WHILE advertisers portray the holidays as a time of swell, Norman Rockwell family get-togethers -- such is not always the case. There can be any number of reasons why the reality differs dramatically from the ideal when it comes to obligation vacations, and there can be any number of options for coping with the reality.
"My dad just gets on my nerves, and that's the way it's been for years," said a 43-year-old photographer. "It's not easy for me to be around him for a long time.
"Part of it comes from his implication that there's only one way to do things, and it's his way," she said.
Nevertheless, the photographer continues to return to the old homestead. After all, she loves her dad. And, like many other people, she has come up with some strategies for coping with feisty relatives on festive occasions.
"I know I'm not going to spend the whole time with my dad," she said. "It makes the visit much easier if I plan visits to friends and take side trips to other cities."
Family therapists say this is a good approach.
"Spend little pieces of time with the person, and be positive and understanding during those times," said Jack McGuire, a licensed psychologist with a private practice who also teaches at the University of Central Florida.
"Listen to the person and be empathetic -- but break up the visit so that you're not stuck for long hours at a time."
A 44-year-old teacher has turned this strategy into an art. During visits to the Midwest to see his family, he goes for lots of walks, spends a few nights at the homes of friends, and partakes of all the local culture he can find -- museums, libraries, galleries, whatever.
Because, fond as he is of his family, he finds that conversation is exhausted after about a day.
"We really have very little to talk about. I live 1,000 miles from
them, so they don't really know my friends and we can't talk much about them. They're not interested in world affairs or politics or any of those kinds of things."
Walter Barker, a marriage and family therapist, says one way to deal with this situation is to look for commonalities, even if you have to reach way back in time.
"Maybe there were hobbies or interests in childhood where you and your parents did connect. Let's say you have nothing in common with your father except fishing -- do that with him now."
Barker's other suggestion for people lacking discussion fodder is to broaden your family's horizons.
"Try to think of areas of interest you have and to introduce to your parents some of these aspects of yourself. Don't discount your parents -- they may be capable of continuing growth and appreciation of areas they know nothing about."
One thing parents know something about is raising kids. That's why lots of grown-ups feel they're being treated like 10-year-olds when they return home.
Parents aren't really conscious of treating their adult offspring this way, Barker said. "It's the old habitual roles that come back into play."
Assertiveness is the best way to handle Mom and Dad when they reduce you to a sniveling --or rebellious -- kid, Barker said.
"Make 'I' statements like 'I'm uncomfortable with this,' 'I have a hard time with this.' You have to gently but firmly let them know you don't appreciate that treatment and want them to become more aware of it and control it more."
Sometimes the stress of an obligation vacation doesn't even involve you directly. Rather, you may feel like you're witnessing a crime and are helpless to stop it. That's the case for a 30-year-old career counselor.
"I go home and watch my family miscommunicate" -- often with raised voices and hurt feelings.
"It kind of hurts me to see that my mom and my grandmother don't have a wonderful relationship," she said. "I feel sad that they're missing that, but I can't make that happen for them and I'm not going to meddle with it anymore."
Bravo! says McGuire.
Using coping strategies is all well and good, family therapists say, but the key to surviving obligation vacations lies in one word: acceptance.
"Accept who your parents are," McGuire said. "If you demand they be different, even in your head, it's going to be a torturous visit, whether it's for one hour or three days. Accept what you cannot change."