by Kerry Hart, LLMFT
The holidays are sometimes difficult to navigate family events, particularly when you are working double time to visit your partner’s relatives as well. Be sure to put that bottle of wine down, and follow this helpful advice to converse during tricky situations with family members from your side and theirs.
As you merge your life with your partner, you will quickly realize you are also merging your life with their family. When it comes to “for better or for worse,” the holidays are just the time to find out which of these will apply to your future. Half the time you will find that you can be right, or you can be in a relationship. Should you choose to carry on in your current relationship, you may have to put up with the crazy demands your partner’s family members throw your way. If something goes against your moral or ethical code, by all means, state your regrets and bow out gracefully. Most of the time, you will have the opportunity to smile and nod, and for the good of the group, I encourage you to do so. Family functions are not the time to create a scene. If someone says or does something that is offensive, simply walk away and reserve your right to discuss the issue later on.
The hard questions.
There are always going to be those family members who do not seem to understand boundaries. People you barely know may come up to you at family gatherings and other holiday parties and demand to know your plans for your most personal of choices. Why are you still single? Why hasn’t your long-term boyfriend popped the question? You have been married all of five minutes, when will you become pregnant? While this may certainly be none of their business, it is considered bad form to come out and say just that. In these instances, I encourage you to be honest but guarded. If you do not know why your boyfriend has not proposed, simply say that. Do not make excuses that can often end up becoming more awkward than the actual asking of the question itself. Keep your answers short and simple. When someone asks when you are going start having children, you do not need to launch into a long drawn out explanation of the process of your personal decisions. Instead, simply say, “we are focusing on enjoying each other during this point in our marriage and have not yet crossed that bridge.” Despite that some people have no problem invading your personal space and asking intrusive questions, there is no need to be reactive. Keep it short and simple, and you will come out looking mature, and may even set some boundaries for future conversations.
Choose your choice.
If geography is an issue, and you can only be with one family during the holiday season, you may have to start alternating which family you see per holiday. If it is your partner’s turn to be with their family, you may start to feel resentment that you do not get to spend time with your family during the holiday season. It is important to remember not to take this out on your partner. Be sure to check in with yourself and process your emotions thoroughly before taking them to your partner. Again, I encourage you to remind yourself that this is a choice you have made and to take responsibility for that choice. Should you decide to go to your partner’s family this holiday season, be sure to agree on going to see your family next season.
Introducing a new relationship.
If you are dating someone new, please keep in mind the holidays are not a time for surprises. Send your family a warning so they know to expect a new guest. Perhaps set up a dinner for your new partner to meet your parents before Christmas Eve dinner, so they can also know what to expect at their holiday meal. Some people attach a lot of emotion to the holidays, so be sure to respect the views of others. Alternatively, give your new partner a run down of your family dynamics before they hit the dinner table. Does your family pray before meals? Do they expect everyone to contribute a dish? A warning about your crazy aunt might also be very much appreciated. Give everyone in attendance the information they will need for a successful family interaction.
The holidays may be a trying and stressful time, but do not let your interpersonal relationships suffer! Some family members end up just being toxic, and by all means, avoid those people with a polite smile and a quick excuse as you exit stage left. Alternatively, feel free to respectfully let people know that you are not comfortable with the line of questioning to hopefully avoid uncomfortable moments in the future. Keep the surprises to a minimum, and keep your relatives’ feelings in mind as you merge your family of choice with your family of origin.
Kerry Hart, LLMFT is a couple and family therapist in private practice. She is located in both East Lansing and Grand Rapids and is currently accepting new clients. www.kerryhartcounseling.com