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Navigating Complicated Relationships During the Holidays

Eva Amurri shares how to navigate complicated relationships during the holidays

This blog post was originally published on November 19th, 2018. 

Whooooo, has the past six months taught me anything about complicated relationships! LOL. (I mean if we can’t laugh about it, what can we do?) I had actually forgotten about this blog post entirely until a reader brought it to my attention, and I’ll say that it couldn’t be a better time to update it!

I still stand by every word, and I think now more than ever is a time to set really good boundaries in our lives. The pandemic has made so many dynamics feel out of control in a lot of ways, and I know at least for me that it has contributed to a lot of relationship anxiety! I’m sure others can relate in some capacity.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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Let’s get real and raw for a minute.  Thanksgiving is this week, Christmas is in a few weeks, and the truth of the matter is that the Holiday Season can be a really complicated time for a lot of people.  But that’s not the side of the story we ever hear about.  I adore the holidays just as much as the next person, but all around us, the rhetoric is all about happy families, perfect relationships, love, gratitude for friends and family, and just an overall feeling of cheer– with a focus on family and loved ones.  But for some people, relationships with family and loved ones can be more complicated than the cheerfulness of the holiday season would like you to believe.  In fact, I’d venture to say that most people have at least one complicated relationship that is tugging at their heartstrings during the holidays.

Today I just wanted to talk about that more shadowed side of the season, because I think that for any of us with these types of complicated relationships, this season of the year can leave us feeling “less than” in certain areas…and it shouldn’t.  And feeling like we can’t fully acknowledge the more complicated feelings can also make this time of the year THAT more draining.  And what those relationships are isn’t the important part– you know the ones in your life that make you feel sad, anxious, worried, angry, or pained.  The important part is allowing yourself to identify that those relationships exist…and to allow yourself to feel and experience those complicated feelings fully.  I know for me, identifying specifically how I feel actually helps me release a bit from the negative charge of those feelings.  It’s when I try to deny, to ignore, or to brush under the rug the way that I’m feeling that my anxiety and sadness can really flare-up.

So what works for me? Acceptance and Boundaries!

Over the years, I’ve realized that almost everyone I know has at least one complicated relationship in their life…and that the Holidays can trigger us all the same way.  Just talking about our experiences together really helps ground me in my own experience, and it’s nice to know that we are all feeling similarly this time of year! Going to therapy also really helps me.  Therapy has helped me identify my triggers, to know what I need to feel safe emotionally, and how to establish boundaries for myself that help me create positive scenarios in my life.  And it’s OK to set those boundaries!

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I think since we see “perfect” families and relationships so much in the media this time of year, we think that we have to play by that book, and go by that script.  But that isn’t real life–  and if the characters in your life aren’t like the perfect ones in movies and on TV, then you don’t have to do what they do either! For Kyle and I, honoring what we want to do as a family unit for the holidays, and leaning into the part of the season we love to experience with our kids the most really helps us enjoy our holiday time together to the fullest.  It took us a long time to figure out that we can totally do the holidays our way…and that it’s ok to do that unapologetically.  At the end of the day, honoring what you need is self-love at its purest.

What emotional boundaries mean to you obviously differs from person to person.  But identifying what they are is so important! For some people, it’s spending time with family during the holidays but choosing to stay in a separate hotel or house to get a bit of space.  Or it could be visiting family for the day only, or even choosing to forgo a holiday with extended family and taking off with immediate family only.  My point is, do what feels good to you.  If you’re stressed and anxious, everyone else will be around you.  And that includes children! Our kids need to see us at our best, and in environments that make us thrive.  If they watch us create that for ourselves, they’ll learn how to do it too.  I haven’t figured any of this out perfectly (I wish), but I am finally fully committed to caring for myself first during the holidays, and setting an example of self-love for my kids.  And that is something I’m really proud of.

I would love to know how you all navigate complicated relationships around the holidays, and if you have had a journey towards figuring out your own boundaries. Please share in the comments below, if you feel comfortable!

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Photographs by Julia Dags | Happily Eva After, Inc. © 2020 All Rights Reserved

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45 Comments

  1. Kate Ross says:

    Wow, great topic to discuss! For me, the complicated relationship is with one of my brothers. When it comes to family get-togethers we have decided that the best way for everyone to feel comfortable is to have the gathering take place at a neutral house (not mine or his basically)…we try our best to always have respect and kindness towards one another (and I think we succeed at this), and put our focus and energy into making sure the day is cheerful and fun for the kids.

    11.19.18 Reply
    • Thanks for sharing! I completely agree that neutral territory really helps a lot xoxo

      11.19.18 Reply
  2. Donna says:

    My difficult relationship is with MIL!!! It truly puts a damper on the Holidays for everyone my child included. It’s her way or the highway and doesn’t respect us as a family unit , trying to have our own traditions and special time. Worst of all, she lays it out nice and thick on my Husband if she doesn’t get way and then he blames me for her feelings!!! Sorry for the novel…..! I could go on for hours aboutvthis hot topic 😂😂😂

    11.19.18 Reply
    • GAH! I’m sorry. I hope you can get a bit of a break this year! xo

      11.19.18 Reply
  3. Stephanie Stefanoff says:

    Hi Eva,

    First of all I love that you’re touching on this as its been a point of contention for me, personally, for quite some time.

    The holidays for me, and I’m sure for a lot of people, means family, and spending time with my family. Unfortunately, I have a brother who has a bit of a tendency towards violence especially when alcohol is in the vicinity. I love my brother, but I don’t like him as a person. I understand drinking/addition can be a disability, but I can’t stand being around him and seeing him the way he is when inebriated. It drains me emotionally and makes me feel sad.

    The path I’ve chosen is to see my parents without seeing him–inviting my parents out for dinner to celebrate Christmas that way. My boundaries are set for my personal well-being. I’m also expecting my first child this spring so I don’t want to be exposed to that for that reason either.

    Thankyou again for posting about this 🙂

    -Steph

    11.19.18 Reply
    • I’m sorry to hear this, steph. That must be extremely draining for you, and I’m sure it is for your parents as well. I’m so glad you’ve set a boundary for yourself! Ultimately, you’re also setting up a great system of care and self care for your child to witness! xo

      11.19.18 Reply
  4. Irina Visan says:

    My boyfriend and I always have a tug of war during holidays to decide how much time we spend with each of our families and in which order 🙂 Last 2 Christmases we visited my brother because he has had a difficult couple of years emotionally… but this year we are not speaking (his choice). So that will be verry difficult to navigate during the holidays both for myself and my parents. I don’t have an answer yet but as you say I am trying to take the time to aknolwedge it, cry over it if I feel like I need to, and accept it as it is.
    Other than that I try to also focus on the positives and count my blessings and be super excited for Christmas as it’s my favorite holiday ever!

    11.19.18 Reply
  5. Lissa Kadel says:

    You are so right! Never a topic people discuss enough. My journey has been more complicated. Years ago I made the decision to separate myself from my family, which was very toxic to say the least. I made that decision around the time my eldest son turned 3 (he is now 23 and I also have a 17 year old son). It was the best decision for my peace and my feeling of security. But I’ve learned, through therapy as well, that that boundary needed to be set for me to be the best person to my circle, MY important people. Although, a lot of people’s reaction when I tell them is that of pity and feeling sorry for me, I tell them, “no! It’s a good thing.” For a few years I felt guilty because this was my family, my blood. But I always went back to the words of my therapist “When you make yourself a priority not only do you benefit, but so do those around you.” So what benefits me is setting those boundaries and putting my emotional needs first. And thankfully, I have stopped feeling guilty about it because I am (most of the time!) the best me for myself and all the peoole who make me happy. Thank you Eva for always being honest with us. ❤️ Happy holidays to you and your sweet family!

    11.19.18 Reply
    • Annie says:

      I can relate. I have a couple of toxic relationships in my life and my heritage is that family is everything. I have distanced myself completely from one and working on setting more boundaries with another. Ultimately we have to feel happy ourselves.

      11.19.18 Reply
  6. Alessandra says:

    Eva, thank you so much for this post. To navigate through sadness during the holidays I make a schedule: I allow myself to have time off from all the engagements to take a nap, read, or just be in my room and be sad for a while. So when I see people or family, I know I have enough energy to deal with them and to not make them feel sad or sorry for me, but to actually be the best version of myself. So I keep on doing engagements but it is crucial for me to not do “too much”. I like to make people happy but I also like to BE happy – and that involves times off where I can figure out the things that bother me about the holidays and work on them. Thank you for this post, again.

    Baci dall’Italia!
    Ale

    11.19.18 Reply
  7. Carrie says:

    Your post totally hit home this year! Boundaries are the biggest part of the holidays for me. At first the boundaries definitely feel like you are almost punishing yourself, in the end it’s for the best. My alcoholic father has had a relapse for the past 6 months and has yet to go back to rehab. I told him over a month ago my boundaries and my expectations for him if he wants me and my family there for thanksgiving. Unfortunately he didn’t follow through. The hardest part is that my mom doesn’t have boundaries with him and zero follow through either, so although my family sees my boundaries as being selfish, this is the most supportive thing I can do for myself and for them. Man it sucks but in the long run, being happy with my husband and my family unit is the best thing for us. Especially since we are trying to get pregnant. I need to start setting boundaries so that when we are lucky enough to have a baby, our family will be in a happy place.

    11.19.18 Reply
  8. Justina says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. There is so much pressure to play nice with everyone during the holidays in order to not make waves. I’ve had to realize over the last few years, that if I have set boundaries with certain family members for the rest of the year, they need to be honored during the holidays. I think the ongoing hardest part is the guilt some family members can put on me when I enforce those boundaries. I’m lucky enough to live 10 minutes down the street from where we celebrate Christmas, so I can go home and take break when needed.

    11.19.18 Reply
  9. Katy says:

    Circumstances might change, but my husband & I have already started coaching ourselves for our children’s adult experiences of the holidays. If our kids have other plans my husband & I will take a trip on the actual holiday. We will be flexible if they want to gather that day, another day, or not at all. Easier said than done, but the oldest is 7 so I still have some time ;).

    11.19.18 Reply
    • Mel G says:

      Katy, growing up my mum claimed Christmas Eve as HER time for the family Christmas gathering, which freed up Christmas Day to go to the other parent or boyfriend/husband’s family without guilt. As luck would have it, none of us have in-laws close by so Mum doesn’t have to share after all!

      11.20.18 Reply
  10. Roberta says:

    I love your post and how you try to give your point of view. But I think in this post there’s something missing, I accept your privacy but in this case you choose to talk about something personal but not really.. Maybe if you choose something that youwant really share you should say something more so that we can identify and we can talk it better. But anyway I love your blog and your posts..much love

    11.19.18 Reply
    • Chelsea says:

      Oh I completely disagree. I think Eva nailed the balance of sharing where she is at and not gossiping with a level of grace that is often lost these days. In my opinion, this post felt thoughtful and authentic, and sharing details beyond what she did could possibly hurt or cause unnecessary drama with the family members she is referring to. I often struggle with how to authentically share how I am doing when I am in conflict with someone and other people in my life have relationships with that person, and I personally appreciate this example from Eva.

      11.19.18 Reply
      • Ashleigh says:

        I agree!!!! Love this post. And i appreciated that it was mature and not gossipy. It made the feeling of frustration relatable and an option on how to handle it. It made me feel less alone. If it had been specific it would have been harder to relate to that exact issue.

        11.22.18 Reply
    • Sarah says:

      I agree. I think when you have a blog and insta like Eva does and share as much as she does this post feels superficial. And her comment about perfect families and holidays being portrayed in social media-she is guilty of doing this ! I don’t know where the line is for what she should share but if you write an advice post like this and you have openly shared you and your partner are separating, I think some mention of how you are going to navigate the first major holiday as a separated couple is necessary. We don’t need to know the exact details but this blog post is so vague. People know the importance of setting boundaries and checking in with yourself but hey it’s hard to do! For someone who wrote blog posts with her partner about their marriage and is open about going to therapy I think more honesty is needed. Not everything has to be perfectly curated and photoshopped. Life is messy. I feel like this blog is becoming one big sponsored ad which is sad because I first started reading it when Eva was more open about her struggles with PPD

      11.25.19 Reply
  11. Alice says:

    Hurray, this is the topic I suggested when you asked about ideas in your Instagram stories! I’m so glad it turned into a whole post that can hopefully help people feel less guilty or pressured to wear rose-colored glasses during the holiday season. As someone with a complicated family history, boundaries and doing this “as a unit” with my partner like you described has been key. Thanks for empowering others to do the same and feel less alone!

    11.19.18 Reply
  12. Nicole says:

    Through therapy I learned that a toxic relationship is just that; toxic. It doesn’t matter who the person is, family, friend or coworker. You have to put you and your family first. For me it was setting boundaries and when the boundaries weren’t respected repeatedly then we couldn’t do holidays together anymore. I was lenient with it until I had children. Once I had my son, I felt it was unfair to watch us be stressed or be around that stress when it’s supposed to be a joyus occasion. I think it’s ok not celebrate with certain people for those reasons, the holidays shouldn’t be something to dread.

    11.19.18 Reply
  13. Taylor says:

    And this is why you are my favorite blogger. I can’t even tell you how much I needed this. Being a mom of 2 and trying to create our own traditions while having 2 sets of grandparents competing for the most time with my kids not only puts so much stress on my husband and I, but our children as well. It’s made me completely sick at the thought of holidays the last couple of years. But with some therapy and some boundaries I’ve learned that I have the power to make them exactly what I want for my babies. Nobody talks about this, so thank you for making this mom feel a little less alone in a world where this perfect family narrative is constantly thrown in our faces. ♥️

    11.19.18 Reply
  14. Dominique H says:

    Just like some of the other posts mine is also my MIL. She focuses so much on how holiday time needs to be equal between the grandparents that she misses all the joy. My husband has tried to talk to her but she never sees our side. I am resigned to the fact that she will always be this way. I know that I can control how she affects me. I do my best to give my kids a fun holiday season and I just assume I am making her mad and I’m ok with that 🙂

    11.19.18 Reply
  15. Roxanne says:

    I remember years ago, I’d say almost 16, my mom decided it was ok to take me with the family to my aunts new home in the mid west. She had just moved there from California a year or trek earlier, and she wanted the entire family to come spend the holidays in her large new home. I’d say it was a total of 17 of us split up in different rooms, and some common areas of the house. Crazy. I can’t even fathom doing this now. I was abused by an older cousin of mine when I was a child, and had not come out about it until I was 13 or 14. So I had recently spoken about it. It tore my family apart. Of course, I was seen as the black sheep and very much emotionally punished for it. So this crazy idea of spending the holidays together comes up, and my mom being the worst parent ever figured it was ok for us to go too. I’ve never really gotten along with my mom. My dad left when I was very young, and my mom put her profession first. I was raised by my grandparents, and whoever was around of my family members. Unfortunately that caused so much emotional damage for me. That trip ended up being a disaster, and I sensed it coming all along. My mom never asked me if i felt comfortable with going. She never gave me my place as a daughter, we can obviously see that in her placing herself before me at all costs. I feel parents should really consider their kids feelings. Especially when delicate situations as this one arise. I feel as common as love, and respect should be. If parents don’t set those boundaries, and example with theirs.. everyone else who has the least bit of humanity and common sense will walk all over you. Unfortunately, we harbor all this damage and it all comes back to bite us as we get older. I’m almost 30 now, and I still don’t have a good relationship with my mother. She continued to make the most selfish choices throughought the years. Holidays are coming up and due to financial strain I’m stuck packing all my things and waiting on a situation to settle so I can leave. I’m surrounded by medical school debt, and don’t even want to know anything about the holidays. I wish I had that close loving family to spend the holidays with, but I’ve realized now more than ever that family isn’t always those who carry your blood/genes. I’ve been through so much in my life that I could probably never finish writing it here from abandonment issues, to chronic health issues, to disappointment after disappointment, and all I can say is: it’s never to late to heal or set boundaries for yourself. Especially is those around you don’t love or appreciate you the way you deserve.

    11.19.18 Reply
  16. Jamie says:

    I don’t speak to two of my sisters and it upsets my parents. They wish all of us kids would just get along at the holidays, set our differences aside. It’s really frustrating because it makes me feel like they think are “differences” are petty when in reality, I don’t have anything to do with them on moral grounds, not because one of them didn’t return a sweater they borrowed or something. It blows my mind that we were all raised in the same house by the same people and yet somehow they grew up to live lives that just don’t make sense to me. So I really agree with setting boundaries! I’ve made it perfectly clear that I don’t want to be surprised by their presence anytime of the year but the holidays can complicate that and calls for separate gatherings. Is what it is and I’m not willing to sacrifice my beliefs to make it easier on my parents!

    11.19.18 Reply
    • Annie says:

      I learned a long time ago that it doesn’t matter if you were raised in the same household. Everyone has different personalities and as my dad always says “You are who you hangout with”. This in someways is true to me. Once a sibling leaves the house and are gone long enough they start mirroring other people in their lives. It’s insane how some people have such a positive effect and others it’s such a negative one that you don’t even recognize them anymore. I’m in the same situation with one of my siblings. It’s never fun and always awkward, but I push through and try to make the best of it. Took years for me to get over the fact that they are no longer that fun and loving person. I know people grow and change, but it just sucks when they turn from being the most amazing person to this negative one. Good luck, and I hope you find peace with your sisters.

      10.28.20 Reply
  17. I so needed this today!! I am currently establishing my own boundaries for the holidays and reminding myself that I don’t need to feel bad because I want to set my own traditions with hubby and kiddos.

    11.19.18 Reply
  18. Jessica says:

    Thank you for discussing this topic. It’s such a painful time of year for people who have experienced a family betrayal, and/or decided to go no contact with relatives. I know I made the right decision to protect my mental health and my daughter’s, but the fact that they decided to replace me rather than apologize is heartbreaking. I read somewhere “it’s amazing the lengths some people will go to in order to avoid looking at themselves.” Anyway, thank you ❤️

    11.19.18 Reply
  19. Jess says:

    Omg THANK you on the boundaries and space thing. I’ve been anxiety ridden for days over the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend that my fiancé and I will be spending back in (literally) the middle of nowhere Kansas – I’m talking the actual middle. My parents usually insist on us staying at their house since everything civilized is so far away and since we’re not married yet, you better believe we sleep across the house from each other. This, along with the stress of just everything else means my anxiety is on overdrive. It makes me not even want to go. Which isn’t what holidays should be about. Add onto that, that we live in Boston and only get to see them 1-2 times/year so I feel guilty for wanting space in the first place. But I think this year it might be better if we do go find that hotel and spend the days/evenings with them – and that’s it. So again, thank you for actually saying that establishing boundaries for yourself is ok and sometimes necessary. Girl, you’re on to something.

    11.19.18 Reply
  20. Annie says:

    Yes! Yes! Yes!Great advice Eva! I am giving myself a lot of grace this year and not hosting any holidays this year because of the anxiety it gives me to have a house full of family I only see at Thanksgiving and Christmas. We said ENOUGH this year. I’m at peace with our decision and looking forward to new opportunities for creating memories with my immediate family. It only took me 20 years. Where was your blog then?

    11.19.18 Reply
  21. Laura says:

    What a great article — maybe not the most glamorous holiday topic but probably one of the most common. Thanks for sharing.
    I don’t have relationships with my siblings and we really don’t speak, yet my mother gets very emotional when the holidays roll around and everyone isn’t together hugging and holding hands at the table. She has this idea in her head of “everything should be perfect and we are family” and yet sometimes the people you are closest with are those you love and care about (and vice versa) and not necessarily your family members. My siblings and I have accepted our “non relationship” status but our poor mother hasn’t. I do feel guilty but I also feel very true to myself and won’t sacrifice my own feelings so we can pretend to be this faulty-image family. My husband and I create our own traditions for our little kids and do the best we can.
    I will say your article created curiosity about what you go through with this topic, but I guess we’re all left to our own imaginations.
    Thanks again for sharing. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

    11.20.18 Reply
  22. Amie says:

    Hi Eva,
    I really appreciate this post. I am en route to a mini family vacation with just my husband and our 2 kids for the first time ever during a holiday. While I am sad to be missing traditions, I am excited for memories to be made, and like you – proud for my kids to learn it is ok to break from the pull of tradition to set boundaries. Happy Thanksgiving!

    11.21.18 Reply
  23. Crystal says:

    I normally don’t write to blogs…but there’s a family situation that is just so difficult it makes it hard to focus these days and is causing so much anxiety. My husband is a twin and his twin married my Hs best friend. It’s been 10 years for us all. We’re all married with child and they are expecting their first. After i had my daughter 3 years ago we became distant and just don’t talk any more. Now that they are having their baby I’ve tried reaching out to her and she just does not want to talk things out. In the years I’ve known her we’ve always had falling outs. But now that kids are involved it worries me that we always get back to this place. And I don’t know why. She doesn’t acknowledge her niece my daughter either. It makes me so angry and sad. I think of all things well miss out on as a family. She also has this competitive feel about her…like we can’t be happy for each other, we both can’t be doing great in life…I don’t know what to do anymore I feel like it’s affecting everyone especially husband and his brother…

    09.16.19 Reply
  24. Jen says:

    Thank you for keeping it real! As a psychotherapist I teach the above daily! As a human being I am reading this right after receiving a guilt tripping passive aggressive message from my father. Acceptance and boundaries will be my takeaway from this article! Thank you!

    11.25.19 Reply
    • Sometimes it’s easy to see in other’s people’s lives and hard to adopt in our own. I totally get that!

      11.26.19 Reply
  25. Jenny says:

    I needed to hear this today. Thank you. ❤️

    11.25.19 Reply
  26. Tracy says:

    It feels like you’re never truly honest about your relationships so this whole post is vapid. 🙁

    11.25.19 Reply
  27. Becky zuckerberg says:

    For me. It means having some control over my space. We accomplish this by taking every one out for dinner in a neutral space.

    11.25.19 Reply
  28. Mary says:

    I feel that so many of us have less than perfect family dynamics but the absurdity of holiday happiness is put on us by advertising/consumption to which blogs contribute to. So many blogs fail to mention a reference to the religious aspect behind Christmas. I realize that bloggers make their $$$ from clicks so getting clicks can give them the ever mentioned anxiety feeling. Life existed before Instagram and blogging, I wish it was possible to revert back. It is, put down the phone and camera, liberate oneself.

    11.26.19 Reply
  29. Glenda says:

    I’m all about boundaries. When my kids were younger we never went HOME to families for the holidays. WE always did our own thing. Our own traditions, etc. We went to visit mostly in the summer months, where we had more time to split the visits between both families. It worked for us.

    11.27.19 Reply
  30. Jacqueline says:

    My ex and I have been separated for 12 years and we alternate Christmas Eve every year. Whoever has our son for Christmas Eve brings him to the other parent for noon on Christmas Day and then we resume our usual schedule. It has always worked! Now that we’ve both had other children, it seems to still work well. And since my other son is still young and doesn’t have a concept of dates, we celebrate Christmas morning the day before so that the boys can be together. His dad does the same at his house with his other kids. It was hard to get used to Christmas Eve (my favorite part) without my son, but you get used to! The important piece for me is making the holidays special, valuing the time you do get with your kids and my ex and I help each other work out dates that are important to both of us, ie: extended family dinners if they don’t fall on scheduled times. If we model respect and communication, our kids will only benefit!

    10.25.20 Reply
  31. Nat says:

    My partner and I have definitely pared down our holidays with certain people. My father is problematic, and so is my partners older brother and wife. Gatherings are short and sweet and if we don’t keep them that way things get testy. The nice thing is we have have a great relationship with my partners younger brother, wife, and mom. So good that we’re all introverts and we can handle staying in a 2 bedroom apartment for a week and love (almost) every minute of it. If that’s not the ultimate test I dont know what is.

    10.27.20 Reply
  32. Susan says:

    I had a complicated relationship with my mom (who died in 2013 at the age of 97). I loved her dearly but she was so needy of my time. She had friends where she lived about 20 minutes away but always wanted me and to be included in everything. We literally couldn’t visit my in laws without her wanting to come along and being hurt/angry if we wanted the other grandparents to have time with the kids. Obviously this was a real problem around holidays. Truth is, I tried but was never able to set boundaries because it hurt her so much. Even family vacations had to include her. And to make matters worse, she never realized her behavior was inappropriate. My dad had died in 1988 and from then on, I was it!
    Looking back to my childhood and young adulthood, she was pretty great- engaged, fun and steady. Losing my dad allowed all her insecurities to surface.
    Ok, I’m rambling but I guess my point is that setting limits can be so hard, especially when it hurts someone else by your doing so.

    10.27.20 Reply