Holidays and the extended family

You may try to keep the holidays about family, love and giving, but what if you (secretly or not) can’t stand certain members of the family?

Unfortunately, the holidays can remind us just how difficult extended family relations can be.

You love your spouse and support him, but to you, his family may have totally different views, seem to be very judgemental, or act in crazy ways. You may even feel that they treat you, your spouse or your kids, in ways that cause intense discomfort. Part of that discomfort may come from noticing that your spouse is less observant and more accepting of his family’s behaviors than you are, even though he is — at least in your eyes — often the victim.

If some of these situations hit close to home, remember that there are ways you can see past it and enjoy the holidays.

If your spouse has kids from a previous marriage, his loyalty to those kids is something that is unwaveringly deep and non-negotiable. Guilt, and ways of compensating for it, juggling the custodial arrangements, and, often, dealing with the ex-spouse, can be very difficult for you to watch.

With your spouse’s family coming over, you might be trying to prepare yourself for a barrage of abuse from his (in your opinion) crazy parents or siblings. Here, again, is something that can upset you more than him. He’ll tell you he’s used to it, he can handle it, and not to worry. Yet, it can be consistently galling to watch the person you love receiving and reacting to, what you clearly see as, a kind of emotional victimization.

Your spouse’s ultra-close relationship with his parents (by spending too much time with them or being too dependent on their help) could also make you feel uncomfortable — especially if you have a different set of ideas about the desirable adult child and parent relationship. Although you can admire the strong bond your spouse has with his parents, sometimes you might feel secretly threatened by it and wonder (childishly, you admit) who would win if it came to a question of “it’s me or them.”

And then, of course, spouses’ families have different values when it comes to the style of relating during get-togethers. Some families talk openly about members’ lives — who’s going through a depression, who’s going through a divorce, or children with particular issues. Other families prefer small talk, focusing on the food or keeping too busy during the visit to personally connect to each other. Both are, of course, fine, but may be difficult for the spouse who is more comfortable with one and now has to deal with the other.

While issues may be bothering you, what doesn’t work is getting more upset than your spouse is about extended family. Even though the intent is to be helpful by pointing out how things could be handled better, how to take or give less abuse or how to stand up for oneself, once your spouse has listened and acknowledged the usually valid point, he’d like you to just let it go. If you stay more upset about the situation than your spouse, and consistently bring up the topic, it can cause intense pain and a deep anger that begins to flare up toward you, and not toward the family in question.

So what’s the most constructive path to take? The answer is easier said than done: containment.

After describing some of the difficulties with the in-laws or step-kids, and feeling that your discomforts and requests have been heard and understood, and that your spouse has expressed the desire to try to accommodate you the best he can, you must keep further feelings contained. You must deal with them yourself, and bring them up again only when the timing is right and you can be gentle and positive. You must avoid being a barrier between your spouse and his family; it just causes intense hard feelings and, often, a desire to get back at you by criticizing or rejecting your family.

When it comes to holidays and gift giving, being willing to honor your spouse’s wish that you’d kept your feelings from causing conflict and divided loyalties between him and his family is one of the best gifts you can give. Holiday times, when these stressors often emerge, can be a reminder to look inward and check with yourself that you’re taking the high road and giving your spouse the best gift you can: acceptance.

Dr. Joan Emerson is a New York psychologist who specializes in couples therapy. Visit her website at www.JoanEmerson.com.

>