The Relatives are Coming!
by Pam Farrel
Many of us have spouses, children, or extended family that are a challenge to spend time with, especially during the holidays. We want the holidays to be special, but for many families, it becomes a battleground. How can you create an atmosphere that lowers the risk of this holiday being ruined by one or more of the high maintenance people in your family network?
In our immediate extended family we have had to contend with one person with untreated alcoholism, another person who is in denial about the mental and emotional illness that rules her life, and another who is basically a hostile Scrooge that should wear a t-shirt saying, “Do it my way or I will go home.” In addition, we have an assortment of non-believers who tolerate a small amount of Christian traditions, but will run at the first sign of “preaching.” The rest of us have our own issues, but we’ve owned them and are recovering like many of you.
Here are a few tried tips that I’ve found helpful to build connection instead of conflict throughout the holidays.
Have a plan for the moments that are most special for you, your spouse, and your immediate family, but let the rest be more relaxed. Drop your expectations and offer options so people can join in, as they desire. Host holidays and family vacations someplace that has many fun activity options like a resort area, a city with various options, or the country with wide open spaces. Give people a place to escape to if they are just not happy.
List a rough schedule in your invitation.
For example, you could say, “Come spend a few days in sunny San Diego! You can stay at a local resort, or with us. Join us Christmas morning from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for a fine family feast with you as the special guest! Please RSVP by Dec. 20.”
By hosting, you gain control over the most important part of the holiday. Choose what traditions will be private and what traditions you will offer to others. For example, our children give gifts to Jesus and surprise the family by revealing what they did, but this is done with just our family so the children learn to give in secret. Around the holiday table, we all get the option of reading a piece of the Christmas story (on slips of paper that have been prepared ahead of time) and we light the candles in the Advent wreath. If it is not hosted in your home, divide up the holiday activities and ask the most emotionally healthy people to be responsible for pieces of the celebration under these same guidelines: everyone is welcome, nothing is compulsory.
If you are dealing with severe dysfunction (like a child abuser in the family), don’t feel obligated to invite that person into your home when children are present. Perhaps you can create an adults-only part of the gathering, or, if other people in your family are hosting a holiday and this person is coming, don’t feel obligated to stay and place your children at risk. Come; deliver hugs and gifts, then go. Have a plan ahead of time. Decide as a couple to give the same reply no matter who asks. For more on this, we recommend Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend and Loving Your Relatives by Arp and Bell.
Bag up your bitterness.
Just as you are going to get your home ready, get your heart ready too. You may have been hurt by these folks before, but make sure you aren’t the one who ruins Christmas. Don’t react or lash out if you have unresolved issues with a person. In a book I co-wrote with my husband, Love Honor and Forgive, we lay out “Six Statements of Forgiveness” that will help you drop the backpack of bitterness. You don't forgive because the other person deserves it; none of us really deserves forgiveness. We forgive because forgiveness is good for us, it frees us to go forward, and it frees us to not react to hurt or pain. Forgiveness is a choice of your will (not a feeling) to not allow anyone to control your emotional well being except God. Reconciliation comes much later, and it works best if both people have sought forgiveness first before God. To work on reconciliation, we suggest counseling and reading a few books on the topic first. The Bible tells us to not throw our “pearls before swine” and people that are not emotionally safe may not be able to reconcile with you. However, it is always healthy to forgive; that’s why God recommends we do it seventy times seven!
Layer in Love.
I remember when God began to teach me to love by faith. That is love that is given to the unlovely, the hard to love, not because I had warm fuzzy feelings for them, but because God asks us to love. This kind of love is a decision. It gives even if it is not acknowledged or appreciated or reciprocated. It is lavish love that keeps on loving no matter what. My friend, Dr. RoseAnne Coleman, explains her prayer as, “Make me a concrete pipe. Let Your love, Christ, flow through me.” I first learned these principles from a little booklet, How to Love by Faith by Dr. Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. Immediately, every family event was better because I had released my unrealistic expectations, and accepted people as they were: totally dysfunctional, selfish, and sinful, in great need of a Savior - everyone, including me! I decided to walk moment by moment in the power of the Holy Spirit through every family event, praying, “Lord, show me what to say, what not to say, how to act or not react. Give me the fruit of your Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), and let my life be characterized by the list of traits of love found in 1 Cor. 13.” I meditated on those Scriptures for weeks before each family event and, to my surprise, I was able to love even under some really tough circumstances.
Bring a Blessing.
Romans 12:21 says to “Overcome evil with good,” and Lk. 6:28 and Rom. 12:14 remind us to “Bless those who persecute you.” People respond to blessing. John Trent’s book, The Blessing, was the inspiration behind my decision to write my father a blessing and read it to him one Christmas privately. His response was tears, and, “Pam, thanks for using such nice words to describe this bad ol’ good old boy. If you ever want to use my life to help other people, then you do that.” My father, an alcoholic with anger issues, was calm, peaceful, and caring all that holiday and the ones to come. He died soon after and when I went to his home, the tribute was sitting right on his desk where he had been working up until his heart attack. I wrote the tribute so my dad could feel the love of God. For that same reason, each holiday Bill and I say a blessing over our guests. We thank God for them listing off a few of their best traits (and sometimes we have to pray God shows us one!) then we pray God’s blessings and light a candle at each plate. Children and adults alike love to be encouraged.
One year, I created angel ornaments for the children (they had a story with them and the punch line was, “ . . .and the angel was you!”) and each ornament had the child’s face on it. Then I asked the family to gather and list each child’s character qualities and strengths and we wrote them on the back of the ornament. It was an inexpensive activity that many years later each of the children remembers with fondness.
Even if you do this kind of activity just for the children, it is an unspoken reminder to the adults to focus on every person’s positives and potential instead of the negatives. Think about each person in your family. Can you create a poem, a symbolic gift, or write a card so that they feel the love of God through you this holiday? The key is giving it without an expectation that they will respond positively. Give and expect nothing so any positive response is icing on the cake!
Always remember Rom. 12:18 says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” With a little thought and planning, you can have a Christmas with the relatives that will be full of fond memories instead of conflict.