Christmas is characteristically a season in which families get together. We travel to distant places to be with family, or excitedly prepare for family coming to visit us. It seems as though inside us there is a strong pull toward family, a deep yearning for a connection to family and all that family might symbolise. This inner desire is mainly motivated by the need for an identity; the need to belong; a desire to be part of a bigger fleet rather than being a lone boat bobbing around on the big ocean. In being part of the extended family, we hope for support and care, both physical and emotional, particularly during the difficult and trying times in our lives. As we look back over our lives, we might notice that we have felt an urge to reconnect with family in stressful times. Furthermore, there is possibly a deeper inner motivation to gather with family as a genuine commitment to, and desire for, wholesome human intimacy, made possible by a lifetime of history together.

The reality check!

Though we come towards family with these underlying needs and desires, we know, through experience, that these family gatherings don’t always imbue everyone with the Christmas sentiments of peace and goodwill. Difficult, tension-filled past family dynamics can re-emerge; personality clashes with members of the extended family resurface; power struggles play themselves out; alliances occur with groupings of individuals within the family; some individuals may even be treated as scapegoats, particularly those who dare to speak up and question the status quo, whatever form it takes. Generally, at these family gatherings, individuals have a propensity to subtly, or not so subtly, act out their unresolved issues related to family.

So, inasmuch as we look forward to being with extended family, we also know the complexity that inevitably surfaces when we gather together.

Family dynamics need to change

The dynamics of a family or ways of relating in a family need to evolve. We are now adults, no longer children, even though our unfulfilled child needs continue to resonate within us. It is new members of the family, the in-laws, who become helpful here as catalysts in this necessary evolving and maturing ways of relating to one another in the new context of an extended family. Their presence nudges us to move beyond old family dynamics, shake off the shackles of redundant ways of relating to one another, allowing a deeper respect and acceptance of all individuals in the extended family unit to evolve.

The extended family – A model for the acceptance of difference

It is worth mentioning that this need for relationships and relational dynamics to evolve to the point of us relating more lovingly is not unique to the extended family. All through our adult life we are faced with being part of groupings of people – in our children’s school community, in our workplace or our church. As we encounter others in these settings, we are constantly challenged to deal with differences. Some of us deal with these differences by disengaging, or keeping the relationship at a superficial level. Alternatively, some might wait for an opportunity to distance themselves permanently, to move away from this experience of difference, constantly changing their membership of the group to which they belong, be it church or home-group or job environment.

At times, distancing ourselves from a group to which we have belonged is valid and necessary. We do outgrow certain groupings, particularly when the dynamics within an organisation or institution are rigidly controlled and stifle personal growth. However, this way of dealing with people whom we experience as difficult or different is not always possible when it comes to the extended family. This is particularly so when our spouse experiences family differently from the way we do, for instance by valuing regular contact and family gatherings, even though we could quite easily distance ourselves from family.

It is not unusual, then, for the planning and execution of Christmas visits to the family to bring out a degree of marital tension, highlighting our respective differences in both the perception and experience of family dynamics.

What follows are some guidelines to help couples to resolve these differences more constructively. Indeed, the differences that we encounter in the extended family can present us with an opportunity to grow in understanding of one another, getting to know one another at a deeper level.

1. Normalise family tension

All families have members who are different. We all push each other’s buttons, creating both covert and overt friction at times. To pretend that this does not happen is living the illusion of ‘happy family’, attempting at all costs to keep the peace, while resentment and hurt fester within you. If, for example, you experience your husband’s older sister as domineering, invalidating your presence in the family, it would be better for you to explain to him your inner world as you are aware of it at family gatherings, so that together you can find a way forward that works for both of you, rather than keeping it inside, giving the impression that you are unaffected by everything that is happening.

To do this you need to learn to identify the movements within your inner self, naming and disclosing your feelings to your spouse, in such a way that you take ownership of your emotions. It is normal to have our emotional buttons pushed at family gatherings. Developing a culture of naming and owning these feelings can create an opportunity for you to feel supported and understood, even if little can be done to change the overall dance the family does around particular family members.

2. Handle conflict privately

It is not unusual that conflict between you and your spouse emerges during the family gathering and not in the preamble to the event. It is better to handle this conflict separately from the extended family. It is helpful for the married couple to be perceived as a unit, functioning separately within a bigger family context. Imagine a fence around your marriage. Your conflict needs to remain within that fence.

Conflict that is not contained within the unit can intensify and become more complex as others react to and become involved in the issue. This will make resolution more difficult. In addition, it often happens that the couple recover from conflict more quickly than the outsiders, so that that conflict between a couple at a family gathering may still be remembered and referred to in the future by the parents or siblings that witnessed it, while the couple concerned could have long forgotten the incident.

3. Speak of your spouse’s family with respect

At times, particularly when feeling hurt or angry, people can communicate in a disrespectful or hurtful way. It is important to take cognisance of the historical bond between your spouse and his parents and to always talk about them with respect. It is often not what is said but how it is said that makes the difference. You may be raising a good point or a legitimate grievance. But if you communicate it in a disrespectful way, it will be hard for your spouse to hear or understand what you are trying to communicate. Instead of seeing it from your point of view, he will be distracted by the disrespectful or negative tone used to verbalise your unhappiness. This will prevent a constructive conversation from taking place, and possibly heighten the tension.

4. Compromising and accommodating

When two people get married, most people seem to understand in principle that these two people will be starting a new family, with different traditions and ways of doing things that may differ from one or other tradition of their original families. However, at times we set out under the illusion that our spouse will become part of our extended family and simply fit in and see things in the same way that we do. It is sometimes hard to anticipate the extent of the differences that can emerge as we go forth from our wedding day. Norms and traditions around Christmas, church, celebrations and giving of gifts differ. Small things can become big issues as to whose will is going to prevail in these circumstances. It is important to remember at these times that accommodation and compromise are necessary. The health of your relationship has greater value than many of these smaller issues. A helpful concept to remember at these times is the following: “Do you want to be right, or do you want to have a relationship?”

5. Keeping the peace does not promote the emotional wellbeing of your marriage

Compromise and accommodation need to practised in a thoughtful and discerning way. Sometimes, although not always, it is wise to remain silent on points of discord during a family gathering. But this silence, or keeping the peace, must not extend into the marriage. It is important that your husband knows what you feel. If you keep back these feelings and pretend that everything is fine when it is not, it can lead to a build-up of tension between you.

Expressing your inner emotional reactions does not contradict your efforts to be accommodating. Just “putting up with it” is not the most constructive way forward, in that even though your behaviour may be accommodating, inner resentment might fester, prompting passive-aggressive tendencies in the future. Compromise is part of the resolution that comes after both parties have had an opportunity to express what they feel, and to experience the other hearing and understanding their feelings.

6. Communicate needs clearly

It is helpful to define and communicate your needs clearly. Ideally, this communication needs to take place before the family gathering. For example, if you need your husband to be more involved in caring for, and controlling the behaviour of your young children during a family gathering, it is better to communicate this clearly beforehand, rather than trying to contain your escalating frustration as you watch him relaxing and chatting to his cousin while you run around after two energetic toddlers.

If you communicate your needs when your feelings are intense, they may come across in an attacking or critical way. Usually people are more receptive to adjusting when they feel they are responding to their spouse’s need which is communicated in a loving way. They are unlikely to change or see another point of view if they feel they have to defend themselves in an intense interchange between the two of you.

7. One topic at a time

When discussing family dynamics and the underlying tensions that result, it is helpful to remain focused on one topic at a time. For example, if the two of you are discussing a difficulty with your husband’s mother, it is better to stick to that topic and not compare her to your mother. Such comparisons are futile and counter-productive. Even though bringing other issues into the conversation may illustrate and defend your position, it will not enhance your being understood in the presenting issue. The conversation runs the risk of becoming messy and complex, and resolution becomes more difficult.

8. Be patient

Dealing with extended family issues can be intense and difficult. It is important to try to be patient at these times, acknowledging that people do need to change, but that change is difficult and takes time. It is also helpful to remind yourself that other people have underlying weaknesses and issues that show themselves in difficult behaviour. If you are able to approach these situations differently, you can learn to maintain your own equilibrium even if difficulties and tension remain, and still experience a happy Christmas!


Janine Boulle
15 January 2014