10 Tips for Surviving Yom Tov Family Drama With Elisheva Liss
Guess what “busy season” is for the Orthodox marriage and family therapist?
If you guessed the Chagim, you’d be right! (At least in my case.)
In our communities, where there is a tremendous emphasis on the values of both family and holidays, these often converge to create a perfect storm of internal pressure and interpersonal mayhem.
There are the social plans: who is hosting, who is traveling, which side’s “turn” is it to have the newlyweds, what if we don’t want to get together at all.
The material plans: clothes, menu, shopping, cooking, organizing, juggling work and school accommodations.
And the spiritual plans: learning, davening, and our old buddy, guilt.
Family relationships can be a lifeline, a support system, and a blessing for many. They can also be traumatic and disastrous for others, and they can be a range and combination of everything in between.
Navigating these relationships can sometimes get tricky, even in the best of circumstances.
Expectations vary around communication, gatherings, hosting, occasions, calling, texting, gifting, doing favors and the ubiquitous whatsapp chats protocol, and sometimes that can lead to misunderstanding, hurt, and in the worst case, feuds or cut-off relationships.
During the year, most people fall into some sort of rhythm with relatives. But when yom tov comes, it often awakens these complex dynamics more intensely.
Every family has its own culture and idiosyncrasies, but there are some tips that should help across the board.
Here are some general guidelines (handle with care…)
1. It’s not your job (or even possible) to make sure everyone is happy all the time. Instead, try to ask yourself what seems to be the “most right” way to handle a given situation. Then try to go about doing that as diplomatically as possible. Just because someone doesn’t like it, doesn’t mean you were wrong.
2. If you don’t feel comfortable hosting or guesting this year due to Covid, just explain that honestly and nonjudgmentally. Everyone knows that this is a reality, some people are practicing more caution than others, and reasonable people respect the needs of their loved ones.
3. No one “owes” anyone anything, generally speaking. Many young couples and families feel torn by pressure to be with their families of origin, even if it doesn’t feel right for their marriage or kids. It’s ok to respectfully decline: “Thank you so much for inviting us. We love you and enjoy spending time with you, but I think we’d like to just be home ourselves this chag.” Conversely, many parents of adult children feel obligated to host, sponsor, or in other ways give to their kids and grandkids in ways that can feel like over-extending. Again, here, honest, empathetic boundary setting is the way to go: “You know we love seeing you and the kids, and we’ve had some beautiful yomim tovim together, but I think we’re going to pass on hosting this year.” It is, however, worth keeping those in mind who might be alone or in need; it’s very hard to be alone, elderly, or ill over Yom Tov.
4. While it’s not a grandparent’s job or right to parent their children’s kids, it is fair for them to have “house rules” for their home. If you don’t want food brought into the bedrooms, for example, let everyone know in advance, and remind anyone you see taking food out of the dining area as needed. The rules should be reasonable (“no singing loudly” with toddlers isn’t realistic, for example), and you should be prepared that they may not be followed perfectly. Similarly, it’s not generally appropriate to discipline our nieces and nephews. If we need to intervene for safety or to protect our children, we can do so by taking the necessary precaution without lecturing: “Sweetie, I’m just going to take the baby off the rug, because I don’t want him to get hurt while you’re playing rodeo.”
5. If you are being hosted, it’s nice to offer to contribute- either monetarily, with cooking, or with tasks. Even if you’re 100% sure it’s not necessary, no one likes to be taken for granted, and the offer is almost always appreciated. You can always bring a gift too.
6. If you are hosting, don’t be too proud or shy to ask your guests to help out by bringing some of the food, linens, groceries, or other necessities. Hosting family can be a big undertaking, and if you feel overwhelmed, it’s totally reasonable and often wise to delegate some of the tasks, both before and during the holiday.
7. If your parents or siblings don’t treat your spouse well, and you’re planning to be with them, you may need to preempt the situation, either by discussing it with the offending parties in advance or by strategizing with your partner in preparation. Let your spouse know that you recognize what happens, that you feel bad about it, you absolutely don’t condone their being treated this way, and ask what you can do to make it easier on them.
8. When you’re in close quarters with relatives who parent differently from you, it may get sticky between cousins who are used to different priorities. As parents, you might want to be more relaxed in some rules, but it’s also ok to differentiate: “The cousins have a later bedtime than our family. We need to go to sleep now, even though they stay up later, but you can all play together in the morning.” But don’t do it passive aggressively, like this: “Aunt Shiffy doesn’t care what time her kids go to sleep, but in our family, we actually have structure.”
9. Food, kashrus, dieting, fashion, tznius, and health habits are very personal, and can easily trigger tension. Keep it clean by not commenting on what other people eat, wear, or look like. Even commenting on your own personal “stuff” in that way could inadvertently make listeners uncomfortable. A simple: “Wow- this kugel is delicious; I’d love the recipe,” will do.
10. No one likes criticism. Not about their cooking, their parenting, their appearance, their housekeeping, their politics, their life choices, or their frumkeit. Either express appreciation or admiration, or don’t mention it at all. If you absolutely need to call someone out on something they’re doing because it affects you or your immediate loved ones, try to do it privately and respectfully. If you feel unfairly criticized, you could try setting a respectful verbal boundary like this: “I appreciate your concern, but I’d rather not discuss this with you please.” If you feel that would only make things worse, you can change the subject, simply disregard, or acknowledge without continuing the conversation, using a comment like “I hear your point.” These are tricky moments, and sometimes they require creativity if we don’t want to over-engage or escalate the conflict.
*Another important concern of a different but vital nature, is that often when big extended families get together, children are left to play unsupervised because they’re all entertaining each other. The parents are understandably grateful to have a break, but unfortunately this can lead to increased incidents of inappropriate touch or worse, with devastating repercussions. Be sure to teach kids about what kinds of touch are not okay, and to make sure they are properly supervised, even and especially if there are older kids involved.
Yom Tov can be a beautiful, spiritual time, and it can be challenging too. Many families have some members who make it difficult to keep things peaceful. They are prone to say hurtful things, or to easily get upset by innocuous triggers. Remember that it’s impossible to please everyone all the time. Strategize with your partner in advance about how you can handle foreseeable interpersonal challenges. We can only try our best to be as kind and considerate as possible of others and ourselves. We can communicate clearly and thoughtfully to minimize misunderstanding. When we mess up, we can apologize. When others mess up, we can show compassion and understanding. We can remember that we don’t always know what others’ struggles and limitations are, and that it’s okay to step back or set boundaries when needed. And we can hope and pray that the majority of the interactions will be pleasant and enjoyable, so that the tensions end up taking a back seat and fade into warm family memories.
Elisheva Liss, LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, author, blogger, lecturer, digital course creator, homeschooling mom, and housework procrastinator. Her book Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking teaches how to take charge of your brain activity for healthier thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and relationships. She is the creator of the popular new course- Sacred, Not Secret: A Religious Parent's Guide to Healthy, Holy, Sexuality Education. More of her courses, writing, videos, and other content can be found on elishevaliss.com.
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