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Blended and Extended Family Holiday Blues

When those you love don't love each other.

Source: iStockPhotos

Do you have the blended/extended family blues? These can reach a peak during holiday celebrations and can be a source of distress and conflict at family gatherings throughout the year.

What are the most common causes of blended/extended family crises?

1. Family disapproval of a new family member, most often a new spouse or fiancée. There may be harsh words and criticism or simply a general family freeze toward the newcomer.

What to do: Insist on courtesy and respect when your new spouse or significant other is attending a family event. Time and positive experiences with each other may eventually soothe the tension. If children, dependent or adult, resent the newcomer, go slow. Spend time alone with the kids instead of insisting that every outing or visit must include the new person. Whatever their age, your children want to feel that they have a unique and secure place in your life. Spending time alone with them, as well as time shared with your new love, will help to ease the transition for all.

2. You’re trying to balance celebrations between different extended families and it seems everyone is feeling slighted.

What to do: Agree together on when to spend time with each family, when to blend celebrations and how to carve out time for yourselves during the holidays. One of you may have a greater need or inclination to spend holidays with kin, but don’t ignore the feelings of the other spouse’s family, especially when grandchildren are involved. Let family members know that you love them, want to be with them and are trying to work out a holiday arrangement that seems fair to all, including you. This can mean creating some new traditions and new ways of being together.

3. A blended or extended family member makes unreasonable demands. There may be family patterns or expectations that a more prosperous sibling give unlimited help to parents and siblings on holidays, birthdays, maybe every day as well. There may be an adult child of his or yours who expects continuing financial help through crisis after crisis or simply in everyday life

What to Do: Try to work out a plan with your spouse about when and how much to help and when to say “no." There is a difference between aiding a family member in crisis and enabling dependence that may never end. Patterns of dependence, unreasonable demands and sacrifices can come between spouses. One person may feel comfortable with making continuous sacrifices to help their adult children and grandchildren. The other may resent foregoing comforts like long-deferred vacations in order to meet the seemingly endless needs of adult children unable or unwilling to launch into true financial independence. What seems normal to one spouse may feel completely dysfunctional to the other. You may find that you need a neutral voice in this struggle. Seeking help from a family therapist to sort out priorities and come up with a plan that includes reasonable limits on resources available to adult children and other family members can help calm this conflict.

4. Family gatherings have a way of devolving into donnybrooks. If family holiday events have a tendency to deteriorate into chaos and disaster with arguments ranging from politics to historic family resentments, there are ways you can reduce the risk of conflict.

What to Do: You can avert conflict in several ways. You might celebrate with smaller groups of family members over the holiday period with people matched for compatibility. (I once threw three Christmas celebrations in three days to accommodate warring family members. It worked well for them, though it began to feel like a marathon for me. I would advise sharing responsibility for such divided holidays with another family member!) You might set ground rules in advance, like no political arguments or no booze. This might limit conflict and even cause some of the worst offenders to opt out. You could also appeal to family members’ best intentions: “We don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like. So let’s make this a loving, fun time for all.” And if you’re a guest at a celebration that’s quickly going south, develop a gracious, tactful exit strategy with your spouse—and use it!

5. Your spouse can’t stand a member of your extended family.

What to do: If your spouse can’t abide a member of your family, don’t insist that he or she attend every family function that includes this person. Be selective in what you ask of your spouse. Go alone. Be a buffer between them at not to be missed events. Agree on respect and polite behavior. Have his or her back if conflict erupts. Accept the fact that not everyone you love will love each other.

More from Kathy McCoy Ph.D.
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