Preparing for the Holidays I: Setting Boundaries with Extended Family

Dreading having to participate in certain events with parents, extended family or in-laws over the holidays? Do you anticipate feeling forced to engage in things you don’t want to do? Do you shudder at the thought of a certain relative going on and on about something? Are you expected to put your kids into dressy outfits that you know is going to be a battle? Is it likely you’ll be judged or criticized for your cooking, not spending enough money or overall being a “bad parent” by certain family members? Do your kids hear you complaining? Ah, the holidays! We’re fed images on TV of happy, harmonious families celebrating together but if that’s not true for your family, it can be a difficult time of year.

One skill that’s tremendously helpful in these situations is setting boundaries. Boundaries are: a) knowing ourselves and our preferences/needs; b) communicating them with neutrality and respect; and, c) planning an exit strategy if (more like, when) the person on the receiving end is less than pleased.

Knowing Ourselves and our Preferences/Needs

Start by setting aside time for you and your partner to discuss the events and what’s expected of you well in advance. Ask each other questions like: What do you most like about the holidays? What do you like least? What traditions do we want to pass down to our children? Which ones should we drop? Who in our family/social circle is it hardest to say ‘no’ to? What conversations are neither of us going to engage in at family events? Which things aren’t our favorites but they benefit the group as a whole so we’re willing to continue. What’s one request/expectation that we both agree that we’re doing to say ‘no’ to this year, even if we face backlash?

Communicating a ‘no’ with neutrality and respect

For the one request/expectation you both agree on that you’ll say ‘no’ to, pre-plan what you’ll say to that person(s). It should be a brief, 3 sentence statement. Longer than that and: a) you’ll sound weak as you go on and on explaining yourselves; and, b) it opens the topic up for discussion and that’s not the purpose when setting boundaries. Start with a positive such as “I know that event has been special to you over the years” or “We’re grateful that you want to spend time with our kids”. Next is the ‘no’ statement such as “We won’t be going into the city the night before the holiday” or “I’m not going to be making that dish this year”. End with a positive such as “I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time going and we want to see your photos!” or “There are always so many other delicious foods that day”. What if it’s a topic a relative brings up again and again and you’re just not going to engage in this year? For example, let’s say your father is once again trying to convince you that your family needs to buy a bigger home on a large property because he believes that’s one’s best financial investment. You and your husband have repeatedly told him you like where you’re living and that you’re not interested in maintaining a bigger home and yard. Alas, he brings up this topic at the next family dinner. You and your partner already have discussed setting a boundary about this so you tell your father, “Dad, I know you love us and want the best for us and that’s why you want us to move. We’ve told you that we’re not interested in doing that and I don’t want to talk about this anymore. So, what’s the score of the game now?” That statement includes a) the positive, b) the ‘no’ statement and c) your exit strategy. Changing the topic or finding a reason to move on will all eliminate further discussion.

Planning an Exit Strategy

The person likely will be less than pleased that you’re making yourself unavailable to attend a certain event, make a certain dish or discuss the topic they want to discuss. So, the last part of delivering this message is to move on in some way. If, instead, you’re silent or start to explain yourself, you’ll be inviting a discussion/argument. Pre-plan with your partner what the exit strategy will be depending on where you’re likely to be at the time. If it’s on a phone call, decide ahead of time what topic you’ll move to or what excuse you’ll use to end the call. If their request comes in as a text, know what you’ll text back. If this happens in person, maybe your partner can come to your rescue or you know an alternate topic or reason for walking away, say to get seconds or attend to the kids.

The skill of setting boundaries is an essential adult skill. Know it’s not likely to be easy, breezy because you’ll be changing long-standing patterns. But when the two of you have made time to reflect on what is important to you both (and for your children) that awareness can add to your motivation to say ‘no’ to what’s not important. The two of you can be a powerful team so pre-plan then support one another as you put this into action. I hope this one tool helps you both (and your kids) to have a more wonderful holiday season.

If you’re struggling with extended family dynamics, you’re not alone. So many of our couples talk about this in session and learn to set boundaries as a team. Reach out to get help by calling us at 908-246-3074 or emailing getsupport@couplestherapycenterofnj.com to schedule an individual or couples appointment.

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