Let’s face it: wherever you turn in December, you’ll be confronted by technicolour snapshots of love. It’s Christmas, baby, and the whole month comes gift-wrapped in images of happy families playing charades, unwrapping novelty socks, and laughing over turkey. It’s no wonder, then, that this time of year is particularly difficult for the five million adults in the UK who are estranged from someone in their family.
According to a study from the charity Stand Alone, 90% of estranged adults find Christmas challenging, thanks to the clash between our cosy cultural expectations and the hollow reality of a dysfunctional family. I know exactly how that feels – this Christmas, like the nine that came before it, I won’t be seeing my dad. I ‘cut him out’ in my twenties.
Don’t think, by the way, that I enjoy the brutality of the phrase, ‘cut him out’. He’s not a cancer. But it’s a helpful, well-established shortcut to the facts – ending contact with my dad was an act of self-preservation, a surgical extraction of something causing chronic pain; it was not a violent stabbing.
I stress this because by simply admitting my estrangement, you might take offence. You might think I’ve been nasty. You might think that I’m drawing a line in the sand and asking you to pick a side.
But according to the Stand Alone study, 68% of estranged adults feel judged and stigmatised by others, so my defensiveness is not unusual or unwarranted. This stigma, paired with the feeling of festive discord, makes for a tough combination. December becomes an endless exercise in fielding questions about where you’re distributing yourself over the festivities.
“I don’t have the resilience to withstand toxic behaviour throughout the year, I certainly can’t manage it at Christmas.”
“But won’t you even see him at Christmas?” someone always asks, as if fir trees project an invisible forcefield, rendering my mental health impermeable to abusive behaviour.
If only they could. It’s hard enough knowing my dad couldn’t care less about me – having to spell this out to perplexed people who presumably imagine him as some version of their own benign father only stings further. If I don’t have the resilience to withstand toxic behaviour throughout the year, I certainly can’t manage it at Christmas, a time where I deserve to feel love, unity and joy as much as anyone else.
It’s hard to understand, I realise. What could a parent do to deserve this? Families are amazing. Those parents who care about you so much, gosh, well, they seem great. I’d like one too! It’s not those guys I have the problem with.
It’s the ones who use you, manipulate you, wring you out like a flannel. The ones who place you in danger, call you names, start civil wars. You’d probably find a limit to your own endurance too, with one of those parents.
And if you do have one of those parents or relatives – controlling/critical/bigoted/demanding/neglectful/aggressive/addicted/divisive/narcissistic/delete as appropriate – that you’ve had to turn away from, then you have my absolute sympathy. Because when colleagues and acquaintances make festive small talk that haphazardly swerves into Big Talk, you feel the pain twice over.
Yes, of course you’d wish for a loving family celebration. No, you didn’t cruelly extinguish the possibility; the ingredients were simply never available to you.
“Self-respect is the gift I’ve given to myself every Christmas this past decade.”
Oh, and there’s that other angle to swallow. The Stand Alone study highlights a slightly less adversarial reaction than the unspoken suggestion that you “must have done something truly awful”, but it’s still equally painful to hear. There are people who trivialise your relationship breakdown with statements such as “I’m sure things will get better”, disregarding the fact that most estranged people believe “we could never have a functional relationship in the future”. In fact, 80% of people feel relief, more freedom and increased self-respect since estrangement.
Indeed, self-respect is the gift I’ve given to myself every Christmas this past decade. In practice, it’s always a mental tussle between craving the picture-perfect family gathering and reminding myself that it was never like that, and never could be. I’ve tried, and the endless disappointment is a heavy burden. Freeing myself from irrational, unrequited duty has been truly liberating.
It takes guts to turn your back on someone, especially when society tells you that blood is thicker than water. But - to butcher a cliché - if there’s poison in the blood, why take the transfusion?
Crikey, you only asked where I’d be for Christmas, and I’ve spent ten minutes setting out my personal manifesto for personal relationships. This is why in real life, I try to tackle these clumsy conversations by answering briefly, definitively, and moving things along quickly. “Nope, not seeing Dad. Are you going anywhere?”, or, “We’re having a quiet Christmas, just how we like it. New Year’s is a different story though…”
If people push for more detail or justification for not seeing my dad, I make a joke about my ‘Jeremy Kyle’ background to explain and lighten the direction the conversation might otherwise take. I already have a therapist, and I really don’t need to talk it out with Barbara from accounts, thanks.
Where mutual relatives are concerned, things get stickier. One Christmas, a few years after I stopped seeing my dad, my brother phoned me. His voice was shaking. He was frightened for Dad’s wellbeing (he’d been dumped by yet another girlfriend), and he pleaded with me to call him. I felt sick at the thought but eventually I did, for my brother’s sake. It was utterly draining, and entirely fruitless.
“With relatives, my advice can only be to do what feels right, and state your boundaries clearly when necessary.”
Since then, my brother hasn’t asked me to compromise my boundaries again, and our relationship is easier for it. Christmas is easier for it. With relatives, my advice can only be to do what feels right, and state your boundaries clearly when necessary.
And for the day itself, do whatever feels celebratory to you. Forget about the rose-tinted supermarket adverts and their cookie-cutter version of Christmas. They only stage those scenes of domestic perfection to shift more sprouts, anyway.
Maybe your day will involve gathering a group of loved ones together: friends for drinks; family for dinner; dogs for a long, crunchy walk in the woods. Maybe you’ll break with tradition entirely and jet off to Corfu or go hiking in the South Downs. Perhaps you’ll volunteer in a homeless shelter, soup kitchen or children’s hospital, where you can share all your brilliant, valuable love with people who can appreciate it.
This year, we’re spending time with my Mum a few days before, but Christmas Day won’t see us on the gruelling tour of parents’ houses that we used to attempt. It’ll be me, my husband, my daughter, dog and cat, having a quieter Christmas than many, but maybe a gentler one too.
I hope that wherever my dad is, whoever he’s with, he has a happy Christmas. And I hope you do, too. May you have a restful or raucous, contented or chaotic, elegant or exotic Christmas.
Whatever feels right for you.
Becky Kleanthous is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @SomethingWordy
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