Marriage and Family — 26 December 2009
The joys and challenges of family gatherings

Holidays bring families together. It is often a mixed blessing of balancing the joys of togetherness and belonging with the challenges of getting along with others’ personalities and styles.

Belonging, as Dr. Maslow proposed, is the first psychological need humans have after our survival needs of food shelter and clothing are met. From early human existence, group affiliation equaled increased survival chances. A sole caveman was less likely to fend off starvation than did his counterparts who were members of a clan.

Being a part of an extended family roots us in a steady base of affiliation, belonging and safety. Yet, not all families offer the secure bond for all their members. It is likely that as the family grows, the greater the chances are that conflicts, disharmony and discomfort between some individuals may occur.

There are many factors that may interfere with your comfort with certain member/s of your extended family. Such as: distance, age span, personality or historical scores.

Your great uncle or second cousin once removed may not be age wise, geographically, or emotionally close enough to you to establish the security of kinship.

Your loud and boisterous relative or the taciturn retiring one may be hard to warm up to or feel accessible for safe connection. You may label a somber member as critical, an insecure one as fragile and elect to distance yourself for your own emotional comfort.

There are relatives whose early “sins” have not been pardoned or forgotten. The incentive to remediate these relationships and forgo old wounds may be low and thus the unsafe distance is preserved.

Keeping score of the past erroneously assumes that humans are static and unchangeable beings. We know that we have changed, matured and are better now than we had been in the past, shouldn’t we extend the same courtesy for emotional maturation and growth to others? Holding on to old labels of others’ disagreeable nature or preserving the state of having been wronged deprives us from the potential of a reestablished connection with estranged family members.

The value of being a part of a functional extended family far exceeds the self-protection measures we undertake. The joys of family holidays may include the opportunity to play together, have light- hearted conversations, take walks, eat and laugh together and recall positive early childhood memories that unite us. Keeping updated about each other’s lives keeps our connection alive. The intergenerational exchanges and getting to know each other anew may serve as a source of support, connection and pleasure.

Recent British research done by Drs. Minnaert, Maitland and Miller of the University of Westminster, reported five emotionally enhancing benefits of family sharing during the holidays: Improvement in family closeness that persisted in many cases beyond the holidays, increased confidence of the members who solved small practical problems together, expanded social networking, improved sense of well-being and a more hopeful outlook on life that facilitated for some a shift toward healthier life style such as smoking cessation, job change and greater social consciousness.

During the holidays:

• Treat family gathering as a blessing and an opportunity for repairing old rifts and establishing shared commonalities and enjoyable time.
• Abandon your negative preconceptions about those who make you uncomfortable. Time and circumstances mature us all.
• Disconnect your unhappy memories of petty past exchanges or slights and focus on times that united you.
• Remember that you may have also previously evoked mixed emotions from others, which no longer reflects your current level of emotional health.
• Use the holidays as Holy Days for acceptance, generosity and kindness towards your family members.
• Treat others the way you want to be treated.
• Be positive, open and affirming of others. It will warm their hearts and help them feel safer and more receptive to you as you share truly pleasurable and joyous holidays together.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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