More Tips for Holiday Survival with Family

Holiday Family Dynamics

It seems like the intense feelings people had immediately after the election have simmered down a little.  But with the inauguration coming, flare-ups are inevitable.  One potential hot spot could be at the Christmas (or another holiday) dinner table.

In my last post, I shared thoughts about how to navigate things with your family.  This time, I’m going to look at how to navigate the holidays with your spouse’s family.  Firecrackers might go off, without you even seeing them coming.  For those of you who missed it, I’ve included it at the end of this post.

In this entry I talk about your “spouse.”  Please know that I’m using this word out of convenience, and you can insert your boyfriend/girlfriend, significant other, best friend, partner, etc. in its place.

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When you walk in the door at your parents’ house for the holidays, you know what to expect.  Your father greets you at the door, wearing his Bill Cosby sweater for the 25th year straight.  You cringe as you reflect on the recent allegations regarding Bill, but you don’t want to rock the boat and keep your mouth shut.  Appetizers are at 2 and dinner is served at 3:45 on the dot.  At 6:15 p.m. everyone walks around the neighborhood to look at Christmas lights and then have fudge at 7 when you return.  Only then do you open up presents.  What seems overly scheduled and boring to others is as comfortable for you as your favorite sweats.

When you get to your spouse’s house, things will be radically different. Uncle Max will sit outside and smoke a cigar and sip some Bushmill’s, rain, snow, or shine at 3 p.m, just as he has for the last forty years.  Her entire family will duel over the election and feelings will be hurt.  You know you’ll have to shout to be heard, so you’ll just button your lips. Someone will drink way too much and break into traditional Irish folk songs.  Eventually, your wife will probably be set off by something that won’t make sense.  But your confusion is beside the point, because you aren’t there to make sense of things.  You’re there to roll with things, be supportive, and hopefully have some fun hanging out with Uncle Max.

As much as it’d be great to be spontaneous and spend the entire evening with Uncle Max, you know that would be a disaster.  Instead, when it comes to HER family, the best way to have fun is to prepare ahead of time.  Talk about who’s going to be there and what they typically do that gets her goat. Then make a plan for what you’ll do when she’s had her fill and needs a break.  Perhaps you’ll go for a walk or a coffee.  Maybe you’ll see old friends.  You might even plan to take a vacation from your vacation and go away ASAP after dinner.

More Tips For Holiday Survival with Family Once there, check-in with your spouse from time-to-time.  If she’s starting to get frazzled and dragged into those same family disagreements from 20 years ago, take her away from the festivities for a moment and suggest that you do some of the things you planned ahead of time.

Keep in mind that you may have to be strategic about when you take your break.  You could get in the way of family traditions and cause more problems than it’s worth.  Rather than skipping the 30-year tradition of taking eggnog and Aunt Sally’s inedible fruitcake to all the neighbors and upsetting everyone, take time away before or after the ritual.  Once you’ve had your time away, it’s more likely you’ll enjoy yourselves (and be more enjoyable).

Also, cut her some slack.  When at home, she’s probably kind and considerate and you get along well.  When with her family, things probably won’t go so smoothly, and she might get crabby.  Rather than getting on her for being less than elegant, try to understand that she’s putting all of her energy into managing her family.  She’s doing her best to be pleasant to you, even if it doesn’t seem like it.  If you find yourself getting crabby, take a moment and remind yourself that the holidays are only a small moment in time. And after you’ve both had a chance to detox, things will be back to normal.  Also, keep in mind that you’ll be with your family next time, and they’ll do all the nonsensical things that they do.  And you’ll want her to have your back.

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Here is my previous post:

Recently, my client “Dave” has been worried about his yearly visit to Southern California. He and his wife and kids are spending Christmas with his parents and siblings and staying for a few days afterwards. As Dave is a chef, the unspoken expectation is that he’s going to prepare a lavish feast. And for the last eight years, he has. While others relax, he spends the entire day cooking, getting little help from anyone but his mother and wife. By the time the celebration starts, he’s resentful, exhausted and in no mood to celebrate.

And others fulfill their roles. His brother socializes, doesn’t even offer to help, and drinks too much. His sister snaps at everyone and leaves in a huff. His father tells loud, inappropriate jokes that make others uncomfortable.

Dave wants things to be different this year. He has already told his parents that he’s taking the year off from cooking. He has suggested either a potluck or going to a restaurant. He has also made plans to take his wife and kids to Disneyland for a couple of days. He then plans to return to his parents’ house for their last night before heading home.

Just as Dave is trying a new strategy this year, each of us has to figure out what to do differently, to increase the chance of enjoying the holidays with our families. Here are some thoughts to keep in mind as you prepare to go.

It’s OK to break lifelong patterns of behavior. There’s nothing like time spent with family for you to suddenly find yourself talking and acting like you did when you were a teenager living at home. When you realize you’re doing this, gently remind yourself that you are now an adult, and as long as you aren’t rude or inconsiderate, you are free to behave however you want.

Be aware that your siblings and parents are also likely to repeat their lifelong patterns. The brother who has always said mean things in order to knock you down will probably try to do the same this year. Remind yourself not to take his bait. Instead, take a deep breath and respond to him as calmly and kindly as possible. Eventually, he’ll lose interest and pester others.

Despite the inevitable pressure to be together for EVERY MINUTE of your visit, take breaks from your family. Be it spending an evening with a friend, heading away overnight, or just taking a walk around the block after dinner, if you spend some time away from your family you’re more likely to enjoy your time with them.

Regardless of what you plan to do differently, be aware that you will probably feel the pressure to act like you always have. If you stick to your guns and do what makes you (and your spouse and children) happy, rather than giving in and feeling badly afterwards, it’s likely that you’ll leave feeling satisfied and (almost) ready for next year.

 

One Response to More Tips for Holiday Survival with Family
  1. elizabeth
    December 13, 2016 | 10:05 am

    Good advice, although I must say the first scenario sound rather fun….like an episode of all in the family, or perhaps the kardasians or blue bloods at their Sunday dinner…..

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