Going home for the holidays…Sometimes, it feels like getting in a time machine. I left home 10 years ago; since that time I’ve lived in two cities, met hundreds of dynamic, interesting people, gotten married, and had a child. Although my roots are in rural Pennsylvania, the person I was when I left home wouldn’t recognize me today. And ultimately I think that’s a good thing. It means I have grown and matured.
With the holidays behind us, I’ve been thinking about family dynamics a lot. And I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice that when families get together, sometimes we all revert into our old family roles. For example, no matter how well I control my temper these days, my siblings still know how to push my buttons like they did when we were kids. And my youngest sister will always be treated like the baby of the family, no matter how old we get.
Still, I’m proud of the love and support that my family offers each other. But things have not always been so rosy…especially when my parents divorced nine years ago. We took sides, we blamed each other for problems, and we were all very hurt. Needless to say, there’s a lot of history that only members of our family will truly understand.
So, how do you fit a romantic partner into that equation?
In many ways, my husband Matt made it easy. Not only is my husband a genuine “people person” and classic extrovert that endears everyone to him when they meet him, but everyone in my family could easily see that Matt made me very happy. Both of my parents and all of my siblings supported and encouraged our engagement and marriage.
As Matt spent more time with me and my family, he was able to truly see my vulnerabilities and flaws. Watching the way I was deeply hurt by an offhand comment my mom made, or seeing my hearty belly laugh at a silly inside joke with my sister, he got to know me in a genuine way.
But when arguments between me and family members inevitably came up, romantic relationship dynamics became more complicated.
As Matt would say, my family and I are “screamers” – we are loud and boisterous when we argue and all of us have our sharp tongued moments when we can throw low blows. Unfortunately (given that Matt’s family conflict style is a little less direct and he was less comfortable in this setting) it caused problems when I expected Matt to throw his hat in the ring and “back me up” during a family argument. I had to learn that Matt could support me wholeheartedly, but in different ways – his way was being a shoulder to cry on and an empathetic ear to listen after the argument was over. I have also had to learn that as an in-law, Matt would never feel comfortable engaging in a heated argument with a family member of mine if he could ever possibly avoid it. And at times, Matt has shown his support for me by giving me a tough love talk and telling me honestly that he thinks I am overreacting, or need to adjust my perspective about a given situation.
And as popular and well-liked as Matt is in my family circle, he has behaved badly a time or two himself. On Thanksgiving two years ago, he had way too much to drink and managed to argue with and alienate every single person present at my mother’s house. I was embarrassed not only at his behavior, but at the angry, scolding wife I became. I somehow managed to wind down, go to sleep, and woke up the next morning wondering, “What am I going to do? What am I going to say?” And I won’t sugar coat it – breakfast was quite awkward. But many of the same people present that terrible night were at my mother’s new house for Thanksgiving last year, and we laughed easily about the situation. To my mother’s eternal credit, although she was the main victim of Matt’s boorish behavior that night, she has been able to say, “It happens. Everyone blows their lid sometimes. Now it’s just a part of family lore, right?”
At the end of the day, I am lucky to have married a man who is willing and even enthusiastic about fitting into my family lore. Matt and I promised to live for each other but including our loved ones in the equation makes life that much sweeter.