The last time Leighsa Sharoff, 49, had Thanksgiving dinner with her parents and siblings was about six years ago. Her then-six-year-old son, Brody, announced he was thankful, “because we won’t have to come here anymore.”
This holiday season, Sharoff, who lives in Battery Park City, is spending the holidays in Long Island with the family of a childhood friend with whom she feels more at home.
No one knows how many people opt to celebrate the holidays with people other than their biological family, but experts say legions reside in New York City. Manhattan is the king of single person households, with almost 51% of people living solo. A lot of people moved to the capitol of “anything goes” lifestyles not just for professional opportunities, but to escape families of chance and create families of choice.
Too, individuals are increasingly unwilling to comply with traditions, rules and obligations that don’t seem fair or make sense to them.
Andrew, 27, of Staten Island, avoids his father because he fears becoming like him. “Being around him is poison. He’s deceptive and lies and plays people off against each other. I haven’t trusted him since I was little kid.” Now a father of a two-year-old girl, Andrew believes he is a happier, better husband and father when absent from his father’s “negative vibe.”
The pull to be with relatives during holidays is so strong, that people usually only boycott family holiday events when they don’t feel safe emotionally or physically, said Sharon Nolting, a Manhattan psychotherapist, social worker and certified psychoanalyst.
People can err “on either side” of such avoidance, she added. It’s not healthy to stay in any abusive, one-sided relationship that puts you at risk. But neither is it advisable to ditch some of your most primal bonds because you don’t feel like working out a conflict or forgiving a peccadillo. “You try a little harder with family than you do with friends to make things work,” as Nolting said.
How to tell if the situation is salvageable?
X Set boundaries with relatives you dread seeing, suggested Lois Braverman, MSW and president of the Ackerman Institute for the Family. It’s perfectly reasonable to condition your attendance at a family fete on a relative eschewing drugs or alcohol while in your company, for example. Similarly, you can say you would love to see the family, but members must guarantee your significant other will be treated respectfully, or that political topics will be verbotten.
X Try and view annoying habits humorously. Braverman, for example, knows that she irritates her adult kids by reflexively reverting to her mom-of-young kids role. (“Are you sure that’s safe?” “Did you remember to take care of that?”) Apparently mindful that concern compels the nagging, they make fun of her.
X Pretend you’re a reporter or anthropologist, gathering information about the person who works your nerves. Resolve not to act emotionally and approach your reportorial task with zen detachment. Then, compile a list of questions for conversational lulls. (What was your happiest childhood memory? Why is hunting so important to you?) Learning what makes your nemesis tick will help you avoid tumbling into predictably depressing patterns, andd to view him or her with more understanding and compassion.
Of course, there’s no reason to submit yourself to abuse. If you decide to go family-free, therapists say it is important to make plans: If you can’t wrangle an invite with people you genuinely do like, plan to volunteer or hold a feast for the benefit of other exiles and stragglers.
Alcoholics Anonymous holds meetings throughout the holidays, largely to benefit people with difficult family relationships, said Emmy, a member of the organization who “divorced” her difficult father after her mother’s death two years ago. Emmy, 40, throws potlucks with friends at loose ends. “Life is not a Hallmark card for a lot of us, but it is possible to have a hopeful, happy holiday,” she said.