One of the first signs that a relationship is “getting serious” is that you start to think about spending the holidays together. Thanksgiving and Christmas are times traditionally reserved for family, and so welcoming a significant other to share in the family turkey is a meaningful relational milestone.
Walking down the aisle and exchanging “I do’s” is more than a milestone along the relational highway: it is a massive interchange, signposting many entrances and exits, mergers and junctions. A common question for newlyweds, then, is “how do we spend the Holidays now that we have three families (or more!) to consider?” Which route will you take? A calendar only has so many available slots.
Figuring out how to successfully “leave and cleave” to make a new family with one’s spouse while simultaneously making sure you that you are both still honoring your parents as God asks us to do (even as adults) is a challenge which leaves many of us perplexed. Especially over the Holidays.
As you and your new spouse face the Holiday season, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Assume the best
If there is one thing I find again and again amongst people my parent’s generation, it is that “they don’t want to be a burden”. Your in-laws are probably not trying to be controlling or demanding – even though it may feel that way. More likely: they care about you and want to see you and are concerned about losing touch with you: factors which can easily make invitations seem like guilt-trips. When talking with them about the Holidays: try to remember that the important thing is that they want to spend time with you and stay in relationships with you (rather than that they are trying to control you or exhaust you). Focus on the positive.
Remember that honor doesn’t mean “your wish is my command”
Honoring our parents as adults means we need to show respect and concern for them: acknowledging that they have placed invaluable roles in our lives, and making an effort to listen to them and stay in touch. It does not, however, mean you can never disappoint them by saying no. Parents are free to invite their adult children to spend the holidays with them (and vice versa), but there should be the freedom to say no, without having a Giant Dump Truck of Guilt poured on them. If you say a polite ‘no, not this year,” – your parents may be disappointed, but they have not been dishonored.
Say your Yesses: figure out what you want
In the midst of the tousled conversations of whose family is doing what and where and when for the holidays, one question young couples often forget to ask is simply: “What do we want for the holidays?” Assuming that you have a desire to stay connected to both your families of origin and express your love to them over the holidays, decide together how you would like that to look. Would you like to spend Christmas Eve with the extended family? Do you want to go to midnight carol service? Say yes to the things you really want to say yes to: both invitations from others and your own desires to create new family traditions. Say yes out of choice, not out of guilt.
Also, decide how you would like to express your love to your parents and in-laws: you may not want to attend their evening service, but would you like to invite them for breakfast instead? Or is there a special gift you’d like to give them over a cup of hot cocoa a few days before, if you’ve decided to spend your Christmas together alone somewhere in the snow? As Boundaries authors Cloud and Townsend wisely say: if you don’t know what you want to say ‘yes’ to, it becomes nearly impossible to say the ‘no’s’ you need to.
Say your ‘No’s’: briefly and politely
Very few people like to hear the word ‘no’, but that doesn’t mean it should never be said. If you have decided how you would like to spend the holidays and have determined how you, as a new family, are showing your affection to your families of origin – it might be time to say some no’s. These are hard to say, but here are some suggestions: Be firm. Don’t be apologetic: you don’t have to give reason (these often come across as excuses. Express that you love them and say something positive to affirm that this is not a personal rejection of them (“I’m so glad we will still get to talk on Facetime”, or “I’m sad to miss out on the pecan-eating contest. Send me a picture, won’t you?”)
Remember Romans 15:12
Some couples are tremendously blessed to have two sets of happily married and completely supportive families with healthy boundaries, all living close by, and all with very flexible schedules. I daresay that for most of us, things are not that simple. Distance, divorced relatives, crazy uncles, crazy costs involved in travel and more all serve to complicate situations which are already frought with tension over the holidays. Sadly, many couples are dealing with at least one very damaged and hurtful relationship with their in-laws. Sometimes, the holidays hurt no matter what you do. In these situations, I am helped by the all-season wisdom of Romans 15:12, “if it is possible, and as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” It may not always be possible, but with healthy boundaries and kindness, we are to try to negotiate the holidays peacefully. As far as it depends on us.
The weeks and months of planning and decision-making about the holidays can be a time of great stress, but also a time of great blessing. May you carve out new patterns of togetherness as a couple, and choose healthy habits of how you will relate lovingly to your families in a busy season. Grace and peace to us all.
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