Hollywood understands human nature. Why else would there be so many movies that portray the holidays being "enjoyed" by so many dysfunctional families? Perhaps the greatest enjoyment is ours as we laugh at and cringe at other families' dealing with their "stuff".
What makes these movies strike a chord with us is our personal experience with our own quirky families of origin and years of pleasantness and not-so-pleasantness around the proverbial family table. Let's just say, we've had our highs and lows!
Challenges of Spending Holidays with Our Family of Origin
It's all too easy to slip into our well-established place in the family system, the place that's reserved for us year after year. It doesn't matter that in the real world we're a successful adult making a name for our self in our chosen field. That we're respected, admired and even sought-after. When we're home, we're the middle child, the one with a temper, the one that flunked out of school, the one that never could quite measure up.
So, amazingly, we defy the laws of reason and slip right back into our childhood role in our family system, a role from which we've never been able to break free.
And then, of course, come the denial and the conspiracy of silence about our deep, dark family secrets. After all, if anyone knew that Mom is a drunk, Dad tortures kittens or Uncle Jake fondles little girls, giant billboards would be displayed in the center of town for all to see and life, as we know it, would end.
Challenges of Spending Holidays with Our In-Laws
Suddenly our spouse becomes a child again, unable to stand up for his rights, unwilling to stand up to her older brothers or parents, incapable of fulfilling the role of king or queen of your heart. We, the most important person in our partner's life, suddenly become an outsider, fighting for a valued place in the extended family. His or her family collectively becomes the Devil personified. So, again, the laws of reason are defied, denial ensues, and the gravy turns to sludge in your belly. Not to mention that no one makes stuffing like your mother!
Answers to the Dilemma/Coping Strategies
As a couple facing family for the holidays, here are strategies that have worked for us through the years. The longer we're married, the better they work, the quicker we bring them into play, and the more completely our sanity is restored.
On the drive or plane ride, begin the process of preparation – begin talking about concerns, fears and desires. Look at patterns from the past and adopt a mantra of "no surprises". What has worked in the past? What hasn't? It helps to have realistic expectations!
Talk about specific behaviors you'll institute this year that will help you cope. Discuss how each of you can offer verbal and nonverbal support to each other.
Agree on signals you can give each other to mean 1) I've had enough, I've got to get out of here, 2) I need to know I'm more important to you than your parents, 3) family – what're you gonna do?!
Clarify relational boundaries, those related to your couple relationship and those related to your extended family. Identify and claim what issues are yours, respect and relinquish what issues are your partner's and agree and commit to honor what issues are yours together.
During your visit, find ways to affirm each other for the competent, well-adjusted adult you've each become.
Remember that first and foremost you and your partner form a team. Affirm your solidarity. Your partner is not the enemy
Set in your mind a clear, vivid picture of your current family and home-sweet-home.
Practice deep breathing and meditation that can levitate you from the dining table into the realm of sanity
Plant positive messages in your brain such as 1) I am an adult; 2) I am not a victim; 3) I am thankful for my family, such as it is; 4) nobody's perfect; 5) I'll soon be home in my recliner watching the big game.
Conversation to Bring You Closer to Your Partner During the Holidays
Before the hustle and bustle of the season, find a quiet place for the two of you, pour a cup of tea or glass of wine, make eye contact and hold hands. Using your best communication skills, both talking and listening, take turns sharing:
List the things that would make this a positive holiday experience for you personally.
List the things that would make it harder for you personally to enjoy the holidays.
List the things you are personally willing to do to make this a positive holiday experience.
Agree together on several things you each will do to make this a positive holiday experience.
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