How do I maintain boundaries with toxic family members over the holidays?

We’ve all been there.

William Prince of Wales and Catherine Princess of Wales at Windsor with Prince Harry Duke of Sussex ...
Shutterstock/Dewey Saunders
Reading the Room
ByKhalila Douze

Welcome to Reading The Room, Mic’s tarot advice column. The times we live in can make it tough to feel grounded — and it turns out that’s even the case for some of the most famous people in the world. So, we’ve asked writer and tarot card reader Khalila Douze to help navigate some of life’s trickiest existential dilemmas — the ones celebrities deal with in public and many of the rest of us face in private — by interpreting what the cards have in store.

The British royal family is famous for lots of things — not least of which is their publicly toxic family dynamics. The layers of dysfunction go so deep, it would take days to unpack; instead, we’ll focus on a recent and relatable tidbit. Over the past couple of years, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry have gone to great lengths to disentangle themselves from the rest of the so-called “senior royals,” but not even a 3,000-mile (give or take) oceanic barrier solves all problems. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have reportedly decided against joining the King Charles-hosted royal Christmas extravaganza in Sandringham — which may or may not have to do with the revealing Harry & Meghan Netflix special that just aired and Prince Harry’s forthcoming memoir, Spare, set to be released mere weeks after Christmas. We may not all have record-breaking documentaries and imminent bestsellers that divulge our family’s deepest and darkest secrets, but plenty of us can relate to the whole problem of dealing with toxic family members around the holidays. So, we put ourselves in Duchess Meghan’s shoes and asked Douze what the tarot cards have to say about this particular struggle.

Dear Room Reader,

I’ve always had a complex relationship with my in-laws, and I recently moved a long distance away with my partner to get some space and forge a life away from their constant presence. But the holidays always complicate things, since they’re so family- and tradition-oriented — and my partner’s family is really close-knit. I’m not sure if I should just give in and visit them for the holidays, or if I should focus on protecting this newfound distance and insist on building our own holiday traditions. I don’t want to cut them off completely, but I don’t want to lose my holidays (and my own holiday enjoyment) either. What should I do?

— Hesitant for the Holidays

Khalila Douze

Dear Hesitant for the Holidays,

The first card I pulled for you, the Four of Swords, makes clear that this distance between you and your in-laws has put your mind at ease. The time apart from your partner’s parents has clearly allowed you to rest. The Four of Swords can symbolize a period of reflection, contemplation, and meditation. Has being away from them offered you that kind of respite? If so, the fact that the card is upright tells me this has been not only very good for you, but also very necessary. Swords, the air element in the tarot, speak to the workings of the mind and evoke logic, rationale, communication, and strategy. In your case, it feels like they’re specifically symbolizing the boundaries you have placed around your relationship with these in-laws.

Your second card, the King of Swords, is also coming out upright. In this case, I feel your swords speak directly to your questions around tradition. Similar to boundaries, traditions can be experienced as a set of rules to follow, like the ritual of decorating a Christmas tree every year with sentimental ornaments or baking certain types of cookies during the holiday season. The King of any element of the tarot embodies authority, strength, mastery, and wisdom. The King of Swords, specifically, prioritizes integrity, honesty, and order when it comes to thinking and communicating. With all the swords in your reading, I also sense a need to defend your decisions and your words, and to stand in your truth. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s most effective if you do so in a respectful manner. Spontaneity won’t do you, your partner, or your in-laws any favors here. Instead, make a game plan (whether that’s doing your own thing for the holidays or compromising and spending some time with the family) and communicate it clearly. Start by discussing it with your partner, and then decide together the best way to not only share the plan with the larger family, but also how you’ll protect your mental and physical space if they push back. Channel the King’s authority and strength, while leaving behind arrogance and anger.

The Star card closes out your reading, signifying that a deep sense of harmony and balance is on the horizon. I want to highlight the word balance, as The Star often turns up after a difficult, sometimes tumultuous period. What you’re trying to iron out here isn’t easy. The Star is a Major Arcana card, meaning this is one of life’s most powerful lessons. You’re learning about how to take care of yourself so that you can be there for others. The Star suggests there may indeed be an element of compromise involved in your decision. You mentioned that you don’t want to cut your in-laws off completely. Is there a way for you to engage them while maintaining the distance that’s important to you in this relationship? Are there any traditions your spouse’s family keeps that you find particularly meaningful or festive? Can you find ways to continue to participate in those while making space for the ones you want to develop? For example, maybe you’d feel more comfortable hosting them in your new home, or planning to do so next year. You can make clear that showing up for family during the holidays — in whatever capacity you choose — is important to you. But in order to maintain a healthy relationship, one where you don’t grow resentful or resort to cutting them off completely, it’s important for them to show up for you in the ways you need, too.

Have more burning life questions? Douze is available for private, virtual tarot readings.