The satisfaction of the door slamming behind me was immeasurable. Rage shook me like an echo of the walls reverberating from the force. Why did I let him get to me?
“Woah, what did the door do to deserve that?” My roommate, standing in the kitchen with her signature cup of coffee, smiled at me with infuriating calmness. “Pretty sure the neighbors all felt that.”
“Sorry, I’m having a day.”
“So I see. Want to talk about it?” The chair legs scraped across the floor as she sat down.
No. I don’t. I can barely form coherent thoughts right now. I want to scream.
She waited, sipping her coffee, while I stormed through our shared living space, dropping keys and dumping bags inside my bedroom door.
“Your family again?” she said as I re-emerged.
I’m that transparent, I guess. “Why do I let them get to me so much?”
“I’ve told you I’m willing to help you process it if you want to get past it.” She leaned over and patted the chair next to her in invitation.
I fought my default reaction — resistance to her new-age psycho-babble — and remembered that I liked being her roommate because she brought calm to all my emotions. Maybe it was time to figure this out for good.
“I’m almost thirty and don’t want to feel guilty for making decisions and living my own life anymore. How come that’s so difficult for them to accept?” I dropped to the couch facing her, arms folded across the back cushions. Not quite fully committed to this self-evaluation, but open.
Venting felt good, the rage, irrational anger and frustration physically eased from my chest. She listened intently while I relayed the overview of what felt like a lifelong battle I couldn’t win: my brother and sister who planned for every holiday or occasion and expected me to act like I was still a child in my parent’s house. Both of them had married and started families and were content to continue our family traditions. I didn’t fit that nice little mold, and the traditions had never felt authentic to the adult I’d grown into. I had my own life, my chosen family, traditions I had created for myself that weren’t the same ones I had growing up.
“I wish there was a way to explain to them that it doesn’t mean I don’t love them or want to be with them if I don’t come to every single thing they plan. I’ve left the nest, but they expect me to still be tethered to it by our shared history of childhood traditions.”
“That seems like a reasonable statement, free of judgement, so why don’t you just say that?” she asked.
“Easy for you, you’re an only child who doesn’t have to deal with this kind of expectation.” I envied her simple family.
“Wrong,” she laughed. “I had to set boundaries with both of my parents when I left for college. I’m all they have, so it was very difficult for them to let me go without feeling sad when I didn’t come around as much as they wanted.”
She stared past me a little as if replaying memories. Maybe she could relate after all.
“So how did you escape?”
“Escape? Is that how you feel about it?” she asked, her head tilted thoughtfully as she regarded me.
Her question gave me pause, and I thought about my choice of words before I answered. “Yeah, mostly. It’s really the guilt about letting them down that makes me feel that way. That’s what I want to escape.”
“That’s because you haven’t addressed the underlying problem of the situation,” she said calmly.
Here we go with the navel-gazing internal reflection. I reminded myself to keep an open mind and hear her out.
“Which is?” I asked.
“It’s their expectations that the guilt comes from, right?” she asked.
“I guess… I mean I never really thought about it in those terms. We’ve always spent Christmas day together at home, so they assume I’ll keep doing it. Does that make it an expectation?”
“And when you said you wouldn’t be there this year because we are going to Cabo, how did that go exactly?”
“I said to my brother, ‘sorry I won’t make it this year. I’m going on a trip with my friends’, and he said ‘Great, I guess you would rather go party instead of honoring our family traditions and being together for Mom’s favorite holiday.’ I told him I couldn’t be guilted into doing something I didn’t want, he called me a selfish bitch, I hung up on him.”
“Maybe because you waited until the week before Christmas to spring this news on them? We’ve had this trip booked for months.”
“You think this is my fault? Great–”
“That’s not what I said. I’m trying to shift your perspective. Could it have gone differently if, back when we booked our flights, you’d reached out proactively telling them not to expect you for Christmas this year because you had just made plans?”
“Hmm,” I grunted. I didn’t like where this was going.
“The true issue here is not escape or even guilt, but avoidance. You want to keep the peace without laying the groundwork for what they can expect from you.”
My brain shifted, almost tangibly.
“Just because they are your family doesn’t mean you don’t have to work to maintain and foster relationships with them. How would you feel if it was me who had led you to believe that things would go exactly as they always have and then switched it up last minute?”
“Mmmm. Instead of trying to escape your family, try fostering real relationships with them. Treat them like you do your friends.”
The possibilities felt immense, and freeing.