It’s hard to reconcile when the holiday season which is supposed to be festive, joyous and a special time for gathering with loved ones, is actually more complex, demanding, and stressful. It’s also hard to admit that it’s not only “not wonderful,” it’s also challenging when we are gathering with family we rarely see, don’t have much in common with, or worse, don’t even get along. On top of it, just when you thought you were an adult, out of the house with a family of your own, for some strange reason, you find yourself absorbed in the same family dynamics you worked so hard to get out of! Yet, the expectation is that we “play nice in the sandbox” because after all, it’s the holiday season and for the sake of family, you give up any notion that it’s going to be a special time for you.
The good news is that you are not alone. These are common situations that come up during the holiday season for a lot of people, particularly young adults and younger families. Family myths and traditions take over for better and for worse, and it is assumed that maintaining these traditions is paramount.
What is less obvious but equally important is, what are the traditions you might want to put in place that are more meaningful for you, you and your partner, or you and your family?
For the sake of family?
I was talking with a client recently who was expressing consternation about her boyfriend’s family and the expectation that everyone always comes home to be with the parents and grandparents during Christmas. What was equally if not more alarming to her is that her boyfriend didn’t stop to consider that it could be a problem, particularly now that they are a couple and that she, too, has a family. He just assumed that she would go along with the family’s expectation in the same way he has all these years, because, after all, it was for the sake of family.
The silver lining in the cloud
Of course, there are no clear-cut solutions. No matter the plan, some people will be disappointed. In this case I proposed to her that, while stressful, that this was an opportunity to discover how much her boyfriend could partner with her. They could decide on a plan as a couple, instead of continuing to be the dutiful son and grandson that never questioned his family’s wishes. So, instead of making it just about the holidays, the demands of the season created a space for this couple to discover whether they were strong enough in their devotion to prioritize one another over the push and pulls of their families’ expectations.
The cost-benefit analysis
My client, who tends to be a people pleaser, had already agreed to be with his family for the holidays before her session. And while there was the immediate benefit of pleasing him and pleasing his family, she was now experiencing the emotional cost to herself as well as setting a precedent that what his family wanted was more important, or worse, that what he wanted was more important than what she wanted. Realizing that the long-term cost was too high, she broached the conversation with him, admitting that she was not forthcoming about her needs because she was afraid to disappoint him and his family. She went on to explain that she was not being honest about how she really felt, and instead avoided the hard conversation they needed to have as a couple.
The strategy of “go along and get along,” may be easier in the short run, but potentially disastrous in the long run, as it would set a precedent that would be harder to change once those expectations are in place.
While it was easier to avoid the conversation at the time, she realized that what she wanted more was to be in an authentic partnership with him where they decided together how things would be handled. And while the plan would never be perfect, it would be perfectly planned because they collaborated on it as a team. So, they agreed that, while spending time with his family over the holidays, they would announce their plan to alternate holidays between their families since they were now a couple.
So, whatever the holiday challenge is, consider it as an invitation to reevaluate your priorities as well as your traditions. It’s actually important to create new rituals and traditions, especially as we and our families change over time.
Who knows, while it might be unsettling at first, trying something new can lead to newfound traditions that can make the holiday season a truly wonderful time for all.