Conflict at Christmas

I love to entertain. I love big, noisy dinner parties with lots of guests, food and good conversation. Yet for many years we did not host Christmas for my husband’s family. The reason? I was still not Italian, not Catholic and not right for Carlo in their eyes and, for me, Christmas with my in-laws was a difficult time.

It’s the season where we celebrate ‘peace on earth and goodwill to men’ but often peace, joy and goodwill are the last emotions we feel when contemplating Christmas celebrations. If you find yourself ‘clenched’ internally and bracing yourself for the coming weeks, it may not be simply because you have a lot on your to-do list.

We celebrate Christmas with our families but for many this is not always an easy thing to do. This may be because of dysfunction and unhealthy family dynamics in your family, unresolved issues with your in-laws, unmet expectations, or patterns of behaviour that have built up over years and that leave you feeling depressed. You may be successful in every other part of your life but family celebrations take you back to the unhappy 8 year old you used to be. If this is you, then there may be areas of your life or relationships where you need to establish boundaries.

Boundaries in our relationships define what we are responsible for and what we are not. When you find yourself saying ‘yes’, again, to bringing the seafood when you really can’t afford it, when you cringe as your mum spoils one set of her grandchildren at the expense of the others (yours), or when your father in law is unkind to your kids – you may have boundary issues. Don’t stay stuck in the old patterns and ways of relating; decide to make a change.

1. Identify the Conflict– discover what dynamic is being played out. The ‘Boundaries’ book by Cloud and Townsend will help you identify what is really going on in the conflict. It is never just about the ‘ham’ or whatever is the issue on the day. Do you triangulate? Do you take responsibility for a sibling or parent instead of being responsible to them? Do you fail to enforce consequences? Identify where your boundary has been trampled.

2. Identify the Need That Drives the Conflict– the conflict may arise because you are trying to meet an underlying need that your family of origin did not fulfil. Maybe you are still entangled because of a need to be loved, approved of, or accepted.

3. Identify Your Limits– identify your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual limits. What can you tolerate and accept? What makes you feel uncomfortable or stressed? What can you honestly say ‘yes’ to and have the capacity to fulfil?

4. Learn How to Kindly Say No– Have you ever said ‘yes’ when you really meant no and only realised after the fact that you had the freedom to choose? You’re not alone. Agreeing to one thing means you can’t do something else.  We gain tremendous freedom when we say ‘no’ without guilt and ‘yes’ without resentment. If you have always said ‘yes’ to whatever is asked of you, it will be difficult to say ‘no’ at first but communicating limits and talking about expectations in a kind but assertive manner becomes easier over time.

5. Forgive– Nothing clarifies boundaries more than forgiveness. To forgive others means letting them off the hook, or cancelling a debt they owe you. When you refuse to forgive someone, you still want something from that person and, even if it is revenge that you want, it keeps you tied to that person forever. Refusing to forgive a family member is one of the main reasons people are stuck for years, unable to separate from their dysfunctional families. They still want something from them. If you do not forgive, you are demanding something your offender does not choose to give, even if it is only confession of what he or she did. This “ties” them to you and ruins boundaries. Let go of the dysfunctional family you came from. Forgive them and then forgive them again until what they did no longer has power over you. Only then will you be able to move forward in freedom. They may not change but their actions or words will no longer have power over you.

6. Kindness– I encourage you to read Romans 12 in the Bible. It has some great principles for dealing with difficult people. The final one is to overcome evil with kindness. If someone continues to be hurtful, respond with kindness. It will completely defuse the situation.

I am happy to say that after working through some of these boundary issues, I have since hosted my in-laws for Christmas. It remains a difficult relationship but I have carved out for myself the role of champion Tiramisu maker!

Cherie Macchiusi


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