When families gather for the holidays, old troubles can surface. But if you have an open mind and realistic expectations, the celebration can go off without a hitch. @

KEEPING THE PEACE

November 22, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

To paraphrase an old joke, a woman was telling her psychiatrist about her visit home for the holidays.

"We were having Thanksgiving dinner," she said, "And I made a terrible Freudian slip. I meant to say to my mother, 'Please pass the cranberry sauce.' What came out was, 'You jerk, you ruined my life.' "

If that doesn't strike you as funny, it may be because it's a little too close to what actually happens when your family gets together at Thanksgiving or Hanukkah or Christmas or Kwanzaa.

Whether we look forward to or dread going home for the holidays, one thing is for sure: Within our hopes and dreams for the perfect Norman Rockwell celebration, the potential for disaster lurks.

Like Scrooge's ghosts, the problems fit into three categories: those of the past, the present and the future.

"People think they're remembering how wonderful the holidays used to be," says Leonard Press, a family therapist in private practice. "But they're really comparing the present to what they wish the past could have been."

The past hurts. Holidays bring to mind losses, what might have been, regrets. People can have major emotional reactions to holiday memories, particularly the bad ones. It's a time when old, unresolved issues are likely to resurface.

Maybe you felt your brother got more presents than you did. This meant, or so you thought, that your parents loved him better. A little bit of that feeling is still there, even though you're now a

successful lawyer with a family of your own. It's going to come out as bright and shiny as ever over something as simple as who gets the biggest slice of pumpkin pie for dessert.

What can you do about it? Maybe nothing more than simply recognizing the real source of your current resentment - much too strong to be over just a slice of pie.

Sometimes the tensions around a holiday have a more obvious cause. Perhaps there's been a recent death or a divorce in the family. Memories of past holiday seasons make the loss even more painful, at a time that's supposed to be joyful.

Not talking about the death or divorce only makes matters worse, says Evan Imber-Black, author of "The Secret Life of Families" (Bantam, 1998). "Carve out time early in the day to deliberately engage the loss. Look at photos, talk about the person who is no longer there. It breaks the taboo."

The past is complicated by what's going on in the present. Children are growing up, people are getting married and bringing strangers, otherwise known as in-laws, to family gatherings. Mom may no longer be able to put as lavish a feast on the table as she used to.

College students come home and are expected to act as they always have, although they don't want to let go of their new-found independence.

Family dynamics are changing.

"Several things that represent the structure of families can occur at seasonal dinners," says Robert Myers, a psychology professor at Widener University in Chester, Pa., who studies holiday traditions. If these conflict with the family's shifting relationships, they can be a source of tension.

Dinner seating, for instance, tends to remain the same year after year. "The 'power seats' are at the end," he says. "People may have lots of power elsewhere" but be relegated to a symbolically subordinate seat at the holiday dinner table. If they aren't willing to return to their old roles in the family temporarily, problems arise.

Sometimes family members voluntarily take on roles during the holidays that fit them uneasily. For instance, says Imber-Black, couples who share the workload fairly equally throughout the year often fall back into more traditional roles starting with Thanksgiving.

"The women go into high gear for the holidays," she says, "And the men stand around wondering what to do." Figuring out in advance who's responsible for what can make a real difference in the tension level on the day itself.

To all the stresses built into these multi-generational celebrations, add one more: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas are favorite times for secrets to be revealed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more parents find out that their children are gay and more divorces are announced to families at this time of year than any other.

Such conversations should be held before or after the holidays, not on.

"Opening secrets [during the holidays] isn't good," says Imber-Black. "Holidays are already tense. You're remembered forevermore as the person who ruined Thanksgiving."

But surely the greatest source of anxiety and stress over holiday celebrations are our own unrealistic expectations about them. In other words, the future.

We look forward to the holiday as an opportunity to get close to relatives we don't keep in touch with emotionally the other 364 days of the year. Or we may have too idealistic a view of how perfect our dinner will be, or how everyone will get just the right presents. We're often disappointed.

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