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Left Out Like Rudolph: Factioned Families and the Holidays

Parents pulling child in opposite directions

“Happy holidays” is the theme from November until January—often very happy times of family closeness, but holidays can be disappointing and painful if you’re in the midst of family turmoil caused by divorce or simply bad feelings between people. Families can break into factions; the ins and the outs, leaving people feeling left out and unwanted. In Lulu’s family, everyone was left out by somebody.

Some families develop deep, long wars. People choose up sides or are simply born on one side or another, and there is nothing much to do about it. This is tough if you want to be friends all around, especially during holiday times when there is much family visiting. Lulu grew up in this kind of family.

“When I was little,” Lulu said, “I felt like Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer—left out. Hearing the song always made me cry because my parents had stopped speaking to their mothers, my grandmothers, which spread like the flu to include everyone else. They crossed everyone off their Christmas list, also their Easter list, their good- and bad-news lists … they just simply threw away the addresses and phone numbers of all their relations, by blood or by marriage. They wanted to simplify their lives, and perhaps they did, but not my life, which got lonely and complicated. Each time I visited my grandmothers, my parents got mad. And my grandmothers were mad, too, and they had to tell me why, in detail, and they even cried sometimes, which I tried to get used to. My parents didn’t cry—they just yelled about how much they hated their mothers. I always wished I had a grandfather; I thought a grandfather would have made things different, people would behave around a grandfather, but my grandfathers both died before I was born. Luckily, my aunt and my cousin reached out to me, and I developed my own relationships with the family.”

Lulu’s parents were clearly infantile in their inability to get along with people, but we can wonder, too, how they reached that point. They cut their family out of their lives, and then their family returned the favor. What happened to them all when they were growing up that made them able to cut off like that?

Holiday times are special, but life gets tense when the family is composed of warring tribes who cannot put their guns down. Lulu was in the middle. She liked everybody, she wanted to visit everyone for the holidays, but half the family wouldn’t see the other half, so Lulu traveled from one person to the next to keep everyone happy. Lulu felt maybe she should cut herself in two, or clone herself, or buy a magic carpet so she could travel great distances with ease.

“I thought about moving so far away the problem about seeing everyone would solve itself because I wouldn’t be able to see anybody,” Lulu said. “By that time, I didn’t want to, anyway. I started reading up on life in Australia. I did actually move far away—not as far as Australia, but pretty far—and lived in a different country for two years, but then my grandmother came to visit, and she convinced me to move back home. I was pretty homesick by that time.”

When Lulu came home, the family war was in full swing. She wanted to see everybody, not leave anybody out, but in her family everybody was somebody’s enemy, as in “the friend of my enemy is my enemy.” Some relatives decided she was disloyal for consorting with people they didn’t like, and they resented her.

“I tried not taking this personally, but how can you not take it personally when these folks are part of your very personal bloodlines?” Lulu said. “When bloodlines become firing lines and you’re in the gun sights because of what people see as your treachery?”

What could Lulu do? She tried getting people to make peace, or at least talk to one another, but that didn’t work—at least not enough to make much difference. Often, people want to feel justified in their anger and proven right, even though nobody is right when you can’t put your guns down and act polite. Lulu learned to hop back and forth across enemy lines without too much injury to herself or anyone else, but holiday times were traumatic, not enjoyable. Thanksgiving turned into a speed date.

Typically, folks ask one another how their holidays are going, or where they’ll spend Christmas. It’s a friendly gesture—but not to Lulu, who had to learn to give people answers that were honest and protective.Rather than moaning her answer about family strife, Lulu created a new one: “Wow! I got to celebrate Christmas twice!”

She learned not to take in the negative vibes, which made her feel alone, bereft, unwanted, and unworthy—all the “uns.” Her task is to remember that these feelings are not only not her own, they are the opposite of what she feels. She is helped by honest discussions with empathic friends and by learning to gradually let go. She is also learning that she if she can’t change how everybody else acts and teach them to be friendly, she can definitely change how she reacts to their behavior. Lulu embodies the warmth and closeness of holidays.

Connect with Lynn on Google+


© Copyright 2012 by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, E-RYT, therapist in New York, NY. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • Carmen December 18th, 2012 at 10:07 AM #1

    Lulu is certainly to be commended for working through all of the emotional baggage her family so graciously left her. I hope when she has kids one day she will be able to teach them the same love and tolerance that somehow she found within herself. It really is amazing that she is such a caring person who wants to spend time with her family when she was never taught those values. Lulu sounds like an amazing person and her family is lucky to have her.

  • katelin December 18th, 2012 at 10:09 AM #2

    Ugh my mother-in-law and her sister and brothers are at war. when my husband and i first started dating everything was good. then they just fell apart over inheritance stuff it is just so dumb and so sad.

  • DillanG December 18th, 2012 at 10:12 AM #3

    The holidays are hard enough and stressful enough without families getting along. Why can’t people see the big picture and grin and bare it for a few hours of together time? “Fake it ’til you make it” is a great way to handle these situations. Keep conversations surface level, don’t say ANYTHING that will start conflict, and keep it to two hours. Before you know it, you’ll be able to spend a little more time together without WW3 breaking out.

  • monty December 18th, 2012 at 11:00 AM #4

    just being engaged when two of your friends are at war is bad enough,I can imagine how it must be about one’s family.you want to stay friends with both sides but they somehow put across the same condition or even warning – “you’re either on my side or the other”.why can’t people understand that if they do not want to be friendly with someone,it doesn’t mean everybody related to them has to do the same!this causes much grief to the rudolph in the middle and is quite selfish if you ask me.

  • AP December 18th, 2012 at 3:28 PM #5

    My dad and his brother had a rift and they have not spoken to each other in years.yet my cousins and I are extremely friendly and hang out often.I am just happy my dad and his brother did not let their bitterness affect us. it is cruel to do so in the first place. those that practice this just demonstrate their true selves to everybody around!

  • Les December 18th, 2012 at 4:12 PM #6

    unfortunately the holidays do not always bring out the best in everyone

  • Lynn Somerstein December 18th, 2012 at 4:28 PM #7

    Thanks, Carmen, for the compliments- I’m sure Lulu would be pleased to hear them. Katelin and monty are all serving time in the trenches. I wish you luck, and, by the way, Dillan’s advice sounds great to me.
    Let’s just all wish for a peaceful holiday season that continues in serenity throughout the new year.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Reena December 19th, 2012 at 4:06 AM #8

    This piece came out at exactly the right time for me. I have always wnated to love the holidays but it brings up so many bad memories of arguments and divisive things within the confines of the family that I get more distraught over having to spend another Christmas with people that I really don’t even like to be aorund all that much. I know that there has to be a better way to survive this, and this gives me hope that the resolution and solution is out there somewhere for me.

  • Lynn Somerstein December 19th, 2012 at 4:25 AM #9

    Hi AP-
    Happy to hear that you and your cousins were able to stay connected and that your dads didn’t interfere– a worthwhile outcome, but probably difficult to put into effect.
    Les, yes, as you say, the holidays aren’t a time when all are able to shine.
    Take care, thanks for writing in,
    Lynn

  • Lynn Somerstein December 19th, 2012 at 6:26 AM #10

    Hi Reena,
    Thank you writing about your experience- those memories of arguments and division create a poisonous atmosphere that makes holiday joy seem like a bad joke. I hope that you can find good allies who will help you celebrate as you deserve.
    Take care,
    Lynn

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