Gary Thomas: Toxic family members can ruin the holidays. Here's how to save yourself (because life is short)

When our families are young, we want our holidays to be the very best, so why do they often feel like the worst?

If the answer is the occasional toxic relative, there’s some surprising teaching and examples from the life of Jesus that can help us avoid letting a family member ruin our celebrations.

My eyes were opened to new possibilities regarding how to treat toxic people when I counted dozens of citations in the New Testament where Jesus chose to walk away from someone or let someone walk away from Him without giving chase. Jesus spoke the truth to numerous groups and individuals and then let them respond freely without further argument.

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This example means that walking in the footsteps of Jesus will occasionally mean following Him as we walk away from toxic people to find healthy ones we can invest in.

There are a finite number of holidays when the kids are young, which makes each one of them precious. Defending your family’s celebration is thus a wise and loving thing to do.  

But how do we know when to do that? And what about when the toxic person is a family member, especially over the holidays?

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Many young parents are surprised when I point out how few family Christmases they are going to have when everyone is together. Christmases and Thanksgivings may seem like an endless string of future promises, but once your kids move out and get married, holidays will never be the same.

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For most of us, there are a finite number of holidays when the kids are young, which makes each one of them precious. Defending your family’s celebration is thus a wise and loving thing to do.

The principle of learning “when to walk away” as Jesus did is applied differently in different situations. Let’s say you have a toxic aunt or uncle who you know is going to be at a family gathering and who is always quick to undercut others, inject inappropriate comments or opinions, and seems to relish “picking a fight” with any family member who doesn’t vote for who they voted for or worship where they worship,.

I wouldn’t let a toxic uncle keep my kids from their grandparents and cousins, but here’s what I would do: I’d walk away into the next room. As soon as the toxicity comes out, don’t waste your time trying to correct him/her. A toxic person enjoys conflict, even over the holidays. A peaceful, happy, joyous occasion is boring to them.

We can walk into the next room and find a healthy person to invest in, a nephew or niece to encourage, or seek general life advice or history from grandparents or great grandparents (who usually love to give it). If everyone leaves when the toxic winds begin to blow, the toxic person will have to learn how to keep from launching verbal grenades or else learn to eat by themselves.

Sacrificing your wife’s and kids’ relatively few Christmases together to placate an abusive person doesn’t honor God, and it won’t help the toxic person.  

In Brian and Angie’s case, the toxic person was Brian’s mom. Every holiday the abuse Angie gets from her mother-in-law takes weeks to recover from. The past year had been a particularly difficult one for their family and Angie felt like she had reached her limit. “I really can’t even stomach the thought of spending this Christmas with your parents,” she told Brian. “It takes me weeks to recover from her constant belittling. I just don’t think I’m strong enough to face that this year.”

Brian asked me what he was supposed to do. After all, isn’t a son supposed to honor his parents?

Let me state clearly that Angie wasn’t being overly sensitive, nor was she acting out of malice to get “back” at her mother-in-law by withholding the grandchildren. That isn’t her nature and it certainly wasn’t her motivation.

In this instance, I responded, “Treat your mom as if she was healthy, spiritually speaking. That’s the best way to honor her. If my son called me and said, ‘Dad, I’m sorry, but for the sake of my marriage we can’t spend Christmas with you this year’ it would break my heart. But I hope I’d reply, ‘Son, you’re making the right choice. Your wife comes first.  In fact, I’m proud of you for making what I’m sure is a tough decision. You’re a good husband.’

I would want to affirm him rather than make him feel guilty. The best way to honor your mom is to treat her like she’s healthy, explain what’s going on, and invite her to respond as a healthy person would. If she doesn’t respond in a healthy way, that’s on her, not you.”

I’m not naïve; some parents will unleash the guilt gun and make all sorts of accusations, but we need to stop worrying about the unhealthy fallout of unhealthy people who are challenged by healthy decisions. We can’t control (and God doesn’t hold us accountable for) the way someone responds. We control being as loving, true, honest, gentle and kind as our God calls us to be as we live with healthy, God-ordained priorities.

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Sacrificing your wife’s and kids’ relatively few Christmases together to placate an abusive person doesn’t honor God, and it won’t help the toxic person.

Life is short and holidays are even shorter. Make the most of each one by going where your family can celebrate, worship and leave blessed, encouraged and filled with joy.