Kirk has fallen into the depression he regularly feels at the end of the year. He tries to explain it all as Seasonal Affective Disorder, but it doesn’t take us long to find a deeper cause. In late December he will be going “home for the holidays.” Every year for a week he leaves his friends and his husband and boards a plane to fly fifteen hundred miles to spend a week in a cold house with people he neither trusts nor respects. Kirk travels alone because his family are all self-described evangelical Christians and his husband is no longer welcome there because he made the mistake of being a little too frank about his atheism. They are, however, willing to tolerate Kirk’s “gay lifestyle” as long as he doesn’t insist on talking about it. His older brother will be there – the brother who bullied and assaulted him throughout their childhood, and who, along with his parents, now alternately denies that it every happened and jokes about it. There’ll be a lot of drinking, and there will certainly be a few ugly scenes between family members. There will be a lot of racist talk, and in the background, FOX news will be blaring continually. “Maybe this will be the last year I go,” Kirk says, but he says that every year. I make a mental note to remind him of this statement when he returns in January.
Among many law professionals, January is known as “Divorce Month,” because so may unhappy spouses, after faking it through the holidays, finally make the break in the new year. But what if the dysfunctional relationship isn’t with a partner, but with a family member? Is January a good time to consider severing a relationship with family members who are making you miserable?
It’s so hard for many people even to consider doing that. Our families have been with us our whole lives, and with so much shared history, separating can feel like amputating a vital organ. That may be why, for so many of us, it feels as if family loyalties take precedence over the families and friendships we’ve created for ourselves. Most people seem to follow one set of rules governing what is acceptable behavior from friends and another governing what is to be tolerated from families. Too many of us reflexively put up with levels of abuse and insensitivity from blood relatives that we wouldn’t dream of tolerating from anyone else. Too many of us believe that we have a duty to be always willing to forgive, no matter how badly we’re treated. In addition, ending familial relationships is still stigmatized the way divorce once was.
But there are specific signs that a family relationship may be toxic and therefore potentially dangerous to continue. If you feel depleted when you’re with the person; if you’re constantly angry; if you feel used or manipulated — then maybe it’s time to move on. More seriously, if you feel yourself getting emotionally or physically ill when interacting with a relative: if contact results in back and stomach problems, ulcers, migraine headaches, etc., it may be the body’s way of saying ‘Enough.’ But perhaps most seriously, if you’re feeling intimidated or physically threatened, it’s probably time to end the relationship.
It’s common to assume that we’re stuck with our families, and that we have no choice in the matter, but it doesn’t have to be this way. As adults we have the power, if only we’ll claim it, to decide who belongs in our “family of choice” and who doesn’t. One way to begin making those decisions is to examine our relationships, and to ask ourselves these six basic questions: Is the relationship characterized by mutual affection and respect? Do I trust this person? Do I feel safe in the relationship? Do I feel supported in my life goals and values” Do I know and feel known by this person? Do we enjoy each other’s company? If the answer to all or most of these questions is no, then it may be time to move on. If, in the vital area of sexuality, we LGBT people are able to break the mold and to decide for ourselves what kind of lives we want to live, then surely, we can also find the courage to do the same in our intimate relationships.