Christmas is a time of joy and celebration but can also be a time of family tension. Unresolved family issues can surface at holiday gatherings. You may also find yourself having some unexpected responses.
Oftentimes you can find yourself being pulled back into your family role such as the peacekeeper, defender or justice seeker. You may find yourself arguing with Dad or competing with your sister-in-law. You’re a competent adult, but all of a sudden you find yourself reverting to a snarky adolescent when you’re sibling is getting their way “yet again.”
Family patterns that we thought were behind us, seem to resurface as we gather for holiday celebrations.
Additionally, when we marry, we join a new family. This new family is strange—they do things quite a bit differently than our own family of origin. Most often, we prefer what is familiar and tend to cast a negative light on what is different from our experience. We have more difficulty adapting to our spouses environment and their holiday celebration, where family traditions are lived out. If there have been hurtful comments or misunderstandings in the past, you may approach the reunion with trepidation.
With some forethought, you may just be able to have a new experience as you gather this Christmas. Here are a few things you can do to stay centered at your family gatherings this year:
If you find yourself being pulled into old patterns of childhood by your own family —
- Notice what your responses have been in the past. When did you find yourself being reactive on previous holidays?
- Anticipate what your family members might say or do that could trigger a regressive behavior on your part.
- When or if you feel yourself getting triggered—
- do something to take care of yourself. Excuse yourself to get a glass of water.
- Take a deep breath and remind yourself of who you are now and that you have a choice about how you respond. You don’t have to play your old role, even if others pull you to do so.
- Invite your spouse to help you stay clear of getting pulled into the family dynamic by developing a signal (a nod, a pull on the ear, whatever works for you!) that says, “I see what’s happening and I support your decision to resist the pull.” They can also invite you into the kitchen for a hug and word of encouragement.
If you are visiting your spouse’s family —
- Discuss with your spouse beforehand any apprehension you feel about the visit. Ask them to be aware, and if need be intervene on your behalf. Let them know that you want to enjoy their family as well, and if you can trust that they have your back, if anything inappropriate is done or said, you will be more able to relax and be present.
- Try to have an open heart and mind to learning the unique rhythm of your mate’s family. They do things differently and try to view it as just that—different, not bad or wrong.
- Be flexible. This is about letting go of expectations. There are many people’s wishes to consider. Have empathy for the challenge of making everyone happy.
- Look for the positive and tell your mate what you see.
Learning to embrace and enjoy your families is easier when you’re clear about who you are and when you know your mate has your back. Taking time to discuss expectations and hopes with your mate can help you stay on the same team during the visit and deepen your sense of connection.
Laura is a senior therapist at CPCC and author of Making Love Last: Divorce-Proofing Your Young Marriage