‘I hate the holidays!” the young woman confided in my office. “My husband’s parents expect us to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with them. My mom gets insulted if we don’t come visit her. Someone’s feelings always get hurt. We’re caught in a family tug-of-war, and I feel guilty no matter what decision we make.”
Many couples grapple with the whose-home-for-the-holiday dilemma. It begins as soon as the man and woman say “I do” and gets worse with the arrival of each baby.
Some parents fuel the fire by making overt demands on their adult children and expressing disappointment if those requests aren’t met to their satisfaction.
I’ve even known of sets of in-laws who were locked in a pointless competition to determine who sees their kids the most. Parents who perceive themselves as losers in this contest become hostile and resentful of the other in-laws. They may assume an us-against-them mentality that puts more pressure on their grown sons and daughters.
Rather than running themselves ragged or feeling victimized by the demands of their parents, new couples should address this issue as a developmental challenge. This move toward independence is a natural phase of life, like going off to kindergarten or spending the night at a friend’s home for the first time. It’s an opportunity for couples to flex their muscles as a family unit and decide what choices work best for them. Yes, it’s wise to be sensitive toward their respective in-laws. But the primary consideration is the needs of their own burgeoning family, not the relatives. The final solution should reflect that autonomy and solidarity.
Husbands and wives can begin this process by discussing it calmly between themselves. Avoid devolving into an attack on the other’s parents or siblings. Let go of petty bitterness about whose family is most functional or how often you see your siblings. Instead, work together as a team to arrive at the best possible approach.
Consider a wide variety of options. Ask for input from various factions of the clan. You may choose to host festivities at your home. You may prefer to spend Thanksgiving in one household, Christmas at the other. Perhaps you alternate years: even years are spent with his family, odd years are spent with hers. You may opt to share a relaxed weekend visit with one set of in-laws before the holidays so you can travel to visit the others on the actual day.
Success lies less on the actual answer and more on the process of deciding it. Presenting yourselves as a mature pair of individuals who are choosing wisely for yourselves and your immediate family, helps deflect hurt feelings or conflict, and minimizes the potential for resistance.
When you’ve finally made your decision, announce it with conviction and kindness. Let all parties know they’re loved and cherished and that you wanted to be fair to all parties involved. Then explain what actions you and your spouse are going to take. If some family members are unhappy, repeat your expression of affection, listen to their complaints, and express understanding to their perceptions. Still, avoid being dissuaded from your decision. It’s important to hold your ground and not cave in to their demands.
Older members of the family can play a supportive role as younger couples separate themselves from their folks. Perhaps they can relate stories about how they grappled with the same problem early in their relationships. Parents’ and grandparents’ patience, understanding and refusal to place demands on adult children help the individualization process occur smoothly without rancor and unnecessary pain.
Tips for balancing holiday visits
Trying to resolve the ‘Whose house for the holidays’ dilemma?
Consider these suggestions:
• Be strong. No one can decide this for you. It’s your turn to stand up and be heard.
• Be flexible. There are no right or wrong answers. Every household must decide for itself. Be willing to consider an array of alternatives before selecting one that works for you.
• Be loving. Feelings get hurt easily this time of year. Expectations are always sky high. Be sensitive to the array of emotions even as you’re deciding which option you’ll choose.
• Experiment. One choice doesn’t have to stick forever. Give it a try. If it works out, great. If not, be willing to do something different.
• Never leave anyone home alone. Consider elderly or single family members and seek to include them in your plans.
• Take care of yourself. The holidays are inevitably stressful. Visiting relatives only adds to the strain. Give yourself a healthy dose of emotional self-care before greeting that first guest.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit lindalewisgriffith.com.