The Holidays again: extended time with extended families, the in-laws, and the familial out-cast all armed with a thousand expectations. The busy mom is looking forward to a break from the children to talk uninterrupted with her mother, and the work-wearied dad is hoping to catch a few afternoon football games and catnaps. The schooled child is looking forward to snow (if he is headed north) or nice weather (if headed south). And these are the just the few obvious, specific-but often universal-expectations.
There are also the expectations of others: of a mother-in-law that her daughter-in-law would take extended interest in her Precious Moments collection, or of a wife for her husband that he would want to spend the better part of a week sitting and talking to her family (the same husband who doesn’t sit for four hours talking, ever, for any reason, about anything).
Expectations are fine, but added together with the weariness of travel (or, as a host, having someone else fill up the guest spaces of your home), the rose-covered memories of holidays gone by, and the anxieties of conflict driven by past wrongs, current neglects, and unruly emotional baggage are utterly overwhelming!
Expectations, held in balance, bring joy. Disjointed from reality, expectations become the seedbed of disappointment and the self-fulfilling prophecies of our greatest fears: something like The Christmas Story meets National Lampoons Christmas Vacation. So what is to be done?
Here are just a few suggestions that may, in some small way, elevate (or reduce) part of the Holiday tension.
Establish and Make Clear the Few Whole-Family Events.
This might be a list, or a hat into which the various “hopes” are written on small bits of paper and dropped, later to be pulled out at stated “gathering times.” The list should include input from as many family members as are going to be together, or else it just becomes a list of obligatory mandates that frustrate the rest. Too often we state expectations in abstraction, “I just want us to all be together.” What does this mean? Non-stop talking for four days, or being in the same room, or being in the same house, or coming and going but always being together for meals? It could mean any or all of these. Stated expectations reduce unrealistic expectations and decrease the likelihood that disappointment would turn into conflict.
Instead of expecting “everybody to be together” (and “to like it, doggone-it”), state the concreteness of the desire: “I would like us to all eat every supper together as a family.” This frees families with children to eat lunch earlier and get their little ones down for a nap, or those who want to shop to slip out without the expectation that someone is drumming anxious fingers on a lunch-laid countertop waiting for them to return.
If the tradition includes games on Christmas Eve and presents on Christmas morning, Christmas afternoon and evening should be “stated” as open for people to do what they desire. The Extroverts* can fill that time talking and visiting, while the Introverts* are set free to find a quiet place to read, nap, or cognate. (*See the Myers Briggs Type Indicator for more information).
We all know what it looks like when these expectations aren’t stated: the Extroverts say of the Introvert, “He doesn’t like us” and “I think he looks down on us.” The Judging* types say of the Perceiving* types, “Why are you so lazy? All you do is watch Football. You are only here twice a year.” Meanwhile, the Perceiving types say of the Judging types, “She is so high-strung. She can’t sit still for a moment. I wish she would learn to relax.”
These comments often grow out of the universalization of our own “ideal Holiday.” For me that means some extra sleep, early bedtimes, time to read and write in my journal, and quiet. For my wife that means lots of interaction, talking, and visiting with her parents or best friend. Agreeing on a few stated “group times” or events will establish boundaries within which freedom for difference can abound.
Check Your Expectations Against Reality
Let’s be honest. For most of us, most of our lives are not lived in the regular overlap and interaction with many extended family members. We have lives. They have lives. And the overlap of those divergent callings and experiences occur most profoundly in the non-real setting of holidays. Taken away from the familiarity of home, many of us grow restless. With feelings of exposure, we seek those shelters of familiarity. Any three-, four-, or seven-day interaction-regardless of whether it is Christmas-will only allow for so much personal reconnection and interaction. Time is needed between interactions to establish (and re-establish) a rapport. Proximity and quality play a part but they cannot account for the quantity of time.
Yet, for some reason, we expect that the increase of proximity-that is, because brothers are under the same roof again for the first time in years-somehow means that the amount of time required to significantly connect is reduced. Let’s be honest. It is doubtful that the brothers-in-law by marriage that I see twice a year will become my deepest relationships just because Christmas offered five days of interaction.
Few of us interact in simple conversation for more than an hour a day. Count up all the words that two spouses exchange throughout the course of a day, and it might fill an hour (stacked end to end). Our daily interactions with the closest people in our lives only seem greater because they are punctuated by so many common activities and everyday interruptions. Put two relative strangers together in the same place-thrust together by the accident of someone else’s marriage-and after talking for twenty or thirty minutes, they have exhausted all the topics of conversation easily at hand. Attempts to demand more will likely result in frustration, anxiety, and tension. Furthermore, such attempts actually reduce the interest of re-engaging in a future conversation with the person again. Demanding more from a moment of time than that moment can give (far from encouraging a relationship to grow) like overwatering plants, will actually squelch the growth of the relationship.
Have Group Activities that Offer Something for Everyone
Sometimes expectations are unrealistic because the time available and because the level of established trust between participating parties is underdeveloped. The most natural interaction takes place when people are set to a common task, like meals or a game. But who can eat all day, or play a game (or games) without growing bored and ready for a change? That is why pre-planning an activity that would allow for a commonality of participation, in areas where different family members excel, can provide the context for the deepening relationship.
At Thanksgiving, maybe the event is choosing, cutting down, and decorating the Christmas tree (some can pick, others can cut, and others decorate-a variety of tasks). At Christmas, maybe the purchase of a puzzle or model that allows for a diversity of skill: building a play set, making a meal to take to a poor family, creating a family Olympics, building a deck or restoring an older one, and so forth. The most suitable “group activity” would be one that would take into consideration the expectations of each (or most of the attending members).
My in-laws put out a puzzle each year. Throughout the holiday, people can work on it at their leisure. There are too many of us to work on one Gingerbread house. So we build several with different groups. My family goes to a movie on Christmas night as a tradition to watch something together. What are those events that can allow for different people to enjoy different paces while expressing their own interests and demonstrating their own strengths?
Delivering the Holidays from Grandiose Expectations
Part of the reason holidays are so stressful is that our expectations make more out of them than even the most perfect Christmas can give. Adjusting our expectations, and helping others do the same, is a means of delivering our greatest hopes from the misery of Clark Griswald.
Joel Hathaway lives in St. Louis, MO. He holds a BA in English Literature with minor emphases in Art and Creative Writing. He lives online at www.joelhathaway.com. He is certified in the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and regularly consults with organizations on leadership issues.