While there's much talk these days about how to overcome marriage problems, what about the problem of holding together a large extended family?
It's rare for families to be large these days, and even rarer for many family members or multiple generations to live in the same city. Vacations provide one way that families stay close. Another is staycations, that is, getting together to hang out and have fun together without the expense and hastles of travel.
What does it mean to live in a culture that values family?
My secretary, Teresa Vigil Chavez Doty, recently explained to me the family closeness rituals that keep her family so lovingly bonded. Their family gatherings exemplify what enables large families like her Mexican-heritage parents, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews to keep so close.
Teresa's family is large enough that every month except two includes at least one and often multiple birthdays. Birthdays gives them an excuse for gathering together once a month, year after year.
Her family doesn't necessarily gather on standard holidays like Memorial Day, Labor Day, or Fourth of July. At those times each nuclear family is free to celebrate on their own, with their friendship communities, or with family members from their spouse's side.
But over the years each nuclear family has laid claim to a particular month when they'll host a family birthday(s) celebration in their home. At each gathering they choose a date the following month's get-together that will work for most of the extended family members.
When they get together there's18 to 20 of them depending on whether the young adults bring boy or girlfriends. Their montly gatherings set aside a reliable time to touch base, share what's gone on in their lives of late, support each other in their struggles, and celebrate their successes. Equally important, each gathering renews the fun and love generated by being together.
Family rituals further enhance the family's sense of connection, as well as the fun.
The gatherings usually last from noon to 6 or 7 in the evening.
The centerpiece is always a huge meal. Eating starts with hors d'oeuvres and ends temporarily with dessert, followed by snacks all afternoon. No alcohol though; there's abounding joy without artificial stimulants.
The host couple usually provides a main course. Everyone else pitches in with bringing the rest of the food. Pot luck insures that the cooking doesn't become overwhelming for anyone. While the host family occasionally surprises everyone with a Hibachi chef, a seafood extravaganza, a Cajun broil, or a steak barbecue, the community standard is traditional Mexican fare.
As Teresa's family sits together after dinner, generally in the living room, they pick a topic.
They then go around the circle with each family member taking a turn answering the question.
"What does your spouse do that irritates you?" generated particularly funny and bonding answers. "We still tease my neice whose fiance shared that his wife-to-be has a habit of stroking her hair to check for split ends."
"What's something new in your life?" or "What has surprised you lately?" or "Who do you particularly admire?" are similar kinds of thought-provoking, intimacy-engendering and good-humored questions.
After the November meal, which usually coincides with Thanksgiving, the tradition is to circle the group with each person saying specific things they've been thankful for this year. Teresa especially recalls the family laughing together about the hair dryer that enabled one sister's new look, the new vacuum cleaner for the sister who loves to keep her house superclean, and the new Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow for the sister who adores the home football team.
After the family sharing circle, games are de rigueur.
Pictionary, poker, Taboo, charades and other games that can include a big group are standard fare. In the summer volleyball is always popular, plus waterballoon-catching competitions.
When Teresa went recently to her husband's family's Christmas celebrations, she was surprised to find that everyone opened their gifts at the same time. When her family does gift-giving, each person takes a turn opening presents to the accompaniament of everyone's comments and delight. For Christmas only the kids get presents. Opening his or her presents in front of the group gives each child a spotlight moment. In addition it's fun for the gift-givers to hear all the oohs and ahhs.
On adult birthdays instead of gifts they give funny cards. "We don't just a buy a card though. We hunt year round for funny cards."
Hosting family gatherings crosses all the generations. Teresa and her husband used to host the meal that covers Teresa's birthday, Teresa's Dad's, and her brother's. Now Teresa's daughter-in-law has taken on October, her mother-in-law's birthday month. As Teresa's mom says, with the next generation already hosting, "the tradition will live on."
Teresa's daughter confesses that she no longer brings her boyfriend-of-the-month to the family gatherings.
"I'm afraid the guys fall in love with Gramma and the family and then they don't want to leave when I want to break up with them. Our family has too much fun. Now that I'm ready to get a serious life partner I want my relationship to be about me and the man I'm dating until I'm close to commitment. Then bringing him to family gatherings will show them that if they get me for a wife they get a bonus."
Teresa says that many Mexican families gather every weekend.
"We don't, because each family this way can have time with their immediate family. We embrace each other, and we also have our own separate lives, families and communities. We want each couple and nuclear family to build relationships filled with positivity as well as for the extended family to enjoy being closely connected.
"I do often get together with my siblings or folks during the intervening month. My neice and I went one evening last week to work at our church where they fed the homeless. I go to Broncos games with my Broncos-crazed sister. I may invite my son and his wife, or just my mom and dad, on a Friday night for dinner as well, but the full family gatherings are just once a month."
"My sister-in-law's mother lives in Georgia," Teresa continued. "Too bad that this Christmas you won't be able to be in Georgia with your family," someone said to her.
My sister-in-law quickly replied, "You guys are my family. And I sure feel blessed by that."
Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong and Loving Marriage. A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is a marriage skills website, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.