We all want our families to be a source of refuge, comfort, support and love. For many of us, that is not always the case. At holiday times, strained relationships in our family are particularly hard to handle. Holidays are meant to be a time of celebration and unity. When there are estrangements, grudges and resentment the pain is particularly sharp when we try to celebrate a holiday. Here are some coping strategies.
GRUDGES FROM DIVORCE
With over half of American families experiencing divorce a very large percentage of people will face potential land mines in planning holidays. In the worst cases, there is still active resentment and anger between the divorced couple. Adult children of divorce want who want their own children to have good relationships with all their grandparents (biological and step) feel caught in the middle and resent having to accommodate Mom who still doesn’t want anything to do with Dad or Dad who can’t be around Mom without pointing out to everyone all the money she stole from him. Warring, divorced parents often find it hard to put their children first and try to do what is best for their the extended family, rather than nurse their own wounds. If one of the parents remains hostile it is probably best to celebrate separately and not try to use the holidays to bring everyone together.
The ideal scenario is when divorced families can get along well and celebrate holidays together. Even when there are amicable feelings, responsibility to the extended family can interfere with a joint celebration. In the above case, most people try to develop a strategy of alternating locations or holidays to accommodate everyone. Even in that situation it’s up to the divorced couple to avoid claiming “their” holiday or “their” year if the younger family’s situation requires some change to an agreed upon schedule. Cooperation and accommodation will make this easier and less stressful on everyone.
When the antagonism is so great that Mom and Dad can’t be in the same room at the same time, it is up to them to make the situation as easy as possible on the younger generation. If you don’t want to be around Dad and his new wife it’s your responsibility to be gracious and follow whatever protocol your children request to schedule the holiday. No, you really don’t have to be there if you are not able to handle the situation but then you can’t make demands on your children to arrange things according to your plans and availability. Children never choose divorce and it is a parent’s obligation to make the situation as easy as possible for their child, not themselves, when it comes to celebrating holidays.
GRUDGES FROM ESTRANGEMENT
Estrangements within families are extremely common. These occur between siblings, aunts and uncles, and parents and children. Holidays are a good time for the injured parties to make a peace gesture of goodwill, expressing hope that they can celebrate the holiday without bitterness. Cards and emails are a low effort way to make a limited overture. Even a small step can make being together at a family celebration a more relaxed occasion. Even when there is no possibility of the estranged parties being together for the holiday, it is a great time to make a small gesture toward the other person. It may not be accepted. The other person may not be ready to welcome our effort and reconciliation but even making a small effort can make celebrating the holiday less painful. Perhaps with repetition, the situation will improve.
GRUDGES FROM FINANCIAL PROBLEMS
Bad financial advice or dealings can lead to difficult family reunions. That bad deal Uncle Albert recommended, cousin Jeannette whose career is skyrocketing while ours is languishing, the partner that we trusted who took advantage of us at the company: all of these can interfere with family celebrations or office holiday parties. Making a pre-emptive plan for how we will handle these people can help the holiday more pleasant. Decide how you will speak to (or avoid) the person you feel the resentment toward. Holiday time is NOT the time to settle the score or bring up old grudges. It is not your right to make everyone else uncomfortable even if someone else does so! Write your scathing email AFTER the holiday party and that wait a day or two to see if you still want to send it. Enlist an ally in running interference for you. Someone might agree to come over and talk to the person you find offensive if they see them approaching. Have an escape plan in place if you know in advance that person will make you see red.
MAKE THE HOLIDAY THE BEST IT CAN BE
Holidays don’t take away problems that exist before but they can be a time to reconnect with loved ones and friends and feel a sense of togetherness and celebration. You may have a very righteous grudge, but focusing on that at a holiday time can take away an opportunity to enjoy one of life’s great opportunities for pleasure. Thinking about your own distress and developing a coping strategy ahead of time gives you the best chance to have a happy holiday.
Make this year one of happy holidays.