Family camp. I knew these two words would be a cure for the holiday blues. Or at least that’s what I thought when I convinced my family to spend our Thanksgiving holiday in a rustic cabin on the beautiful shores of Green Lake, Wisconsin.
It had been a crazy year for the Smalley family. Our two oldest daughters were off at college. My wife, Erin, and I had been teaching marriage seminars across the country. Our whole family was exhausted and disconnected. But family camp, I thought, will change all of this. We’d finally all be together — laughing, talking, playing, eating, resting and, most importantly, connecting.
We arrived late that first night and went straight to bed. The next morning our entire family made the long, frigid walk to the dining hall. Our family adventure was underway.
Togetherness! I thought.
That lasted all of 300 yards. Before we even made it to the dining hall, the two teenagers started fighting. Soon the squabble escalated from mildly irritating to all-out war. I tried to intervene as gently as I could, but I didn’t have a chance.
“I’m done with this family!” the older child shouted and ran off. She never showed for breakfast, and when she finally appeared at the cabin later that morning, I was furious. I gave her a stern piece of my mind — in front of everyone — telling her strongly (and loudly) to act mature and get along with her brother.
“We will get along!” I shouted at everyone. “We will have fun!” The rest of the family stared at me in awkward silence. I stormed out of the cabin alone.
Erin found me later down by that beautiful lake, skipping rocks across the water. She asked why I had become so angry. What was really going on?
I didn’t know at first. I was just so mad, so sad. But as we talked, I suddenly realized something: I had built some enormous expectations for family camp. I hoped that we would use the opportunity to make up for lost time and the disconnection our busyness had created.
Understandable? Maybe, but those sky-high expectations put an enormous amount of pressure on this camp — and the people in it.
My experience wasn’t unusual, though. That’s what many couples and families experience during holiday get-togethers — and why many family gatherings don’t go as planned.
Managing unrealistic expectations
Our expectations often set us up for failure. There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to spending quality time with family. But sometimes we look at these reunions as opportunities to make up for a year’s worth of lost time or to heal long-festering hurts.
We have to let go of the dream that a few days of holiday togetherness can erase a year’s (or decade’s) worth of disconnection, neglect and conflict.
After realizing this at family camp, I went back to our cabin and pulled the family together. I confessed my high expectations and the pressure I was feeling to have the “perfect” family reunion. I apologized for my angry outburst and promised that I would allow family relationships to flourish more naturally, without trying to force fun on all of us.
Did we end up having the fantastic family gathering that I’d originally envisioned? No. But it was good enough. We made some fun memories and got a little rest. The best part for me was being freed from all those expectations that I didn’t even know I’d had. I was able to fully invest in the imperfect experiences that unfolded at family camp without the pressure to make them perfect.
Dealing with difficult people
It’s not just our own unrealistic expectations that can create problems, of course. Sometimes when we’re with family, past hurts and negative experiences come flooding back.
You’ve probably had some sort of bad interaction with family members: A cousin who picks at your appearance. An uncle who demeans your job. An in-law who criticizes your parenting. A mom or dad who makes you feel as if you’re never good enough.
A lot of these issues might have been hibernating for years, only to wake up as soon as the family is together. So, how can you create a more fulfilling time with family this holiday season? Let me offer a few tips:
Accept that you can’t change your relatives and make a plan. It’s best not to have high expectations of difficult people. Prepare for how you’re going to deal with them ahead of time.
Erin and I discuss how we’re going to support each other in negative situations. We have one extended family member who tries to engage Erin in hot topics that inevitably lead to tense interactions. She asks me to be her wingman, and I don’t leave her side because I can usually defuse the tension. Conversely, I’ll let her know when I need a break from family and grab some alone time to recharge.
Talk about your expectations, even making a date to discuss beforehand how to survive the holidays together.
Remember who you are. Erin and I talk about how we want our extended family to experience us. I want people to feel relaxed so I use lots of humor. (It’s amazing how laughter can disarm tense or awkward moments.) Choosing my role gives me a sense of control in situations that historically have left me feeling helpless.
Don’t take things personally. King Solomon gives some amazing advice for dealing with family members: “Do not take to heart all the things that people say” (Ecclesiastes 7:21). Your best offense at times is a great defense. Smile politely or ignore a critical comment or something that is hurtful.
Set boundaries. I believe that a Christ-like boundary is something you do to keep your heart open. You can’t control others, but you can control the state of your heart — especially whether it’s open or closed.
Before the family gathering, think through if there are any particular boundaries that you need to establish. For example, to keep your heart open, you may need to put some limits on the time you spend with your difficult family members. You might opt to stay at a hotel, step into another room frequently for quick breaks, walk around the block or the mall to recharge or decompress, keep the trip short and sweet, make other plans with friends in the area or hang with the kids and watch a favorite holiday movie.
We sometimes need to admit that the best way to have a positive holiday is by limiting some of the time we spend with those who stress or aggravate us.
Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author of several books.
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