Family conflict at Christmas

Holiday Family Heartbreaks – Sound Familiar? 

  • “It’s not your turn to have Christmas at your house. We all went to your house last year!”
  • “Well, if you invite so-and-so, then we can’t come because you know we don’t get along.”
  • “You have to have the traditional pierogies even if most people don’t like them. It’s our tradition! We won’t come if you’re not serving them.”
  • “We haven’t decided whose house to go to. We will tell you the night before. “
  • ”My ex says I can’t have my the kids Christmas day because it is not my day for visitation. I just want to be able to open presents with them in the morning. If I can’t see them for even a few hours it will spoil everything about Christmas! How mean can one person be?”

I think many of us have heard a litany of hurtful, angry, judgmental, and absolute statements made by family members as people try to make the holidays a time of joy, connection, and celebration, not conflict and aggravation. Some people can threaten not to come if their demands are not met. Some people seem to go out of their way to make issues that interfere or even stop people from gathering as a family.

Sometimes it can seem like the holidays bring out the worst in people. It can make what should be the easiest decisions very difficult. And many family members can hold grudges for years, resurfacing them as the next holiday rolls around.

What is it about holidays that brings out the worst in some people? One possibility has to do with the invisible forces of family loyalties. As family therapist and creator of Contextual Family Therapy, Ivan Boszormenyi says, loyalty is an invisible force within all of us.

In the book, Balance in Motion by Heusden and Van Den Eerenbeemt, who strove to capture Nagy’s vision of family therapy, they share the following: “Unlike the loyalty associated with religion, national interest, and group interests, this concept refers to ‘ontic’ loyalty that has a real existence rather than to feelings of loyalty. The roots of this ontic loyalty are grounded in the origin of existential, asymmetrical ties between parent and child. At birth, every human being begins an undeniable, irreversible relationship with his or her parents, a relationship based upon biological, hereditary kinship and fortified by joint possession in the inheritance of the assets and liabilities of previous family generations as well as personal legacies, expectations, and unwritten laws within kinship. In fact, the etymology of the word ‘loyalty’ refers to the French word for law: Loi. Throughout the generations, these parent-child loyalties are embedded in a nurturing soil whose nature and quality are formed by the amount of trust, merits, and justice built in the course of ages.”

“People remain loyal to their families of origin long after they have, by choice, or necessity, broken their bonds with them. The primary bond of loyalty between parent and child, the ability to be available to give, influences powerfully every human being’s attitude toward the world outside the family of origin. The loyalty tie to the origin sets invisible forces in motion so that one is often not conscious of remaining loyal to one’s origin even while making the choices and decisions regarding relationships established with other people. Loyalty, therefore, is a fundamental force in the formation of the individual”… “As long as a human being lives, he remains connected with his origins. Whatever events may have transpired since the birth of a child, the loyalty of the child to his parents remains.” [Pages 17, 18]

Like it or not, believe it or not, forces of loyalty dictate how we behave, especially when decisions need to be made about who goes where at the holidays, what needs to be prepared, and even who sits where at the table. Some of the frustrations, issues, and divisiveness may be the result of each person experiencing the invisible forces of loyalty that force them to make decisions, be controlling and defiant, and sometimes unable to explain why they feel so adamant about how they and others should behave.

Nagy shared with me and others in a class he taught through Temple’s Psychoeducational Program back in the 1980’s that if we discover we’re loyal to something we can see is unhealthy, we need to deal with the intense guilt we will feel when we go against that loyalty.

We need to appreciate that we can break loyalties to unhealthy transgenerational legacies by embracing the fact that our grandchildren will be healthier if they inherit healthier beliefs, values, and behaviors. We have the power to break free from unhealthy loyalties if we appreciate how stressed it will make us during the process.

Now you may have a possible explanation for why many of us experience holiday heartbreaks. You also have permission to consider what you might be loyal to and to break the power of those loyalties that are unhealthy for you and your family.

It’s not easy, but it is possible and it’s a gift you can give your grandchildren and future generations. It’s a lot to take in, I know. But we are worth it, our families are worth it and future generations will benefit.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. What are some of your experiences around who goes where, who does what at holiday gatherings? Have you experienced times of discomfort, hurt feelings, hostility, broken trust and other heartbreaking feelings?
  2. How might some of these behaviors be rooted in invisible loyalties? Are there family patterns that are difficult but predictable?
  3. What would it take for you and others in your family to address and break unhealthy loyalties? Can you tolerate the feelings of guilt and disloyalty that are inevitable when you break some of these rules that are the outward behaviors of invisible loyalty?