Celebrating Christmas, when you are estranged from important people in your life, is very hard.

I have a dear friend who is currently not speaking to siblings. The rift was their decision, not hers, taken because she stood up for something on principle (and she was in the right). She did not want to lose the relationship over it, but their family demands complete lockstep conformity or they see it as disloyal. They don’t like legitimate boundaries, which she was attempting to practice. And so now she is banished, and she misses them very much.

Christmas is just so sad when people you love won’t speak to you!

Recently I received this question from a reader:

Since I was 18 years old, I have been setting boundaries with my own mother. Now, in my 40s, I am still setting boundaries with her- she is in her 80s. I was the baby of 4, unexpected, and after my father abandoned the family I became the surrogate spouse.

I am several years into my second marriage. He is wonderful to me and loves my children as his own. Shortly after I began dating my husband, my mother became paranoid. She would warn me, saying he was not a good man, trustworthy, and when that didn’t work, she accused him of being rude and hating her. She wouldn’t even be around him. I discussed this with my siblings who all agree that my mother was wrong.

I prayed and know God put my husband and I together. My mother didn’t come to the wedding and still refuses to acknowledge him. I continued to try to reason with her and asked for counseling (our pastor supports me drawing boundaries with her). My mother lives within 30 minutes of me, yet I haven’t been to see her in over a year, and this has been going on for four years.

My family still gathers in my mother’s home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Every holiday season I fight depression and despair from missing my family, but not just because of my mother. My siblings have not stood in the gap for me. I swing back and forth from sadness to anger. Am I expecting too much for my family to stand for what is right? 

Sheila, I have friends that tell me I should go see my mother. They tell me I should not be consumed with what is right and that I will regret my decision if she passes without reconciling. I continue to pray and ask God what I should do. My husband has given me the go ahead, if I want to go see my mother and family. I have closed my eyes and imagined the scenario. I know I would not be able to contain myself. I would probably cause a scene, much like what Jesus did in the temple- tables with turkey and dressing turned over, cranberry sauce strewn everywhere, and me crying in an unintelligible fit of fury! I do not understand why or what justification my mother and siblings have for being unwelcoming of my husband.

So here I am, asking myself, is it worth it? 

Wow, that’s so sad!

First, a few things.

Sometimes family members’ wariness about our husband is right.

I have known so many women who jumped into marriage with a bad guy, when parents and siblings were all telling them that he was bad, but they wouldn’t listen. And then the woman has cut off contact with the family because they won’t support the husband, who all the while is really quite abusive.

So I want to throw that warning out there–sometimes your family’s disapproval is rooted in truth and genuine fear for your safety and well-being.

That being said, I don’t think that is true in this case. When it is true, it’s the husband who tends to want to cut you off from your family, and it’s the family who wants to keep seeing you so that they can keep having influence and keep trying to protect you. In this case, the situation is reversed. In general, I’d say that if you’re married to a man who refuses to let you see your family, that’s often a huge red flag, but in her case, it seems as if the problem really is with the mother (especially since her friends, siblings, and pastor all agree that her husband is safe).

When You're Estranged from Family at Christmas: How to build bridges with those you love

Sometimes, though, our family is just plain crazy, and we need to mourn that.

It sounds like this woman has a crazy family. They are not what she wants them to be. And the reason is this:

In dysfunctional families, loyalty matters more than truth.

In families where parents are parenting out of shame rather than out of sacrificial love, the worst thing you can do is to voice the fact that the family isn’t perfect or that Mom or Dad are doing things that are wrong (or, in my own friends’ case, her siblings). In shame based families, everybody believing that everybody else is perfect is the only option.

In healthy families, people admit mistakes and openly talk about their failings. In shame based families they do not. Everybody must pretend that things are perfect. What this woman is doing, then, is upsetting the apple cart. Her siblings actually agree with her. Yep. Mom is totally nuts. But they’re not willing to stand up for her because they are still trapped in this shame cycle. They can’t go against Mom because then they will lose Mom and they will lose everything the family is. And so they keep trying to keep the peace, and not to rock the boat.

Her siblings’ lack of support is not a reflection on how they feel about her; it is a reflection of their own pain.

I so hope that this woman can understand this: If your siblings have not worked through the wounds in their childhood, then they will have a very difficult time going against Mom. Here’s why: As a child, our most basic need is for our mother’s love and approval. She is the primary person in our life. And early on, we can learn that she only approves of us if we don’t rock the boat and if we agree that everything is perfect (even when it’s not). That means that we never, as a child, truly experienced the acceptance and love we so desperately needed, because Mom only accepted us if we covered up what we truly thought. We can never truly be ourselves and still have Mom love us. That leaves us with a huge unmet need. And until that need is met, we will continue to seek it. It will be one of our #1 emotional motivators, even if we are completely oblivious to the fact. To go against Mom means giving up the possibility of meeting this need.

Now, if one realizes what is happening and turns to God to heal that hurt, then we can get out of this cycle. But if we never realize the root of our hurts or unhealthy behaviours, then we’ll still be acting as if we’re that little child, just wanting Mommy to tell us that we’re good enough, just as we are. And that leaves such a huge hole in our psyche that we’ll seek out that approval, even in unhealthy ways (that’s also why many daughters of absent or abusive fathers marry men who are absent or abusive; they’re unconsciously recreating their childhood so they can fix it. It doesn’t work).

Her siblings are likely in this cycle, and no matter how much they love their sister, they can’t go against Mom because she is the primary person whose affection they are still trying to earn.

To our letter writer, I would just say this: It is not that your siblings love your mom more than they do you; it is that in some ways they are likely still emotionally stuck as little children, trying to earn their mother’s approval. They may very well love you more, but emotionally they need her love more. And I hope that helps you feel sympathy for them more than rejection.

But now: What do you do? Do you reconcile with your mother?

I honestly don’t know. Like I said to the woman who asked the reader question on Thursday about confronting her husband before Christmas, logic alone can’t always dictate what we should do. That’s when we really need to hear from God, because I do believe it is different in different cases.

I would say this, though: You can still have a one-on-one relationship with your mother and a one-on-one relationship with siblings without going to family events. A family event is one where your husband should be included. If your mother will not include your husband, then you can stay away.

However, if you want to have lunch with your mother every once in a while, you could do that. You could tell her very clearly that if she says anything bad about your husband you will leave, but beyond that you could still talk to her. Personally, I wouldn’t have her in my house if she rejected my spouse, but you could meet on neutral ground.

It’s also okay to be the one to offer the olive branch. My friend who is reeling from her estrangement is thinking of sending Christmas cards to her siblings that say, “Even though I’m not part of your life, I think and pray for you everyday.” That’s her doing the right thing, even if they don’t. And then it’s up to them whether they resume contact.

So, in short, I don’t know what you should do. I don’t know if you should start seeing your mom or not; you’ll have to pray about that. I do think that taking the high road is usually the right course of action. Nevertheless, staying away from family events unless your husband is included sounds like a pretty good boundary to me.

And I’m so, so sorry that you’re going through this at Christmas!

What do the rest of you think? Have any of you been estranged from relatives? And how do you handle that with your children? Let’s talk in the comments!

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