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Managing Strained Family Relationships During the Holiday Season

The holidays bring up mixed feelings. For many, it brings excitement, nostalgia, and eagerness to create new and amazing memories. For some, the reality of of gathering with family brings up grief, stress, and dread. And then for others, there is a combination of pleasant feelings intertwined with overwhelm from negative ones. These nuanced feelings are reality for many, and come up in response to strained family relationships. There are many reasons for strained family relationships; one of which is relationship ruptures. Relationship ruptures bring up many emotions and occur for a variety of reasons. Without insight on why you're experiencing the emotions you're feeling and where they come from, it can become difficult to know which tools to utilize to manage and move forward in a productive way. So let's take a deeper dive to better understand strained family relationships so that we can take the steps to reclaim our joy and cheer this holiday season.

Relationships that are strained have experienced a break in connection, also known as a relationship rupture. The relationship rupture makes it challenging and/or difficult to engage with the individual(s) you've experienced the rupture with in the same way. When relationships are strained, the chances are high they have experienced several ruptures over time that have never been repaired or have had failed attempts. Repeated relationship ruptures without successful repair lead to walls building up between people; positive and fond emotions get replaced by resentment, and subsequently relationships erode. Ruptures occur between family members when they show us who they are and we don't believe them. To believe them is to respond with acceptance without resonation.

Let me be clear. Acceptance doesn't mean you tolerate or endure abusive relationships, nor does it mean you reduce your standards for how you desire to be treated or neglect your needs. And it certainly doesn't mean you shrink and show up as a fraction of yourself in response to "the way people are." What it does mean is that you believe people when they show you who you are, and you implement the boundaries you need to protect yourself and peace in response.

So your tool this holiday season is to understand your needs, know your expectations, and set boundaries accordingly.

Let's begin..

As humans we have primary needs; one of which is nourishment that comes from food. The challenge many of us face with family is that we desire that they meet our primary needs, and have expectations at the very minimum they won't contribute to our harm. Though this is our hope, it is not always the reality. Our family members are not always willing or capable of meeting our needs, or not causing us some harm. These breakdowns during interactions inevitably create ruptures. When we experience repeated ruptures, and don't adjust our expectations or ways of engaging, it leads to further strain; and that strain takes center stage when it's time to gather during the holidays.

I use metaphors when I'm working with my clients and participants who engage our programs to try and provide greater perspective on a point. You know, as the pastors from Black Church would say, " to make it plain." So let me make it plain! Let's say you are responding to a hunger need. If you decide to pull up to McDonalds, there will be a food menu. That menu is there to show you what options are available and what options aren't. All the options on the menu will by definition meet your hunger need, though few of those options (if I''m keeping it trill) are nutritious.

Some of us have strained relationships because our food menu options from family are as nutritious as those from McDonalds....

Now, you have choices about how you engage the menu: You can decide to pick an option from the menu. You can also decide what you really want and need is not on the menu and elect out, as choosing any option will do more harm than good. You can also decide to choose a more nutritious option on the menu and limit how much of it you consume. Or, you can decide that you want a different menu all together. Whatever option you choose, remember you have the agency to do so!

How does this apply to strained family relationships? I am so glad you asked.

If there are strained family relationship then the chances are high that you know what's on the menu and you either don't like it, find it harmful, want something different, or don't desire it at all. And that's ok. You have the choice to utilize the tool of boundary setting and choose HOW you want to respond to the available options. Boundaries is a buzz word that we've been hearing in the culture for a while now, and it comes from first knowing what our needs are, and the expectations we have about how they are to be met. When we know our needs and expectations, we can establish our boundaries-the limits and expectations we set that protect us and help us to thrive. Boundaries can protect us from experiencing more pain, chronic stress, manipulation, abuse, and staying too long in spaces that devalue us.

When setting boundaries, remember it doesn't have to be all or nothing. Revisiting my metaphor, though what you really want isn't on the menu, is there something that is? What's completely off limits? What is being offered that can satisfy your needs without causing you harm? Or is all of it dangerous?

Answering those questions empower you to set boundaries and it looks like setting limits on:

  • time you spend with family

  • conversations you'll entertain

  • family members you engage

  • drama you choose to be apart of

  • the emotional investment you give to others

If you need support, seek it out from a professional. Schedule an appointment with your therapist. If you don't have one, this may be a good time to look for one. And as you are looking for a therapist, you want to ensure they are in fact a licensed therapist! In your search, read their profiles, check in with yourself and see if their words resonate with you. As you are reading, pay close attention to their specialities. Ask yourself if their approach to treatment speaks to you in some way. Getting professional help can be the first step to working through the strain, helping you learn how to set boundaries, and began your healing journey. There are several amazing and reputable options and here are some recommendations:

Your greatest tool to manage strained family relationships this holiday season will start with acceptance without resonation. Then, identifying your needs, establishing your expectations, and setting boundaries accordingly!


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