Do you HAVE to spend time with extended family this Christmas–especially if that extended family is always trying to undermine your family?
It’s Monday, and on those days I try to answer a reader question. But I’ve had so many this time of year on similar topics, and so instead of answering a specific issue, I think I’d like to write more of a general guideline on how I think we should handle extended family at Christmas.
I’m going to do this in two parts: today I’m going to talk about how to draw boundaries and how to decide when in-laws have overstepped and you may need to stop contact for a while. And tomorrow I’ll talk about what to do when extended family isn’t abusive or bullying–but they are just plain unpleasant.
So let’s look today at how to handle abusive parents.
Nobody Needs to Subject Themselves or Their Children to Abuse
Seriously. You honestly don’t have to! I know that one of the biggest stressors in a family is having to pack up the kids at Christmas and travel to Grandma and Grandpa’s house–if you know that once you get there, you’re going to be given a lecture, or the children will be treated inappropriately. And you feel small and angry and helpless and somehow unable to get things back on an even keel.
Families can become abusive even if they weren’t that abusive when you were growing up. Here’s why: Many parents’ biggest aim is to be able in some way to control their children. They want their kids to think like them, to have the same priorities and opinions, and to become a validation for everything that the parents believe.
It could be that while you (or your husband) were growing up you performed that function well. You did agree with your parents. You did go to the same church happily, share the same political beliefs, saw the world the same way. But then you left home and your world got bigger, and you found that many of those beliefs and opinions weren’t working for you anymore.
That’s when your parents’ behaviours may have started to change, because you were stretching your wings. They may have started to insult you, to question your salvation, to berate you, etc.
Sometimes parents change, too, because of things that are happening with them. Maybe they’ve become depressed or have other mental illness issues. I know of one family where wine was absolutely forbidden when the kids were growing up. But after all the kids left home, the parents started to drink. And now the dad is a really ugly drunk, and whenever people get together for holidays, alcohol becomes a major factor.
If your parents are overstepping their bounds and demanding (through lectures, manipulation, or guilt trips) that you act or believe a certain way, then they are being abusive. This does not have to be tolerated.
What are Examples of Abusive Behaviour?
I know a lot of people will say, “but how do I know?” How do I know if they’re actually overstepping the line?
Here are just a few examples:
1. The family completely dismisses the spouse and is always talking about an ex-girlfriend or someone else that they like better. They buy Christmas presents for everyone but the spouse. They don’t talk to the spouse. They “reminisce” with the son (or the daughter) about all the fun they used to have before the spouse came into their lives. The motivation for this is usually to keep the son or daughter in their grasp, and prevent the spouse from having influence.
(this is different than a sister who may have kept up a friendship with an ex-wife, for instance, but still talks to the new spouse. Just because someone is still friends with an ex doesn’t mean that they are undermining the current wife or husband. The question is: do they try to engage with the new one or not?)
2. The family “grills” the couple on where they go to church and gives lectures or books to read or other things about why they are spiritually wrong. They won’t take no for an answer. If they’re challenged, they say, “we only care about your heart.”
3. The family pressures the couple, through guilt trips, to take on obligations that shouldn’t be theirs. For instance, they may be pressured to lend money to a sibling, or to have a sick relative move in with them. This is all the more likely to happen if you’re the couple who looks like you’re doing everything right. You’ve just bought your own home, you’re trying to work to get ahead, and now you’re the one who is targeted, right when these extra obligations would hurt you the most. It’s common in families for the “black sheep” to get all the attention and the extra money, while those who are acting responsibly are made to feel guilty if they don’t share what they have with those who are irresponsible.
4. The grandparents take the grandchildren aside and try to tempt them with things that you have specifically said are wrong. They try to give the children food you know will hurt them or will undermine what you’re trying to do. They try to get the kids to watch shows you don’t want them to see. If they’re older, they try to give them alcohol.
5. The family constantly criticizes the spouse and tries to “correct” their mothering, their housekeeping, or anything. It can also work the other way, where the dad criticizes the son-in-law’s career choices or other types of things, making it clear that they are not accepted.
All of these things constitute parents deliberately undermining the marriage and trying to prevent the couple from being able to “leave and cleave”–from being able to make decisions on their own.
How Should You Act Towards Parents Like This?
We are told to honour our parents, absolutely. But once you’re married, your nuclear family is your main concern and your main responsibility. You do not need to bankrupt yourselves for parents or extended family, and you do not need to subject yourselves to criticism.
Unfortunately, the only way to properly honour them in this situation is really, really hard: you have to be open and honest and tell the truth.
That’s going to be a very, very difficult conversation.
You may be tempted to make up an excuse, or even lie, by saying something like this, “I’m sorry we can’t visit this Christmas; my husband got called in to work at the last minute.”
That is not honouring your parents and it isn’t honouring God. And it won’t help you with the problem in the long run!
The only right thing to do is also the hardest thing to do, and it means having a conversation where you say something like this:
Mom and Dad, we love you and we want to honour you. We want to continue to have a relationship with you. However, we can’t do that right now because you (constantly criticize us; dismiss my spouse; try to get the grandkids to disobey us). As such, we’ve decided that for our own peace of mind we won’t be visiting this Christmas. We hope that we can re-establish a relationship, but it will have to be when you promise not to (criticize, run a guilt trip, etc.)
I think it’s best to do this on the phone or in person. If they start to question you (which they will) and then yell (which they may), then it’s okay to say, “I don’t think this conversation is going anywhere, and I don’t want to talk to each other this way, so I’m going to hang up.” And then hang up, and block the number if necessary.
You can also write a follow-up email detailing the kinds of behaviours that are bothering you, so that it’s in writing and everyone knows.
That’s really, really a hard thing to do.
I get it. But unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any other way to do it other than being honest.
Listen to Your Spouse
Finally, and this is a really important one: listen to your spouse. Often parents are being abusive and we just plain don’t see it. But our spouse does. And maybe a mother is treating a daughter-in-law inappropriately, or a father is treating a son-in-law inappropriately, and we don’t see it.
If your spouse is being hurt by your family, you need to listen to that. Don’t dismiss it. And then it’s your responsibility to make it better. You be the one to talk to the family. You take the initiative to protect your spouse.
Just Remember: Unpleasantness is Not Abuse
One final warning: just because you don’t like a certain branch of the family doesn’t mean they’re being abusive! And just because people are unpleasant doesn’t mean you should cut off contact. Tomorrow we’ll talk about 10 ways to handle unpleasant relatives at Christmas.
But I know many of you are dealing with honest to goodness abuse and adult bullies in the extended family, and it’s okay to stand up to them and say, “our family will not be participating with you this year because we won’t be treated like that anymore.”
That’s called boundaries. And boundaries are, indeed, biblical. Jesus doesn’t want other people trying to manipulate you. He cares when you’re treated like that. And the book of Proverbs is all about not subjecting yourselves to “fools” like this.
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Now let me know in the comments: Have you ever had to deal with abuse in the extended family at Christmas? Did you ever have to enforce a boundary? What happened?