The holiday season is supposed to be a time of joy, laughter, and shared fellowship around the table with people you love and enjoy.
For many, it just doesn’t turn out that way.
There’s often dread of the holiday season because with it comes the obligation to spend time with that special class of people who know better than anyone on the planet how to push your buttons: The in-laws . . . the outlaws . . . family.
For some, extended family is fully behind them, respecting wishes and supporting values. If that’s you, you’re a blessed person. For others, the extended family undermines, disrespects, and aggravates . . . some even enjoy being the irritant. It’s sinful. It’s wrong. But, it’s reality for many.
Instead of peace and good times, the season is sometimes filled with tension or outright acrimony. The Outlaws have come to town and the shoot-out will soon be underway. That’s what can happen when cultures and values (and egos) clash over the holidays.
Isn’t it great that this never happens in families who call themselves “Christians”?
Seriously, though . . .
What is a person to do when enduring the reference to that sensitive subject just before being called to dinner, or sustaining another slighting remark, made through smiles, as the mashed potatoes are being passed? How about mentioning a preference for your children only to have it brazenly ignored? Or that frontal assault on your known values? What then?
Maybe you don’t have to deal with such challenges but, for those who do, what boundaries can be established to make this holiday season different . . . peaceful . . . enjoyable?
How do you establish boundaries with the InLaws and the Outlaws?
1) Start by getting on “the same page” with your spouse before you arrive. Find the time alone with him/her to discuss your approach this holiday season. Make sure you are of one mind on the matters affecting your family. Remember you are a team. You married each other, not each other’s extended families. You are a single entity. The Bible describes it this way, “The two shall become one.” You are ‘one’ so, be of one mind going into the season’s events and gatherings. This is also an excellent conversation to have with your children, if they are old enough and mature enough to understand the dynamic you will be dealing with. Ask yourselves, “What are we going to value this holiday season and how will we communicate that, when appropriate?”
2) You’re not a slave, so don’t be a slave to tradition. Traditions should be a blessing to you and your family, not burdens to be endured, “because we’ve always done it that way.”
3) Get your head in the game. Offenses and minor irritations will come from some people. Anticipate them then, remind yourself, “I’m not a victim. I have the power to choose not to be offended.” And, it’s true – you don’t have to be offended. Don’t take the bait.
4) When values and family cultures collide, recognize that in the beginning, it’s going to require some fortitude and humility on your part. Having standards of any kind automatically (typically) makes others who don’t share those convictions feel you are judging them . . . even if it’s the last thing on your mind. It’s just part of navigating differences. Stay humble about your convictions. You’re not better than anyone, just different (okay, sometimes your choices are better but, you can still remain humble). Be ready with the respectful “no snark” explanation.
5) Don’t yield to the expectations of others. Stand firm with grace. You are under no obligation to fulfill or meet the expectations of others – even if Aunt Matilda has always required everyone to do the Hokey Pokey after dessert, followed by family prayer for the Mayor on the steps of City Hall. Dear Auntie’s expectation does not obligate you or your family to anything. Others have the right to invite. You have the right to accept or decline . . . with grace, always seasoned with grace (something God has had to teach me).
6) Families often struggle with respecting the jurisdiction of extended families. Expect it. It’s natural. Choose beforehand not to be thrown off by what you already know is likely to happen. If someone else is going to be small and weak by trying inappropriately to exercise his/her power, you don’t have to respond with smallness, weakness, and pettiness.
7) Establish your priorities and standards. Establish beforehand what is okay and not okay.
8) Don’t ask yourself the question “What will make everyone else happy this year?” Answer the question, “What is best for my family?”
9) Be polite but be vocal and firm about enforcing your decisions. No one can read your mind. Don’t be passive-aggressive, which complicates and worsens relationships. Communicate clearly what you have decided.
“This year we’re staying home for the holidays. If you would like to come by, we’d love to see you.”
10) Don’t sacrifice your children on the alter of family peace. We don’t like to offend so we can let things slide that we later regret. Don’t do it. Protect your children’s best interests by remembering that your responsibility to them trumps your desire that the adults remain happy.
“I appreciate your generosity but Johnny isn’t going to eat a bag of candy before, during, and after dinner.”
“Grandpa, I know Texas Chainsaw Massacre is your favorite movie but we don’t want our children to watch it so we’ll be in the other room.”
11) Let the small things go . . . and, frankly, there are a lot of small things we can allow ourselves to get worked up over when it comes to family. Just say “no” to the small stuff. Save your emotional energy for the things that truly matter . . . for the “non-negotiables.”
12) Pray (this should be #1) and ask God to help you walk in the Spirit this Holiday season. A soft answer still turns away wrath.
Sometimes it takes a season or two before people begin to realize you mean to stand firm in your convictions and values. If done with respect and grace, eventually the fruit of your decisions will mature and you will come to be respected for the decisions you have made but, even if this doesn’t happen, you will have lead your family well and found a deeper peace in a season meant for the rest of our souls and for reflection on those blessings that our Good Father has bestowed.
Matt Jacobson is a biblical marriage coach, founder of FaithfulMan.com a biblical marriage, parenting, and discipleship ministry providing written and audio teaching, as well as couples marriage coaching. He is also the creator of FREEDOM Course, an 8 session class, including a workbook, where he teaches men the biblical path to finding total victory from pornography and sexual sin. He is the co-host (with his wife, Lisa) of Faithful Life Podcast and is author of the bestseller, 100 Ways to Love Your Wife. Matt is pastor of Cline Falls Bible Fellowship and is married to Lisa, founder of Club31Women.com (they have 8 kids!).