or many Americans, the holidays are accompanied by a warm anticipation of reuniting with missed loved ones. They’re a time to be spent in your childhood home with the feelings of a time gone by coming back to enchant you for just a few days or weeks, filled with home cooked meals, desserts enjoyed only once a year, and pumpkin-spiced air that magically transports you to the fantasy we call the holiday season. But the holidays are almost never the picture-perfect scenes that mark the Macy’s commercials and Dickens’ tales we indulge in every year, and narratives stuffed with cherished family and moments of loving gratitude can be especially painful to those struggling with estranged relatives or strained family relationships.

When it feels like two months of the year are devoted to a Norman Rockwell portrait of empty nests filling out again, facing the reality of a less than perfect relationship with a loved one can come in painful pangs that appear unexpectedly and continuously. Hearing about families coming together in peace and love becomes a slap in the face, a heartless lack of consideration for any condition that does not meet this perfect idyll of festivity.

For many queer and trans people, the holidays are one of immense erasure and relived trauma; they can be a time where disclosing the honest nature of their lives becomes dangerous, where their lives are not respected but instead ridiculed by close-minded and abusive family members. Simply accepting the holidays to be a rendering of familial bliss is flat-out deluded and denies the complexities of situations that fall outside the dominant (though not preponderant and certainly not exemplary) norms we’ve set and assumed for decades now.

The ache of the holidays can reach even what appear to be the most ideal familial situations when marking the first celebration with a lost family member, a gutting change bringing hurt in waves throughout what should be “the most wonderful time of the year.” Treating the season as one of pure joy and wonder fails to confess that pain is pulsing under the surface — memories of happier days always seem to materialize and twinges for the past (or a different present) realize in the inevitable moments that don’t live up to the rosier fairy-tales we want for ourselves.

Woman prepares table of food for holiday gathering
Getting ready for the holidays calls for a lot more than whirlwinds of cleaning and baking — it also requires emotional preparation to withstand familial issues that may arise when the time comes.

Coping With Difficult Family Gatherings

The times that bring us together also can pull us further apart through hurtful comments, terse acknowledgments, and tender memories arising as if on schedule.

There seem to be endless concerns bringing dread when it comes to the holidays. Whose house? Who’s bringing what? What’s the status of the fight between Grandpa and Mom? Anytime a gathering is scheduled and planned as religiously and meticulously as Thanksgiving or New Year’s a bounty of questions and conflicts arise. But when the conflicts feel especially personal, or, in other words, you become the relative discussed over hushed tones and interrogative phone calls, the joy that the holidays supposedly bring is drained and replaced with pure angst.

Family disputes are difficult no matter what time of year it is. A quarrel between you and a loved one will always bring a degree of pain that can only be lessened by a combination of time and heavy emotional labor on both of your parts. But when these strains climax or extend into the holiday season, the sensation of being backed into an uncomfortable corner becomes imminent. Repairing the damaged relationship will likely be impossible if time is not on your side, and you become stuck with a roulette of disagreeable options, almost all of which end up in either putting on a performance to save face or fracturing the togetherness of the day with an increasing fissure that ultimately creates a game of sides.

When strained relationships with family make their way into the holiday season, the best thing you can do is assess the situation to adequately prepare for the pains ahead. Firstly, consider what you want to gain out of seeing the person who you’ve had a falling out with. Do you want to take the first steps of a long journey towards reparation with a sincere apology? Or do you merely want to make it through the day without conflict, without any additional afflicts of emotional trauma? This of course is very much a situational choice to make, but when push comes to shove, deciding on what you want will set you up for how to move forward and emotionally plan for the inevitable confrontation.

Deciding how to go forward with a broken relationship is not easy and can emotionally drain you. Certainly, facing a question of letting go of a relationship or committing a foundation for labor of the heart to begin mending one is daunting. Be honest with yourself when moving forward and understand that retrospect and present conditions are necessary tools to get ahead. Looking at the past failures or triumphs of any relationship does not have to become a logic puzzle of blame or shame, but you should be willing to come to hurtful realizations about your or your loved one’s behavior and actions. Thinking about how they’ve hurt you or you’ve hurt them may be something you think about often, but if you know you’re going to have to confront them in person, you ought to prepare yourself by preventing any further emotional turmoil in the future.

While only you are accountable for your future behavior and actions, you must realize that your relatives are the same way — you cannot control or predict how they will act. Figuring this out prior to the meeting will register a plan of diffusion if things go awry: Are you willing to have things go sourly, to make decisions that will disseminate the negativity in order to let the day not be stained by your strained relationship? Even if this means preemptively accepting the possibility of premature departures, you have to prepare for things to go worse than planned.

When the day of the fated meeting arrives, do your best to stay calm and stick to the decided strategy to make it through the day. And although the relative in question will presumably take hold front and center in your mind, remind yourself to look forward to the loved ones you’re excited to see, the ones you feel safe with, have fun with. It’s easy to let the difficulties cloud and ruin perspective, but you’ll find a lot more gratitude in looking at the day holistically, weighing the good and bad of the situation rather than just focusing on the negatives. Be happy with the moments of pleasure, and don’t let any hardships weigh your holiday down anymore.

Woman looks out a window with her phone in front of her
No one should spend the holidays alone, and just because that may be the situation you’re faced with this year, you must understand that it’s not your fault and deserve better.

Facing Your First Holiday Without Family

Whether or not under your own volition, a holiday without family can be brutal and heart-wrenching — but you can make it through.

It may be after you’ve considered your outlook on the event that you decide to ultimately not spend the holidays with your family. It also may not be your choice to go through the season alone — the decision may have been made for you by whomever is hosting the big day. Whatever the case, a reality for many people across the country is a holiday season that should be full of togetherness and cheer in effect spent alone.

Most of us would find spending the holidays alone a less-than-ideal situation — even though most of us have a bit of dread surrounding the whole ordeal of festivities that come along with them, the holidays are ingrained as a touchstone of the American family and are important to be celebrated with others. It’s not easy to go into the time alone, with no one to create memories with. And the situation can make you feel lower and full of more shame than you would expect — but know that you don’t deserve to spend the holidays alone.

Finding out you have nowhere to go for the holidays is something no one should have to go through. The loneliness you experience would seem comparable to the feeling of having no table to sit at in the lunchroom, but this time it’s as if your family are the ones turning you away, left to be a vagrant looking for a place to belong. Facing this dilemma is unimaginably painful, but you will get through it. The feelings of shame surrounding whatever reason you’re facing this exile may heighten — the shame surrounding being shunned for who you are, not receiving love for who you are is a particularly hard one to shake, but realize that if you’re disinvited (or don’t attend the event for your own safety) for a reason attributed to a part of who you are, the problem lay with others.

Try to find solace in friends or chosen family who may be able to spend time with you over the course of the season, in the hobbies and interests that bring you joy to fill a small part of the gap that may exist from this situation. It’s not ideal, and you deserve to have a holiday spent with those whom you love and who love you.

Struggling with relationships does not have to be an obstacle you face alone — a close friend and family member can provide much needed support, validation, and insight if deemed safe to talk to by you. If financially feasible, it is always appropriate to consider starting therapy or reaching out to a mental health professional, something that you may find taboo but is actually quite common for Americans. There is no shame in asking for help, especially when it comes to mending relationships or helping yourself recover from the shrapnel left by toxic relatives. Neither is easy, but you will find that the work will benefit much more than the relationship in question.

Always remember that you deserve to have happiness and joy during the holiday season, and you don’t have to let a difficult relative loom like a storm cloud waiting to bring a downpour of new or resurfaced pain. Make it your prerogative to create moments of joy amidst even the hardest season in terms of familial reckoning, realizing that a broken relationship may not be permanent and is certainly not definite when deciding your livelihood and overall value as a person.

Nov 13, 2020