I thought this month some letters to my mom (and her replies) would be an encouragement to you.
Today covers questions I have asked my mom about how you deal with difficult family members (yes, my friend, we all have them!)
Mom, I recently had a conversation with a friend about dealing with challenging family members and how her spouse doesn’t like to be with her family. What is the right response? How should she deal with this?
How do I respond to difficult family members?
Do you ever come home from a holiday celebration with your family and wish you had never gone? Holiday celebrations are almost always portrayed in American culture as wonderful family events, with everyone happy to see each other, and enjoying their time together. Unfortunately, reality is far from the American dream-celebration, and disappointments abound during the time family members are together.
In my own life, most of my disappointments about others seems to stem from my expectations about how they should act or respond. My expectations often bring me the greatest challenge in responding correctly to difficult family members. I expect, desire, and want them to respond to me positively, whether it is a positive response about a dessert I baked to please them, or simply an expectation that they will enjoy talking together with me (or other family members). It may become a common pattern every holiday that the difficult family member doesn’t appreciate all the hard work you have done in decorating or preparing a meal, or he or she doesn’t seem to enjoy the conversations (and may even go to another room to read or watch TV alone), or treats you, their adult child, as a small child, telling you how you should dress or making comments about your weight. These types of responses are painful to any of us, leaving us with a sadness or irritation because of the way they act.
To respond well, I must identify my expectations (specific to each difficult person) and surrender those expectations to God.. For me, that looks something like God, I give to you my desire that Susie (name of difficult family member) would not complain about the food we offer, (expectation I have). You know whether that behavior from Susie is really necessary or not, and I trust You to provide what I need. I commitment to allow Your love, God, to flow through me to Susie, irregardless of how she responds.” Usually I don’t have the strength or power to love that person when they are in the midst of not meeting my expectations, but God desires that His unconditional love for that family member flow through me, so I have to find a way to show love to that person. Probably one of the least complicated ways to show unconditional love is to discover what their love language is (see Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages), and seek to show love utilizing their primary love language.
My spouse dislikes family get-togethers and holidays, what is the right response?
Part of the problem of worrying about whether your spouse enjoys being together with your family is that you are taking on a responsibility that is not yours…to make them happy. The truth is, it is impossible for us to make someone else happy. Sure, we can do things that we think will make the other person happy, but in the end, if they are upset about something, it doesn’t really matter what we do, they will not be happy. Practice reminding yourself of this truth: “It is ok if they are not happy. My value and worth does not come from being able to make them happy. Their happiness is their own responsibility, and between them and God.”
Childhood family experiences usually heavily impact a person’s attitude toward holiday family get-togethers. Usually when a spouse doesn’t want to participate in a holiday family celebration, it is either related to the differences in how your family celebrates compared to their own family of origin, or it is related to the fact that they never enjoyed family celebrations in their own family of origin. If you are in a family that is not very healthy relationally, a solution may be to limit the amount of time you spend with your family during holidays. Instead of staying the entire week, you could plan to stay two or three days. Plan for small “breaks” during the day so your spouse will have some time away from the group. It might be going out for coffee together as a couple, or for a walk.
Whatever the reason for your spouse not wanting to spend time with extended family, it is important that you don’t give up going to family celebrations just because your spouse doesn’t enjoy it. Most likely, if you stay at home, the time will not be any more less stressful or happy than if you went. Balance is important when you are seeking to compromise about time spent with families of origin.
Missed the first installment on Generational Traditions? Don’t miss it-read it here. Next week we will look at how to keep the joy of Christmas present, when it feels so stressful.