I sent a mass invitation for our family Christmas party for Christmas Day. The next day my aunt invited everyone over to her house for our family Christmas party, the day after Christmas. I cannot find one person outside my family that thinks that wasn’t completely rude. I see this as toxic behaviour on her part and support of bad behaviour from the rest of the crew. I took a week to get some perspective and see if others thought I was being oversensitive.
Am I off-base or is this just not acceptable behaviour from my family? I feel as though we have all lived with this bad behaviour for so long we can’t even identify it any more.
Eleanor says: I can’t definitively answer whether this aunt’s behaviour was unacceptable. On one natural interpretation, if it’s “the” Christmas party, then yes – she’s plainly insulted your hospitality and competence. On the other, if it’s “a” Christmas party, she may just be continuing the celebration; lots of people have a second gathering on Boxing Day if there are two sides of the family, or too many leftovers, or just more fun to be had.
So I can’t rule for you on your questions about being “toxic”; “just not acceptable”; or “bad behaviour”.
But I can ask why branding her behaviour with those terms feels important to you. Sometimes we want to hear that behaviour is Objectively Bad, because we want the associated ruling that our feelings are Objectively Valid.
The challenge with this – especially in decades-long relationships like the ones we have with family – is that the scale and complexity of our feelings doesn’t always match the mendacity of the actions that caused them. Instead, our feelings match the whole history that led up to this one moment – and that’s a lot harder to talk about and resolve.
If you feel insulted by what this aunt did, I’ll bet it’s not just because of the particulars of this invite. I’ll bet there’s a long backdrop of past behaviour and infinitesimally small gestures and inflections between you that serve as a kind of meaning decoder. For you, this action it isn’t just this action, it’s a symbol; an instance of a pattern. It’s just one small visible protrusion of a whole subterranean network of roots.
But if that subterranean network isn’t common knowledge – if she doesn’t see it, and the rest of the family doesn’t either – then this particular incident just won’t look the same to them. You’ll see the whole – every other time you’ve been disregarded or minimised or just not thought of; and they’ll see the part – a minor logistical question.
I think this is why family arguments escalate so quickly; we often talk past each other about whether we’re objecting to the particulars of an incident, or what it’s an instance of. When there’s that kind of perceptual mismatch going on, it’s hard to get other people to agree that what so-and-so did was as Objectively Wrong as it has made us feel.
That doesn’t mean we have to forfeit the judgment that our feelings are Objectively Valid. It just means we have to source it elsewhere. We have to recognise that we feel the way we do because of the trend, not because of this one instance.
Once we do that, it feels a lot less important to win the dispute over this or that moment. We know the trend; we were there; whatever our relatives think of what’s happening now.
In time, if you choose to challenge this aunt directly, it will be clear what the terms of the dispute are. In the meantime, throw a better party, and toast to your ability to validate your feelings on your own.
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