8 Tips for Surviving the Holidays With Toxic Relatives

Holiday food on table.

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You might be able to keep your more toxic family members at arm’s length much of the year. However, getting out of seeing them during the holidays is tough. Avoiding them can cause stress in your most intimate relationships — think in-laws — or strain your connections with relatives you adore. Plus, you might simply feel guilty about skipping the festivities. 

However, you need a plan to get through this trying time with your sanity intact and without picking up any new unhealthy coping mechanisms. Here are eight tips for surviving the holidays with toxic relatives. 

1. Plan the Logistics 

Many families plan multiple get-togethers during the holiday season. However, is it essential to go to every one if it means your insufferable Uncle Charlie also plans to attend?

Instead, why not select one, maybe two, functions to attend? Choose the biggest gatherings, allowing you to mix and mingle with multiple people and not get cornered by that one individual you can’t stand. For the rest, have your excuses ready. You can always blame the distance and expense for begging off — while gas prices have fallen, they’re still considerably higher than they were two years ago. 

2. Keep It Brief 

You can tolerate nearly anything in small enough doses. That includes your toxic relatives. If you can’t get out of attending a particular function, plan to make your visit as short and sweet as possible. Doing so might mean sitting down and discussing your feelings with your partner if it’s their side of the family that drives you crazy. Set a meaningful limit before you leave to avoid arguments because one of you wants to stay. 

How long do you have to stay? According to etiquette experts, leaving most standard 2-hour gatherings in 30 to 45 minutes is acceptable. Please ensure you graciously thank your host before quietly making your exit — there’s no need to make a fuss about your departure. The one exception is events like weddings where your host has multiple activities planned, in which case you should stay at least through the initial dances and cake-cutting. 

3. Rehearse Your Approach

You want to minimize your contact time with those family members you find most toxic, but you’ll probably have to at least greet them and chat for a few minutes. If you know they’ll drop unwanted bombs on you, prepare your armor and be ready with your comeback. 

For example, if your partner’s toxic Aunt Tilly always greets you with a “Still no kiddos on the way, eh?” decide how you want to handle her unwanted intrusion into your most private decisions. You might try to deflect by talking about something else if you don’t want to be confrontational. If you want to come back with a blunt response or turn the tables, it helps to practice that zinger to nail your delivery. 

4. Rally Your Troops 

It helps to have a support system when dealing with toxic family members — especially if said individual is a member of your tribe. For example, if one of your parents is emotionally abusive, it’s good to know you have your partner in your corner, ready to have your back if they get up to their old shenanigans. 

It also helps to let those attending with you know what to expect. After all, even secondhand toxicity can affect someone’s mood and psyche. Prepare your partner that gravy boats may fly this Thanksgiving if they’re used to more low-key, rational family gatherings. 

5. Keep Your Expectations Realistic 

Maybe your toxic father treats every holiday as an occasion to get drunk and find fault with everyone. Expecting them to arrive at the table sober and willing to engage in rational conversation is setting yourself up for disappointment. 

As the saying goes, it’s okay to hope for the best — as long as you prepare for the worst. If every other family holiday has dissolved into a screaming match, don’t think this year will bring the miracle of peace to your table. Accept the situation for what it is, stick to your boundaries and remember, you have the right to leave if someone crosses them. 

6. Go Easy on the Lubrication 

It might be tempting to hit the bottle to smooth the wheels of dealing with difficult people. Unfortunately, alcohol has a sneaky way of making bad situations even worse. Specific types of alcohol are more likely to cause trouble than others. Letting yourself get out of control means risking becoming every bit as toxic as the person you wish you could avoid — it’s not a good look for you. 

If you must drink, stick to one or two. If you have to attend a lengthier affair, alternate alcoholic beverages with non-alcoholic ones so that you keep your wits about you. 

7. Prepare an Emergency Exit

Listen — if someone abuses you verbally or, heaven forbid, physically, you don’t need an excuse to get out of Dodge. Other attendees should respect your choice and aren’t worth your time if they don’t. You shouldn’t subject yourself to unnecessary hostility solely in the name of “the holidays.” 

However, there’s a difference between abusive behavior and stuff that merely grinds your gears. For the latter, prepare an emergency exit. If you have kids, you’re in luck — after all, you’re at the whims of your sitter’s schedule, and you can’t expect them to stay all night. Otherwise, other functions, inclement weather, uneasiness driving at night or exhaustion from overwork are all convenient excuses to hit the road. Sometimes surviving the holidays requires a classic Irish goodbye.

8. Make New Holiday Traditions 

The holidays shouldn’t be a time you dread. Yes, they may entail visiting people you don’t like — but you deserve a reason to get excited and jolly. 

That’s when you know it’s time to make new traditions. If you’re partnered, your spouse is your obvious choice for creating new memories. Flying solo? Why not consider events like Friendsgiving with other single members of your tribe or even spending some time alone in nature, far from the hustle and bustle? 

Surviving the Holidays With Toxic Relatives 

You might be able to keep toxic relatives at a safe distance  for much of the year. However, things change when the holidays arrive. 

Consider this 8-step guide to surviving the holidays with toxic relatives. By planning your approach and giving yourself something to look forward to, you can ease stress and enjoy the season. 

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