) are last to make plans, are the ones expected to travel to the "leftover" parent. 

In fact, all our siblings are married and this is often a reason they use to not travel, but I feel our marital status should not determine whether we are responsible for being with our parents more or less so than the rest. 

One additional sticking point is that every time we see Leslie's father (for holidays or not), their mother expects we also make plans to see her, a real tit-for-tat situation. 

I would like to travel abroad or just stay home for holidays. So the big question is, how do we kindly communicate that we feel we should be able to decide for ourselves where we spend holidays without retribution and guilt tripping? Please help, this has been tricky! 


Seeking independence love and simplicity (SILAS)


Guilt does not make people feel good to be together. Guilt feels like it accomplishes something, but guilt is a sham. Guilt is a rift disguised as a choice. 

Family politics are always complicated, even more so when your family lives all over the place and there's already one rift, or two or maybe three. This is the reason we will always be doomed to bad Christmas blockbusters about divorced families starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn.

I'll start out with something that might seem obvious but it's easy to forget here: your family, and your partner's family, mean the best. They miss you and they want to see you. It can be hard to be without family for the holidays if you miss them dearly and generally don't see them very much. Isolation is no fun, and being with family means more the older you get.

The guilt has to come from somewhere, right?

That doesn't mean the dynamic that's going on is at all right. It's really not. It feels like an obligation, something the holidays sometimes turn out to be but is against the very idea of the thing.

You have a really easy out this year, if you wanna use it, and that's the pandemic. Many states are seeing a fall surge in Coronavirus cases, and deaths are on the rise across the U.S. The Coronavirus is no less dangerous now than it was this spring. 

family gathering for a holiday. REWIRE PBS Love guilt
Guilt might bring people physically together, but it's not emotionally productive.  |  Credit: samuii // Adobe

Whether you're concerned about it or not, the pandemic is a valid excuse to sit out the holidays this year and spend it on your own terms. It can be a test run for how things might be if you spent holidays like this more often.

It's a quick fix, but you're still going to have to eventually start a broader conversation with your parents and siblings and your partner's parents and siblings about what the holidays look like in the future.

American culture has some very messed up, very archaic ideas about what it means to be an adult, and tied up in there is the belief that you're not really, truly autonomous until you're "married off." 

Your family might not say that out loud, but it's in the margins of many of our choices. Your siblings feel like an independent unit because marriage is still a status symbol. Not a status symbol like a nice car might be, but a status symbol like "has it all together and can decide for themselves how they should spend their time."

Of course, you know that you are independent and that has nothing to do with the legal status of your relationship. It's important that you talk to your family about this. They might not even realize they're seeing you differently than you view yourself.

When I've interviewed therapists in the past about tough conversations, they've always told me it's important to ease into it. Go into this the wrong way and your family will instantly put up a wall.

Coming in compassionately — while still getting your point across — is the way to do it. You might still need to have this discussion several times to get through to them. Maybe start with, "I know we don't see eye to eye on this, but can you listen to what I have to say for a few minutes?"

And then, lay out the situation like you told it to me. Be honest about the fact that you can't be everywhere at once, and that the travel makes things more stressful than you'd like. Don't go into attack mode and blame them for creating the situation even though, yeah, they definitely created it.

You also shouldn't have to struggle financially just to see your folks. It's hard to talk about money with people you love, but you can't leave this point out. Reiterate that you love them but frequent travel isn't in your budget right now. 

Maybe folks can travel to you for once if they'd like to celebrate together, or you find more creative ways to get together virtually — sending packages to open up over Facetime, or playing fun games virtually. 

While you are allowed to sit things out completely, if you want to, you may also feel like making a compromise. This should also be a discussion that includes your siblings. 

Maybe you make a plan to rotate who visits whom on each holiday so there's never any fighting over who goes where. Maybe you plan to celebrate Thanksgiving in September instead because it works better for your schedule, and you could use a little vacation then, instead of rushing to several different places on the day-of with no time to breathe.

I can't give you an easy solution because as complicated as these things are, they don't end up wrapped up with a nice bow like the end of a Hallmark movie.

There might be some grumbling or hesitation from family members about changing the way things have always been. Working on relationships is always messy.

As we get older, the holidays become less about tinsel and presents and more about complex problem-solving to get a bunch of people together who live on opposite ends of the earth and have their own independent adult lives and probably don't agree all the time.

But the payoff for feeling like you have an active voice in family discussions — for making the holidays a choice instead of an obligation — is a billion times better than keeping on keeping on with the way things currently are.

Have a life dilemma?

Email Ask Me Instead at [email protected] or send us a note using this form. All submissions are anonymous.

For more good advice, visit the Ask Me Instead collection.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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