It's Time to Learn to Say 'No' to Your Overbearing Family

Sure, they might be mad that you're not willing to travel to see them this holiday. But then what?
family having dinner with no entry sign
"Happy" "Holidays" 2020 is a series about feeling connected and vaguely festive during the coronavirus pandemic.

Recently I heard a story from a friend, about a friend of hers who was desperately trying to maneuver his girlfriend out of giving in to visiting home for the holidays. And not visit just any home, but fly on a plane to Florida, without time to quarantine on the other end of the journey. My friend was being pumped for advice on what to tell the girlfriend. “She thinks I’m saying she’s not being safe,” the boyfriend said.


But that is exactly what the boyfriend is saying, because precisely what the girlfriend is doing is “not being safe.” He’s within his rights to call out this behavior, and to stand his ground about his boundary of “not wanting to deliberately expose himself and his loved ones to COVID.” Everyone else can be mad or disappointed about this. It’s uncomfortable for everyone. No one likes it. But here’s the thing: It’s not the end of the world.

I’m tired of situations like this, and tired of hearing about things like this. I need everyone to saddle the fuck up and say no to their families, maybe for the first time ever, in some cases. Just say no. Just say it and stand your ground. You don’t have to keep arguing. You don’t have to justify it. Just say no and go on with your life. You will never feel freer. I promise it will be OK.

Sometimes friends or members of a family disagree about the way each other lives, respectively. This is a fact of life. I put my silverware in the dishwasher with the handles pointing down, because the part you eat with gets cleaner that way; you put your silverware in the dishwasher handles up, because, to be honest I’m not sure why people do this. While one of these choices is clearly better, we don’t have to agree in order to load our dishwashers, which have nothing to do to each other. These kinds of things don’t come to a head or need to be agreed upon in order for all of us to go about our business. 


But holidays are one big collective decision among a group of people who sometimes have very little in common, in terms of values; sometimes all we share is mutual love and appreciation for one connecting person. It’s only natural that there will be some disagreement about what is done. In past holiday seasons, all decisions were minor enough that we could suffer in silent objection; you could gamely spoon a tiny bit of Aunt Gertrude’s congealed bean casserole onto your plate and feed it to the dog instead, or just buy the plane ticket because traveling there and back is less effort than arguing about why you can’t or don’t want to. 

COVID, I’m sorry to say, is not cowed by passive aggression or milquetoast objections followed by giving in sullenly to the strong-arming, guilt-tripping relative. The U.S. set a new record for COVID deaths in a single day this week, and the number is climbing. It broke the threshold of 100,000 hospitalizations for this first time this week, too. This is a direct result of people getting too lax and traveling places for the holiday. This is not the time for a fun secret vacation time; it’s not the time to think “I’m the special exception and nothing bad has happened to me personally yet”, and until something does I can do whatever I want because my actions don’t affect others” time (because in this pandemic, your actions do affect others).

This is especially not time to say, “my mom is making me so what can I do.” time. Unless your parents have material or financial control of your life or are otherwise abusive, which is a very real thing, this is a cop-out—you simply just don’t want to be bothered to make decisions for yourself. I promise the endless guilt-tripping loses its power if you stop picking up the phone. It’s time to stop letting relatives and their wanton sense of “togetherness” walk all over you and instead just say, “No, I can’t.” Let it sit there, let people be mad at or uncomfortable with it, and move on. 


I understand the impulse to want to continue the discussion, rather than lay down the law with your family. We have come a long way in the last decade or two in terms of amateur conflict resolution, in many ways for the better. (And if you haven’t even tried conflict resolution instead of rolling right over to your girlfriend’s dad, VICE’s Rachel Miller has an exceedingly good guide on how to tell your family you’re not coming home for the holidays.) We use “I” statements, we advocate for ourselves and our interests, we do radical candor where we are brutally honest but solution-oriented, we focus on the problem and not the person, we do active listening, we validate the other side of the situation by calmly repeating back what they said so they feel heard. 

But when we have the vast conflict-resolution toolbox of the internet, it can begin to feel like every problem is solvable in a way that is amenable to all parties, if only we locate the precise right angle of approach, find the right combination of words, perfect the logic of our arguments. At some point, the availability of all of these techniques became overwhelming pressure to do anything but say “no.”

When two parties are truly never going to see eye to eye, this is a false errand and a waste of time. Sometimes that’s how it is! Everyone won’t always understand. Everyone won’t always emerge from conflict with all their feelings intact and unhurt. Taking advantage of people’s good-natured desire to resolve conflict by making them do a tightwire resolution act where they can never actually win can even be an abuse tactic


While conflict resolution is always worth a shot, sometimes what’s actually needed is setting a boundary. A boundary doesn’t have to make sense to everyone else or make them comfortable; almost by definition, they don’t. A boundary is, “I won’t, for my own reasons I’m willing to state to you but not argue with you about further.” Boundaries are not harmful to other people; they are an integral part of asserting your own values and safety and standing up for yourself. You don’t have to be a psychological expert to know what they are or to use them. People who have problems with reasonable boundaries are abusive assholes who need to do their own work, and you can’t be responsible for either fixing everyone or making them comfortable all the time. You have to protect your own livelihood, especially when it comes to the pandemic, and that’s what boundaries are all about. 

Did you know that, statistically, 95 percent of holiday movies are about families standing up to each other for the first time?* The most wonderful time of the year is ALWAYS when shit comes to a head! Setting boundaries and fiercely defending them is practically a holiday pastime! You can still love each other.

So say “no” to a family member today. Say it gently, repeat it if absolutely necessary, but say it and stick to it. How do I know everything will be OK? If getting together for the holidays, in stark violation of all the scientifically sound advice in the world, risking the safety of yourself and your people, is the hill that your holiday-travel-insister chooses to die on, you know by that very fact they don’t respect you as a person anyway. That hurts to find out, but it will be fine; a perfect way to get them to start respecting you is to say no. 

*estimated; absolutely no data exists to back this up