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Family Holidays: Celebration Or Mayhem? How To Cope With Illness, Aging, And Unresolved Issues

joseph-nowinski“It was the best of times, the worst of times…it was the season of light…it was the season of darkness…” quoted from Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities. The holidays often remind us of our best memories and our worst family reunion nightmares. The holiday season alone puts a lot of stress due to high expectations of meeting long-held family traditions and conjures up past resentments and unresolved conflict with family members. So when you add into the holiday mix, an aging parent with care giving needs or a seriously or even terminally ill spouse, sibling or parent, then the stressors intensify.

How do you get ahead of the curve now? How do you plan and prepare to reduce the stress, release the anxiety, and manage expectations? Call in live to speak with Dr. Joe Nowinski, blogger for Psychology Today and past contributor to the Huffington Post to discuss your concerns and learn practical strategies to step it up, without giving yourself all away.

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The Battle with the In-Laws: When the Holidays Aren’t So Jolly

 

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The holidays, whether they are birthday celebrations, the 4th of July or religious events, are a tough time for many people in biologically related families, let alone adding in-laws and extended family members into the mix. For most of our holidays, my husband and I spend time with our families separately, and then, my husband comes back home to spend time with myself and my dad and brother. Why? The reason I do not go over to my in-laws’ home is due to ongoing conflicts between myself and his parents.  This dynamic is not ideal. As newlyweds, this is not the way it is supposed to be. My assumption after we got married is my husband, and I would spend time together creating happy memories, enjoying special traditions, and spending time with those we love and who love us. However, my husband is very close to his family and in the past, he has wanted to spend most or all of his holiday time with them. Our time apart caused many issues in our new marriage.  Recently, he has chosen to balance his time during holiday gatherings as he realized that this was hurting our relationship.

Another issue that places a hardship on our situation is the time it takes to travel to the in-laws home and the cost of traveling there. Although I have spent much time there while my husband and I were dating, I feel we have established our home and feel it is unfair to continue to be expected to make all the sacrifices…expenses, travel time, missed time with my family, and to top it off, to experience the stress of the ongoing conflict. It is to the point where I cannot just hold my tongue and pretend this is not a problem in our relationship. I cannot continue to avoid conflict or communicating my needs or how this makes me feel quite sad. When I avoid communicating my concerns and needs, it has only led to poor relationships and misunderstandings.

So, what do you do when you find yourself in this situation especially when you are not off on the right foot with your in-laws after marriage? Do you just suck it up and continue to pretend it doesn’t bother you? NO! For me, this only built anger, resentment, hurt feelings and escalating conflict distancing myself further from my in-laws and damaging my relationship with my husband. In thinking through and weighing various options, you have to be cognizant of everyone’s needs. What are they? Knowing this will greatly assist in how you can negotiate what might work moving forward. For example, I know my in-laws have eight children to consider. They would consider it a burden to leave their home just to visit us when they have other children to consider. My husband’s need is to be with his family and continue to honor the family’s special holiday traditions. And of course, if/when we do decide to have children, we will have much more than just their needs to consider for our situation. But it varies situationally, and so thus, there are many considerations regarding needs and concerns of the entire family.

Once you have identified the major needs of all involved, then consider these additional recommendations to reduce or manage conflict at holiday or special events between your spouse and in-laws.

  • Discuss expectations with your new spouse (before marriage if you can). Holiday family traditions and how to spend time with the two separate families is often a concern for many newlyweds. Will you be okay with how your spouse chooses to spend his/her time? If not, then you need to communicate an honest view of your expectations. 
  • Make a plan with your spouse to have a challenging conversation with the in-laws. You and your spouse need to decide if both of you or your spouse alone will communicate the concerns and your needs for a respectful engagement. This conversation needs to be done well before the holidays or special event.
  • Create a backup plan with clear boundaries. You can do all of the planning ahead of time, but what if this doesn’t work? You can’t change anyone. They very well might continue to criticize, pass judgment, and make hurtful or embarrassing remarks. You have to decide what are the boundaries, and how will you respond when they do. For me, I might say “I can no longer be a part of this conversation.” and then, walk away. Later, convey in a respectful manner that the remarks hurt you. For example, “I had to walk away because I felt hurt and embarrassed.
  • Ask your spouse what role he/she will maintain during conflicts with his/her family towards you. Will they be a mediator, an avoider, a fighter, or a peace-keeper? This role is important to determine as you do not want to pursue an uphill battle alone. You also want to know how you should approach the conflict since this is not your family of origin, and you may be unfamiliar with their communication style.

Try to enjoy the holidays as best as you can while showing your in-laws that both sets of feelings do matter. For tips on how to manage conflict like this without avoiding it all together, listen to the Texas Conflict Coach® ‘s radio program episode Repairing the Damage of Conflict Avoidance with Pattie Porter and Stephen Kotev!

 

Have a Great Day!

Ann Margaret Zelenka

Graduate Student Intern

University of Baltimore

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