Surveying The Boundaries

20161216_170650It’s that time of year again…the holiday hangover after the wringer of family expectations, beginning with Thanksgiving and ending with whatever December holiday we celebrate. I’m telling you, the ill-at-ease, creeping dread isn’t just due to overindulgence in food and booze. The heavy fatigue isn’t just from the abundance of parties and late nights and rushing around to get everything done. The urge to hibernate isn’t just the cold dreary weather that feels no longer a winter wonderland. No, the cluster of symptoms is, for many of us, related to the crush of family expectations and our inability to hold them at bay, to keep our resolutions that we’ll not let them bowl us over this time.

We let them bowl us over this time. And, as in years past, dating back as far as we can remember, things looked and felt and went as they usually do. Sighhhh.

If you have a lovely relationship with your family of origin that radiates to the extended people, I am happy for you. If you look forward to being with your family group during the holidays because it means warmth and closeness and special traditions in which everyone participates joyously, this post is not for you.  I invite you to continue reading however, to see how the other half live. Perhaps you and your kind, magnanimous family would take pity on an outsider and invite them to your table next year.

My dad has a saying he likes to trot out in reference to challenging family dynamics, families: they’re not for everyone. As per usual, his austere Midwestern wisdom contains layers upon layers of truths you can continue to peel away to deeper meanings. The first time I heard it I thought, god, that’s a depressing thought. Everyone should be allowed a family, to fit in somewhere. Is he suggesting some people don’t deserve a family?

No, not at all. It’s just that families can be exceptionally complicated, and fraught with expectation and obligation, and messy like any group of people trying to do something together. And because of all these realities, some people might rather not. They’re not for everyone.

Over the years I’ve heard many stories about many families and the relationships therein. Sometimes I’ve had the privilege of being taken in by a family, allowed into the inner sanctum of their life together, where I’ve sat quietly, hardly daring to breathe lest I be recognized as an interloper and ordered out.

Of course I come from a family myself, that came from two families. And now I have my own family that consists of a large man, two female cats, and me. I’ve had ample time and opportunity to observe, bear witness, and listen to a wide swath of families. And let me tell you, families: they’re not for everyone.

I’ve listened to friends vent the stress their families cause in them. I’ve seen them gnash their teeth over the impossibility of pleasing a family member, or distancing themselves from one. I’ve heard friends go on about the bad behavior of family members, then throw their hands up in exasperation. I’ve seen pain well in the eyes of friends experiencing abuse at the hands of family. And what I say to each of them in turn, my chief words of comfort are my dad’s.

Families: they’re not for everyone.

But there’s more we can do. There’s something beyond resignation. We can set boundaries with our families, and use them to protect ourselves and our relationships with them. We can define for ourselves what we’re willing to accept, how far we’re willing to go, and what we’re willing to do. We can tell our families what we’ve decided, listen to their input, and reaffirm our new boundaries. We can end the call or leave the room if our boundaries aren’t being respected, and tell our families we’ll try again with them another time. We can start thinking about and setting boundaries now, and be in practice by the time the 2017 holidays roll around. We can stay committed to the lines we’ve drawn.

I’m going to give it to you straight–setting and holding boundaries with our families is some of the most challenging work we will ever do. It’s tough. It’s against the grain. It disrupts harmony. It’s lonely. But once we start it gets easier, and let me tell you, we will never be happier or feel more free once the new world order is in place. Next January, we may find our holiday hangover lessened and easier to cure through physical means.

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