The seasons of peace, love and generosity are often filled with conflict, bitterness and selfishness (and yes, even greed). This is particularly evident in many families who have been through divorce and now have to adapt to dividing the holidays between two (or more) extended families. It all begins with intense longing to have a wonderful, joyful family experience. One that may help alleviate some of the pain of the divorce or of past childhood losses. Each parent (and grandparent) has their own personal image of how this should look and feel. And traditions are a deep part of these wishes. But the reality of two families means they have to figure out when the children will be with which parent on what days. And that reality re-ignites the sadness and guilt about the their children having to experience divorce.
Many people are flexible, thoughtful and able to take a step back and realize they will get their turn. They are able to remind themselves that the children’s feelings need to be first here, and that children do not need to be pressured and pulled between families. But a remarkable number of parents become deeply attached to their personal wishes. They present demands and become entitled, accusing and totally stubborn. Attempts to discuss and plan derail into refrains of: “this is My Turn” and “I am not going to give up that day with the kids” and ” I have always had Christmas (or other holiday) this way and You cannot change My plans!”. The unspoken message: “I Do Not Care what You Want or About Your Plans/Wishes/Needs”!
Step-families go through turmoil, fury, avoidance. And there’s a crowd of onlookers and participants- the grandparents or aunts and uncles & cousins trying to schedule Thanksgiving dinners, gift exchanges, religious rituals. Stepmoms and Stepdads become irate and the chorus is: (“why does your ex always get his way?” “why can’t we ever have it the way we want” “your ex keeps avoiding and messing up our plans”).
Aside from the holidays, similar patterns show up in couples counseling. The most common pattern: a passive husband who goes along with his wife’s traditions of visiting her family and he never dares ask to have a year where they visit his family. The women don’t ask what the men want. His family feels helpless, abandoned, like their interests are never considered. It’s not difficult to sense the resentments building. The men report “that’s not possible to even bring up, she will have a fit”. And “there’s no way she would even consider this” And indeed, when the topic finally comes up in counseling, the wife responds as the husband had predicted.
Do the men treat their wives/girlfriends in ways that are equally dismissive? Yes, in daily acts of not responding to her requests or feelings or needs. Quite often this shows up in an unfair arrangement of responsibilities. Both work, but while she is cooking/cleaning/supervising children, he is spending hours on video games or tv. (in one marriage, the pregnant wife carried 3 laundry baskets of clothing up the stairs, past her husband who was watching sports on tv. When she finally got mad at him for not helping, he said he was tired because he had played tennis that afternoon! So tired that he ignored the overflowing trash and managed to forget the dog needed to be walked.
So how can families and couples fix this destructive pattern? By reinstating thoughtfulness, fairness, empathy and compassion. By recognizing when your selfish drives are getting out of hand. By modeling for the children how to share. And by remembering that to have a good marriage or a good co-parent relationship, you need to be respectful and kind, even when feeling deep disappointment at having to give up something you want. So you and the children see that the result is deeper intimacy and caring and love.