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How do you love difficult family members during the holidays?

Holidays can be very challenging. As comedian Jim Gaffigan jokes, since we eat a ton of food every day, Thanksgiving is only differentiated by eating a ton of food with people you can’t stand. Hopefully that’s not your situation, but I was not surprised to receive this question last week: How do you love difficult family members well during the holidays, while also setting healthy boundaries?

First off, I want to commend the question because many people never get to the point where they are trying to love their family members well, nor set healthy boundaries. In my experience, there are plenty of folks out there who have consigned themselves to simply revel in their dislike of other people without any concern whatsoever for trying to love them. This is, of course, contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the gospel itself. Jesus died to make his enemies into his friends. We are commanded to love our enemies and to pray for those who intentionally cause harm to us, so I am relatively sure that includes awkward Uncle Ned.

There are also a large number of people who, because they want to avoid conflict, simply let family members of all sorts walk all over them during the holidays or become a punching bag. This is also unhealthy. Love, after all, doesn’t mean giving a person exactly what they want. It also doesn’t mean letting them use you as their cannon fodder. Loving someone well sometimes means saying no or pointing out destructive behavior - even if the person does not want to hear about it. Proverbs 27:6 wisely states, “Better are the wounds of a friend than the kisses of an enemy.”

Having reached a place where you are trying to love your family members well and having a desire to also maintain healthy boundaries is a great place to be.

I would ask you to consider why you are getting upset at the family member(s) in question. There are times when people are outright acting inappropriately - getting drunk and swearing in front of the kids, passive aggressively controlling an environment, etc. There are also times when people’s personalities simply grate on us. In that situation, the person may not be doing anything wrong - he or she is simply difficult for you, with your unique wiring, to love. When it is a personality conflict, I truly believe we need to take the posture of humility and make every effort to love him or her with grace. Giving some people grace will come quite naturally. Giving others grace will require loads of prayer, scripture memory and patience.

Boundaries are a similar situation. In the vast majority of cases, boundary issues are simply a question of expectations. One person has an expectation that family will be together 24 hours a day for four days. Another person has the expectation that Christmas will be celebrated during a three hour block on Christmas morning. The person who has a smaller expectation of time will feel as though the other person is encroaching on their boundaries. Here, I think we need to evaluate whether (1) are our boundaries are realistic, and (2) have our boundaries been communicated in love and kindness.

If expectations have been communicated and a person still insists on forcing their agenda or their desire upon you, then you need to decide whether it is necessary to step back and either absorb the situation in love (and I say absorb because this decision will cost YOU, not them) or whether you need to respond with clear, concise, constructive communication.

Before you decide to talk, I would encourage you to consider a few things. Is this behavior truly damaging or is it simply annoying? What are the longterm consequences of communicating these feelings? Will communicating your feelings potentially benefit this person’s growth or will it simply be received as an attack? Is there a compromise that can be made to meet in the middle? If you don’t communicate it, will it damage you? If you choose not to communicate, how can you move away from bitterness rather than embracing it?

My final word would be to encourage you that God wants to make you more like himself. Often it is through interpersonal strife that this happens. Interacting with other people has a way of rubbing down the rough ridges on our own personalities and softening us in a way that only conflict can. Healthy people learn how to deal with conflict in a healthy manner and sometimes that means losing. I have met plenty of people who think that they are great at conflict resolution simply because they always are the ones who get what they want because they speak strongly enough that no one will disagree with them. When you do communicate, try to communicate with grace so that the other person has room to respond. The goal is not to be a bully and to win but to become more like Jesus, who was a servant to all. So as you approach this holiday season, ask God to make you more like himself and to use you to point others in the same direction.