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Time for the Holidays: The Absurdity of “Family Obligations"

If the family feels that getting together is an “obligation” somethings wrong

One of the common concerns I am hearing these days from clients and students is the impending family get-togethers planned for this upcoming holiday season.

Although thankfully many families love getting together and enjoy spending time with each other, in many cases, family get-togethers are a dreaded part of the holiday season.

There are many reasons why families end up having acrimonious relationships as the children reach adulthood. From difficult childhood environments, destructive parenting practices, contentious sibling rivalries, family mental illness, general life adversities, or mismatches of personalities, odds are that some animosity will exist between various family members or in the family as a whole.

Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that family get-togethers during the holidays often devolve into highly contentious events.

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Some families are able to keep the tension under the radar. The histories, animosities, and ill-feelings are a constant undercurrent as family members cringe at various points during the weekend. However, the true feelings about family members may come out in the evenings when siblings are recapping the day’s events with a spouse in the comfort and security of their rooms. Often these recap sessions begin with: “Can you believe it when she said…” or “How does he have the nerve to say…”

But yet, even with the ill feelings, members of these families continue to assemble due to “family obligation.” Although the parents know about the animosities, the siblings are dreading the reunion, and the in-law children are completely under duress, all members of this dysfunction continue to religiously show up at the parent’s house and try and survive the weekend.

If your children feel that getting together is an “obligation” something is wrong. Family gatherings should be about great memories, fun times, warm conversation, good food, and family pride. It should not be driven by a feeling of “obligation.”

If your goal in getting everyone together is all about making your family seem close for the sake of the neighbors, then by all means, continue making your children feel guilty about fulfilling their obligations. However, if your goal is to create family harmony, forcing families on each other may not be the right approach. In fact, often, the consequence of these forced contentious gatherings is just further animosity between the parents, siblings, and in-law children. Forcing your family together will only cause the animosity to spread. If your children have not developed a warm and supportive relationship with each other by the time they reach adulthood—give it up! It’s not up to you to try and mend years of enmity.

Sometimes, calling off these family “obligations” and allowing your children to figure out their conflicted sibling relationships themselves may give your children the room they need to navigate their past grievances. Continuing to try and manipulate their relationships by insisting they all come together for the holidays will not make the underlying problems go away.

Take a step back; let your children try and work things out on their terms. Hopefully the “family obligations” will eventually become gatherings that family members actually choose to come to.

Avidan Milevsky, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.

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