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Our unvaccinated family is mad we’re not coming for the holidays. What can we do?

An important relationship could become even more strained.

My mother-in-law and her husband, along with several adult family members, remain determinedly unvaccinated against COVID-19, so spending time at their home is not an appealing prospect for the holidays. Any discussion only makes her defensive. In her mind, our not spending time with the family over the holidays is entirely our choice, and she plays no active part in our decision-making process. How do we navigate this without further straining a family relationship that is important to me—but even more paramount to her son? For over 20 years we have managed to enjoy holidays together despite our differences.


Anonymous / Somerville

I’m so sorry you—and so many others—are in this situation. The sad and simple fact is that the people we love can choose to reject us, and there is not much recourse to that. Sometimes people will sever ties or simply freeze you out with no explanation. The rejection hurts, but at least it can be named and understood.

It’s more complicated when people close to you (frequently family), don’t end a relationship but, instead, create conditions for it that are incompatible with your well-being. The people who want you at their table, as long as you will stay in the closet, or pretend their insults are jokes, or be polite to your abuser, or enable their addictions—or, or, or—and who will claim you rejected them if you reject their conditions. For a while, maybe, you go along, because you value the relationship. But here’s the thing—at a certain point, it isn’t a relationship, because you’re not you anymore.

I have to wonder if your relationship with your in-laws has unfortunately reached that point, because this is not how people who want to spend holidays with family behave. Replace the politicized, hot-button topic of the vaccine with anything else, and it becomes clearer. Suppose that after 20 years of family gatherings, you suddenly developed a debilitating, irrational phobia of trees or Mariah Carey or asphalt or some such, that made celebrating as usual impossible. How would a loving family respond to that, even if they knew you were entirely delusional, even if they had no intention of permanently altering their lifestyle for you? Would they suggest compromises, try to brainstorm on workarounds or alternate ways of getting together? Or would they shrug and say, “You choose, you lose?”


Maybe your in-laws are Stealth Rejectors; hopefully not. If not, maybe—maybe—you can shift the discussion from arguing the science of the vaccine to collaborating to engineer alternative ways of seeing each other within everyone’s comfort zones. (Outdoor games? FaceTime in for carols?)

The only real advice I can give you is to talk to your husband. This is the relationship you need to be pouring your energy into right now. It’s vital that the two of you make decisions together and present a united front to his family.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.