The question: I’m engaged to someone who I only met a year ago and I’m ashamed to admit this: I loved spending last Christmas with his family more than I ever liked it with mine. My family doesn’t fight, argue or hate each other; I just don’t think we are very festive. His family loves the holidays and they know how to show it. How do I break it to my family that they may not see me as often any more over the holidays? His family lives out of province, so there’s no chance of spending time equally with everyone.
The answer: Shame is one of the most toxic and harmful emotions we can experience. It makes us feel inferior, worthless and wrong, and is often associated with a critical voice that tells us we should feel or act in a way that’s different than how we actually have. So, the first step is to work on rephrasing how you feel about your fiancé’s family versus yours.
There’s no shame in enjoying being with his family more than your own. Unfortunately, we can’t choose our family, nor can we modify their personalities or change the traditions we grew up with. The situation is what it is, and you can’t make yourself feel differently than you do. It doesn’t mean you don’t love your family.
You are transitioning to a new stage of your life (being engaged, and then married), and there will be a natural shift in your traditions and what you do over holidays. You will, over time, create new traditions with your family – that is, both your extended families, and, down the road, your nuclear family if you choose to have kids.
That you are struggling with how to tell your family about your decision communicates to me that you love them and care about the effect of your choices. So the way you break the news to them is key.
The words we choose to use in conversation depends to a large degree on the intended outcome. In your situation, maintaining a positive, respectful relationship with your family sounds key. Ask yourself two questions: How do you want your family to feel about you when you tell them you will see them less often over holidays? And what can you do to minimize any hurt feelings?
I would guess you want them to a) understand that the decision is not an easy one for you, and that you have mixed emotions about your decision (small white lies don’t hurt in these situations); and b) not begrudge you for your decision.
When we struggle with how to approach a conversation, a number of factors get in the way. We don’t know what to say or how to say it; we get caught up in over-thinking the talk, worrying about all the possible – and often unlikely – outcomes; we let our own emotions, like anxiety or fear, get the way; we can’t decide what we really want; or we find that external factors, like how your family may react, are an impediment. We have an element of control over all but the last of these factors.
Approach the conversation in a gentle way. Acknowledge and validate any feelings your family may communicate to you, even if it’s sadness that you won’t be around. Let them know that in fairness to your fiancé, you want to spend time with his family as well. Then come up with a solution that works for both of you, such as alternating which family you spend the holidays with by year. Ultimately, you and your fiancé have to come up with your own family traditions that satisfy both of you.
Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych., is a clinical psychologist and organizational & media consultant. She is the host of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s Million Dollar Neighbourhood and is the psychological consultant to CITY-TV’s The Bachelor Canada. Her website is www.drjotisamra.com and she can be followed @drjotisamra .
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