A couple of weeks ago in my reflections on “Grinch Busting,” I offered a Christmas list of things a person could do in the holiday season to restore “Peace on Earth and Goodwill” at least in our families. Conspicuously missing from that list were suggestions of how to deal with difficult family members. Here, at the dawning of a New Year, I offer you some suggestions that could help you create space for more peace, and more joy in 2012.
- Don’t look for fresh water in dry wells. If you have a family member that you would describe as “difficult,” then expect them to behave that way whenever you see them. Expecting a difficult relative to treat you with kindness and care is like going to the same dry well over and over again expecting to find water. Bring your expectations of your difficult family member in line with the reality of who they are, and you have just taken away their ability to sour your day.
- Draw water from good wells. If you are going to reduce expectations of difficult family members, then be sure to identify who your “family of choice” is for you. Who are those people whom you can look to for a supply of unconditional love? When spending time with difficult relatives or in-laws, try to strategically place a brief visit with a dear friend in the middle of a day like this. Even a phone call can be helpful. The idea is to create an oasis for yourself that can replenish you and restore perspective.
- When your in-laws are out-laws…If your in-laws are difficult people, do not allow them to create a wedge between you and your spouse. Whatever you can do to meaningfully connect with your spouse before, during, and after a visit with these mischief-makers will help reduce their ability to create wedges between you. Try your best not to blame your spouse for the misbehavior of his or her relatives. Help your spouse with his or her difficult in-laws (i.e. your mom, dad, siblings, etc…), by having a good sense of humor and realism about their shortcomings.
- Plan ahead. As the likelihood for family dysfunction rises, your level of time and effort to plan ahead should increase commensurately. Consider bringing your own transportation to a visit with a particularly difficult family member. In this way, if the person’s behavior becomes intolerable, you are not stuck with no way to escape. Plan short visits rather than long visits. Role-play ways to not “get hooked” by them. What self-calming techniques do you have at your disposal? If you utilize a 12 Step Program, what tools have helped you maintain serenity? Have you considered utilizing your Catholic spirituality for this? For example, could you settle on a short, one to five word prayer to whisper under your breath (old school Catholics called this “ejaculatory prayer”). When a relative’s behavior crosses into the territory of disrespect, or even abuse, can you imagine giving yourself permission to skip a visit?
- What if you are the Grinch? Each one of us wants to believe that the other person is the villain, and we are the innocent victims. If you often find yourself in holiday confrontations, you may have to face the fact that you are someone’s difficult person. A great Christmas gift you could give your family this year would be to decrease the behavior that always causes the mischief.
- Don’t expect perfection. As the Christmas Season winds down, for one week, take fifteen minutes a day with the first chapters of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels. Just slowly read one of the Christmas narratives each day. At least one inescapable insight will come home to you. Nothing has ever been perfect, not even on the first Christmas. In the sloppiness and ambiguity of our lives, somehow God always manages to be Emmanuel for us (translated “God with us.”). Being perfect has never been a pre-requisite for receiving Jesus. Just the opposite is true. He came for those most in need of him. And so, it is just possible, that the difficult places in our families are precisely the areas for us to more fully discover the Christ child this Christmas Season.
From my imperfect family to yours, “Happy New Year.”