I think the holiday season is a bittersweet one for many people. It is a time when we have to feel the consequences of whatever boundaries we’ve set with the people who matter to us. We’ve created distance with them, and for good reason. And we don’t regret that decision. Yet, going through the old familiar traditions, ones steeped in memories (some good, some bad) that, at one time, included those people, can be hard. We wonder if things will ever get better. If the boundaries we set intending to reduce harm will actually succeed, or if they will permanently end the relationship.
We fear this because experience has taught us that, often, boundaries don’t lead to reconciliation. People’s feelings get hurt when we create distance. They become resentful. They refuse to do the work of looking inward, healing, growing. And so, the boundary must remain. The relationship fizzles. And often, we are the ones left with grief to process.
This holiday season, I want to share a story of hope from my own family. I know not all stories end like this. In fact, I’d wager most of them don’t. But I think it’s important to show that, when families choose to do the work of reconciliation, it can happen. We all need hope sometimes. Especially during the holidays.
This picture is of my family at one of my holiday gatherings last week.
There are multiple relationships here that have been strained over the years. Just to name a few, there are:
- My husband and me, who separated two years ago and then reconciled
- My dad and my half-sister, who didn’t speak for several years due to differences that they just couldn’t seem to move past
- My two nephews, now 21 and 23, who distanced themselves from the family due to the complicated dynamics between their mom and their grandfather
- My trans sister-in-law, who came out a year ago and whose transition my conservative parents really had a hard time understanding at first.
I anticipate there might be some people reading this and asking themselves what is wrong with my family that we have gone through this much strife. But I’d wager that this is a pretty typical family dynamic. Families are complicated and messy. Where love is deep, so is pain. They say we hurt the ones we love and that’s not because we enjoy hurting those people, but rather, because the people we love care enough about us to be hurt by our words and actions. I think most families feel uncomfortable airing out their dirty laundry, which is completely understandable. But this reluctance to share the struggles within our families leads to the false perception that most families are healthy and functional. And that there’s something wrong with families that aren’t.
My family recognized that we needed to mend relationships. That we all needed to invest in the important work of self-care and personal growth that would allow us to heal. For some of us, that meant setting boundaries and walking away for a time. For others, it meant having the hard conversations. Tending to the wounds that came out of those conversations, and then trying again. It’s been a lot of hard work, and it was seldom enjoyable.
But now, on the other side, there is healing and hope.
During our separation, my husband and I both went to loads of therapy to heal the things that our marriage broke in us. When we found each other again, we were new people. The kind of people who could work through our issues without blowing up or sweeping them under the rug. We’re building a marriage that is so much stronger than the first one, and for the first time in years, we are overwhelmingly happy.
My father and half-sister spent years oscillating between trying to work it out and not speaking to each other. They chose to take some time apart. They both worked on themselves. Tried to understand each other better. And with time, they healed enough to start over.
My parents had to do a lot of soul-searching to do, and educating themselves to understand my trans sister-in-law. They were raised in a different generation, one that didn’t have much openness to queer people. My husband and I had to work hard to help them understand and to overcome some long-held beliefs. They chose openness and acceptance. They allowed themselves to learn something new, to change. They became wonderful, loving supporters of my sister-in-law and embrace her fully—just as she is and as she deserves.
There is love and tenderness in this family now. And not the fragile kind that is held tenuously together by everyone pretending like problems don’t exist, but rather, the kind that lasts. The kind that was forged by boundaries, by hard conversations. By going to therapy when needed. By choosing love again and again and again.
In some seasons, choosing love looks like leaning in. In others, it looks like stepping away. Sometimes, you don’t know whether these loving actions will result in reconciliation or not. But when it’s family, it’s worth that risk.
Before I conclude, I want to make it abundantly clear that sometimes reconciliation is not possible. The hurt is too deep, or the offending party refuses to cooperate. It is completely valid, acceptable, and even loving to walk away from relationships that aren’t healthy. You haven’t failed. This article isn’t meant to convince you that all families can and should heal. Rather, I just want to offer my family’s story as a beacon of hope—proof that, sometimes, it can be done.
Wherever you are, in whatever season, I’m sending love to you and your family. This time of the year can be hard. I hope you’re taking care of yourself, taking care of your people.
I wish you all the love and acceptance you so earnestly deserve.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.