No one hurts us like family can

Four lynxes
“Everyone smile for the camera!”
One of my least favorite holiday traditions is the annual sharing of familial outrages. Similar to (or counterpoint of) the Festivus airing of grievences, it is the way we attempt to regain our sanity after the stress of holidays with difficult relatives.

Goodness knows I’ve vented about crazy family members many, many times.

I think we’ve all been there, at least once. For some the ordeal happens at every visit home and every holiday. Others only experience it occasionally. Venting about it afterward can be a valuable means of relieving stress. Better to share some stories with sympathetic friends than to strangle your racist uncle, homophobic brother-in-law, or Bible-thumping sibling, at Grandma’s dinner table, right?

When it’s an occasional thing, or when the level of strife is merely at the annoyance level, enduring the holidays and venting with friends afterward is an acceptable solution. But what about situations where the argumentative and dismissive behavior is persistent? When you’ve asked if the topics of perpetual disagreement can be avoided, but some people insist on bringing it up anyway?

There are options. And no matter how complicated your situation seems, they are simpler than you think.

Dan Savage, advice columnist and gay rights advocate, is frequently asked about situations with homophobic or otherwise non-accepting relatives, and his advice doesn’t just apply to gay people:

The only leverage adult LGBT children have over our parents, siblings, and other family members is our presence in their lives. If they don’t respect you, if they don’t accept you, if they don’t support your equality, do not see them. Too many LGBT people worry about being rejected by their families when it should be—it must be—the other way around: our families should be worried about being rejected by us.

I repeat: this advice doesn’t just apply to gay people. The only leverage any adults have over our parents, siblings, and other family members is our presence in their lives. If your relatives are all religious fundamentalists and you’re not, and if:

  • they are frequently trying to cajole or coerce you into coming back to the fold,
  • they routinely shout you down when you express a difference of opinion,
  • they always make you feel guilty or unwelcome,
  • they make you feel afraid to state an opinion because there will be more shouting,
  • and/or they make you dread seeing them every time,

They are abusive, cruel jerks who don’t respect you, don’t support you, and don’t accept you for who you are. The same goes for family members who don’t do all of those things, but tell you that you must take it from others with a smile on your face, because they are only doing any of that because they love you and are worried about the fate of your immortal soul.

That last bit is what makes this so difficult. They do this, they think, because they love you. They’re mistaken. The reality is that they don’t love the real you, they love an imaginary version of you who shares their beliefs. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t capable of loving the real you, or don’t want to love the real you. They’re just in a bit of denial about who you are.

I think that it’s a little bit easier for us queer folks to grasp that bit. Queer people are used to thinking of sexual orientation as being part of a person’s identity. But whether you’re an atheist with fundamentalist relatives, or a liberal science geek with creationist relatives, or a middle-of-the-road meat-eater with ultra-liberal vegan parents, if they’re being dismissive of your beliefs to the point of making you dread family gatherings, then they’re refusing to accept you for who you are.

Unfortunately, sometimes one of the reasons we put up with their behavior is because we’re in a bit of denial, ourselves. We can become focused on our own imaginary version of them: the version that believes the same way we do, or at the very least will accept that it’s all right for our beliefs to differ. Expecting that version of them to pop into existence if we simply debate them enough, or get them to read the right book, or what-have-you is as unrealistic as their plan to keep guilting you or browbeating you until you turn into someone who thinks like them.

Which isn’t to say that things are hopeless and you should keep taking it. The solution lies in the only leverage you have: your presence in their lives. If they’re going to keep treating you that way, you need to get away from them. And I don’t mean temporarily.

The goal is first to protect yourself, and second to set boundaries. So you can’t just run off without a word. Setting boundaries means setting reasonable boundaries. So you can’t tell them that they have to convert to your viewpoint if they ever want to see you again. Depending on exactly what the issues are, you’re going to have to say something like, “The last several times we’ve had big family get-togethers, my stress level has been almost unbearable. I leave feeling judged and rejected. It’s too much for me to deal with, so I’m going to stay away this year.”

If the arguments have been two-way, you might want to phrase it more along the lines of, “When we argue about fill-in-the-blank, I feel judged and rejected, and I find myself saying things that probably make you feel the same way. I don’t enjoy hurting you any more than I like being hurt. So I’m going to stay away until everyone can agree that we’re not going to discuss those topics.”

Since this discussion can be just as difficult as the holiday arguments, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Don’t start this discussion at the big holiday get-together. Everyone is stressed, even the ones who don’t appear to be, and no one can react to these sorts of conversations rationally in the midst of that stress.
  2. Don’t fall into the trap of making long lists of your grievances. Keep it simple and high-level. Getting lost in the weeds of the past arguments obscures from the real problem: they don’t respect your right to have your own viewpoint on that subject.
  3. Don’t get drawn back into the argument. Particularly if it’s a religious disagreement, they’re going to feel even more compelled to change your mind, in order to save you. When that starts, you have to shut it down. If that means hanging up the phone, hang up. If it means getting up and walking out the door, stand up and walk out.
  4. Once you set your boundary, you have to stick with it. If you say that you won’t visit them, don’t visit them. If you say you don’t want to discuss this again, refer back to number 3 and do not let them draw you back into the argument.

I’m not going to lie and say that this is a simple solution. I had to boycott any and all family get-togethers for six years before my mom and grandparents took it seriously. And it wasn’t terribly fun hearing from various corners of the family how selfish I was being, or how much I was hurting so-and-so. But you have to recognize those statements for what they are: they are tantrums. And just as when you give in to a child’s tantrum, you are simply teaching the child to throw tantrums to get what they want, if you let the guilt trips and pleading lure you into the old situation, that tells them you didn’t really mean it, and they have permission to start abusing you, again.

Some people never come around. It hurts when it’s a family member that we loved or admired when we were younger. But if they can’t accept that you have the right to your own beliefs, then you’re better off with them out of your life.

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