Caplan stresses that it’s perfectly okay to skip a family visit just because you want to. However, if you still need to justify the decision in your own mind, she says these are some good reasons to not go home for the hell-idays:
- if you or your chosen lifestyle will be the main course at the meal
- if you have emotionally or physically abusive relatives
- if you can’t leave the past behind to enjoy the present
- if you are motivated to visit purely out of guilt
- if you really can’t afford the trip
- if it will take you more than three days to recover from the visit.
Ho-ho-home, sweet home
Of course, many folks still opt to spend the holidays with family, neuroses and all. If you fall into this group, the most important thing you can bring to the celebration is not a gaily wrapped package or a molded salad, but a big reservoir of good cheer.
“This is not the time to work out the last decade’s worth of pain,” says Tian Dayton, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Caron Foundation, an addiction treatment center, in New York City. Even if you arrive relaxed and calm, chances are some of your relatives are under-rested and overstressed. As a result, says Dayton, “it’s too volatile a situation to try to air something that is bothering you. Save it for January.”
That’s easier to say than do, however. In many families, the holidays are marred by the same arguments and conflicts year after year. If that’s the case in your family, Dayton recommends that you take a hard look at the role you’re playing in the family dynamic. “Make a list with two columns,” she says. “Put the pros of the role you play in one column and the cons in the other column. Then figure out how you can maximize the advantages while minimizing the disadvantages.”
As an example, consider the youngest sibling in a family. Even though she’s an adult now, people still treat her like the baby when she goes home. The advantages are that she gets lots of attention and affection, and other family members don’t expect her to help out as much as everybody else. The disadvantages are that she feels as if no one will ever let her grow up or take her seriously.
In this situation, Dayton says, “The person might want to take a more proactive approach to being helpful—maybe offer to bring a dish or decoration. She also might want to invite a friend who treats her as a grown-up, which can alter the family dynamic.” In addition, she can watch her own behavior for signs that she is slipping back into the familiar, but now inappropriate, childhood role. Then she can substitute more appropriate behavior.