How to Keep the Peace this Holiday Season When Politics Comes Up

friends at a big dinner

The holidays are rapidly approaching, and at the same time, the country is still reeling from a highly charged presidential election. As we prepare to gather to celebrate (virtually or in-person), the potential for navigating landmines is high. How should you approach this – by letting go and getting out all your frustrations or being on your best behavior and avoiding the topic? Given the strong passions evoked by politics of late, option two may be more fantasy than reality, making the need for forethought especially important. 

Giving it some thought, preparing in advance, and having a plan, may make it possible to handle political conversations and preserve relationships despite political differences. Remind yourself to separate the person from the point of view just because you disagree; resist the urge to make it a character assessment.  People who love and care for one another can disagree and have opposing political views. With the great chasm between political parties, it’s been tempting to let relationships go when confronted with opposing viewpoints you find disagreeable or even offensive. Keep in mind that it’s usually less of choice with family members about whether or not the person will be in your life. It’s more of a question of how you can talk about it or not talk about it, how you can find other ways to connect, and how you can separate who the person is and how you feel about them from a given political point of view, even one you don’t understand.

If you have the capacity, you may want to take the position of being curious and open to hearing how your family member feels.  It’s compelling to listen to someone without pushing back or refuting their point of view – this can be counter-intuitive because it’s often accompanied by the thought, ‘if I don’t say anything, does that mean? I’m agreeing and condoning their beliefs?’ Often the opposite is true – when you genuinely hear someone out while suspending judgment, they will be more willing to do the same for you and more open to listening to what you have to say.  Ask yourself and even others: Do you have to agree to be close? How much and what types of differences are okay? A relationship can actually be strengthened by respectfully disagreeing.

Decide in advance how much you are willing to engage in political conversation and what you will do when you want to disengage from the topic.  There is often a fine line between stimulating and engaging conversation and feelings of alienation and anger, leading to tension and heated arguing. Is this the way you want to spend the holiday or weekend? Let your family members know in advance where you stand on these discussions, i.e.,  I don’t want to talk politics at all, or I’m willing to discuss it. Still, I will respectfully let you know when I’ve reached my limit and don’t want to continue the conversation.

Remember the goal of the family gathering. The pandemic has made it impossible for families to gather and celebrate milestones and holidays for many months. For many, the upcoming holiday season feels especially important and meaningful.  Keep that front of mind as opposed to getting sidetracked by political differences. Check-in with other family members to see if they want to talk politics or rather skip it.

Here are some technique that can aid in keeping the peace around political discussions:

  • Have a code word. When someone calls it, the conversation has to end when you hear that word from anyone; it’s conversation over. This can create lightness and levity.
  • Preserve the relationship and let everyone know in advance what you are and aren’t willing to discuss and that you will let them know when you’ve reached your limit – as long as you don’t use it to shut someone down from expressing themselves after you have. Setting boundaries is okay and should give relief to all.
  • Be intentional about not letting these situations drain you.  Politics matter a lot, and it can feel especially personal if you or a close friend or family member is directly affected by the political agenda.  It’s fine to point that out and ask for consideration of your point of view but protect yourself from taking on the job of convincing unyielding family members to change their views. 
  • Take a time out, go for a walk, take a bath, or do whatever you can to regroup.
  • Ensure there is built-in time for activities or conversations that don’t involve politics, be it with the larger group, just you and your significant other, or you alone.
  • If it’s a weekend plan, make sure you have time physically away from the group. Togetherness can feel great, but too much can lead to tension and feel draining.

Remember, it’s possible to feel very close to someone even when you disagree. Still, it takes a high level of mutual respect, the ability not to personalize, and a feeling that your point of view is being heard with an attempt at understanding.

Bruce Willis Quarantining with Demi Moore and Adult Daughters: How to Prioritize First and Second Families During Pandemic

Bruce Willis and Demi Moore in quarantine with their families

The tabloids and the public can’t get enough of the photos of Bruce Willis quarantining with Demi Moore and their adult daughters. Clad in matching striped pajamas we see them smiling and having dance parties. What could be better? These images send a strong message. This family has healed from the divorce, so much so that they can spend time together and be a new kind of family. The parents may have new relationships…Bruce Willis even has two young daughters…but he is still an integrated part of his first family, not just father to the kids.  This conjures up fantasies of repair, healing, and an overall positive outcome; it will all be okay.

 But is that actually the case? And what about his current wife and young daughters? How do they feel about his leaving them during the crisis? This pretty picture doesn’t show us the long road that came before, the pain and disappointment that accompanies any break up, the jealousy and confusion that happen when a parent has a new family, and the loyalty binds with which children of divorce and adults with two sets of kids find themselves struggling. The pictures don’t show us Bruce Willis’ current wife smiling while she is quarantined without the father of her very young daughters because it’s hard to imagine that she feels good about this arrangement. 

These are especially complex times for blended families with no easy answers.

One the one hand, Bruce and Demi seemed to have accomplished what many divorced couples can only dream of – instead of their shared history dissolving into animosity and resentment they appear to be friends, comfortable together, still enjoying a closeness and of course a shared love of their children. However, what message is this sending to Bruce’s current wife and young daughters and what does it say about dual loyalty and priorities? Who is the priority and who gets to weigh in on the decisions?

In my own practice, one couple who have an infant and toddler as well as a 7-year-old from the father’s first marriage, spoke to me about how the pandemic has made the prior parenting arrangement untenable. The 7-year-old is normally with them fifty percent of the time, an arrangement that overall, has worked well for all.  This couple decided to temporarily relocate for safety reasons and the 7- year-old can no longer go back and forth the way he always has. There are now long drives for drop offs and pick-ups, extended separations from one parent or the other, and a higher risk of exposure to Covid-19. Returning to school in the fall is uncertain, causing all of the adults to consider relocating indefinitely until life returns to normal. Juggling the needs of the 7-year-old and this man’s ex-wife (who they report does not consider their needs), and his present wife and their two young children has over the years been tricky and complex but now feels almost insurmountable. Whichever way he turns this father feels he is sacrificing someone’s best interest and neglecting someone’s needs. His own preferences have become so muddled he is sinking into a depression.

The need to socially isolate has rendered thoughtfully structured parenting arrangements no longer viable. Many people have relocated indefinitely, leaving some children behind or shuttling them back and forth for extended periods. Couples are feeling the strain and the divorced partner is second guessing right and wrong, wanting to meet everyone’s needs when it just isn’t possible. For this father some difficult compromises will have to be made.  He may have to rock the boat and be more assertive with his ex-wife in order to meet the needs of his wife and other children. There is a saving grace, his strong bond with his 7-year-old and that child’s strong connection to his blended family. Those relationships can’t be created overnight but will sustain them through this crisis even if they don’t have as much time together.

 Communication is always critical for blended families.  Add a global pandemic and it takes on new meaning. In order to navigate the demands of two sets of kids, masterful levels of cooperation and communication are needed. If ever there was a time to put aside the pettiness, competition, and score keeping, it is now.

Of-course it’s impossible to know what the real story is with Bruce and Demi but from the outside it does appear that Bruce Willis is prioritizing his first family, especially given the age difference between his two sets of kids. It’s hard to imagine a justification for Bruce Willis spending time with Demi Moore and their adult children instead of his wife and toddlers. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.

If you are facing difficult choices concerning the issues of blended families during the pandemic, you might consider the following:

  • Some choices are made out of fear of alienating an ex-spouse who has power to interfere with parenting time and bad mouth the ex to the children, however it’s not advisable to make decisions this way especially if one set of kids are already adults. 
  • Consider your relationship with all of your kids — how strong and consistent it has been until this point.  Also consider their ages, developmental stages, and any special circumstances and challenges in their lives – one size does not fit all when it comes to parenting. If your kids know you are really paying attention to who they are and are taking that into consideration when making choices, they are less likely to view things from a lens of favoritism or feel neglected.  
  • The critical factor in any of these situations is the ongoing, established parent-child relationship. Parents who have been consistent and reliable about spending time with their kids, who haven’t put them in the middle of adult conflicts, who have not made them responsible for their happiness or asked them to put their own needs aside to accommodate their complicated adult life, are in a much better position to make scheduling adjustments without doing emotional damage to their kids. 
  • Parents who have been physically and emotionally present despite having a second family stand on much firmer ground.

 We don’t really know why Bruce is quarantining with Demi but this news does highlight issues and dilemmas being faced by many families. Having two sets of kids is never simple. At times the needs of the parents and those of the kids may be in direct conflict. Perhaps Bruce feels like this is a rare opportunity to spend concentrated time with his older daughters, perhaps it’s just more fun being with the grown-up kids than being stuck at home with toddlers. That said, the needs of the kids should outweigh the needs of the parents. Developmentally speaking, younger children need their parents’ physical presence on a more consistent basis than teens or 20 somethings.

In order for children from blended families to have self-esteem and be emotionally secure, they need to have strong parent/child relationships regardless of whether or not there are half- siblings or step-parents. Parents have to put their own preferences aside. This is often challenging and complicated and that is especially true now. Choices made during the pandemic have the potential to influence relationships for years to come and should be considered carefully.

This blog was first published on Divorceify.

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Maternity Leave During The Pandemic: Nightmare Or Blessing?

photo of a baby's feet surrounded by a blanket

Over a month into the COVID-19 pandemic, sheltering in place has resulted in some universal strains, but there are others that are unique to each individual circumstance.   Perhaps one of the most challenging is finding yourself at home on maternity leave, just the two of you and your newborn. After months of anticipating the transition to parenthood and trying to plan for it to be as smooth as possible, it’s just you and your spouse, new parents at home with your infant. 

Vanishing in the wake of the crisis are the family members who were excited to offer their time helping out with the baby, the doula and the baby nurse you carefully screened and hired, and the new moms’ support group.  The ability to spend time with other new moms, the meals your mother in law promised to cook and deliver so that you wouldn’t have to worry about food, the night nurse who would make it possible to actually get some sleep, and your plans to use your support system to make time to get back in shape, are all gone. Furthermore, your spouse may be working full time from home, and not only do they have little or no time to devote to baby care, there’s the additional pressure of maintaining a productive work environment. And you have been advised not to leave your home unless it’s absolutely necessary. All of a sudden, being a new mom has gone from an incredibly stressful life transition to feeling almost unbearable.

It’s hard to know the difference between how hard new parenthood would be anyway and how things are compounded by the circumstances. Part of what makes having a newborn so intense is being on-call 24/7…never knowing when you will have a moment to yourself. The exhaustion can be overwhelming. Taking a shower is a challenge and finding time to have a conversation with a friend is often out of reach. All of this is to be expected, but under normal circumstances you can organize an escape for a little while, or just have a change of scenery to break it up. But now you may feel trapped in endless days with no respite.

I have heard from couples that the intensity of new parenthood, combined with the restrictions of being home without a support system, is putting a strain on their marriages and causing personal self-doubt. They are grieving the loss of how they envisioned maternity leave and are trying to cope with the reality. The fact that their parents, siblings, and close friends can’t meet their baby and share in the moment feels like a painful loss. 

But new parents should not despair.  There are some significant advantages and opportunities for both the parents and the child if you find yourself in this situation:

  • Research shows that time spent with a baby is what produces confidence and connection.  The feeling that you know what you’re doing and can take care of and soothe your child creates a bond. Usually the mom bonds with the baby early on and the father takes more time to establish that connection.  Sheltering in place is creating that experience for both new moms and new dads simultaneously.  
  • Couples who only have each other to rely on in the day to day reality of parenting a newborn are forced to bond and work together. Even a parent who is working from home will be forced to take some of the burden from the other parent if there are no other options. The resentments that often occur in the first months of a baby’s life because of role inequality are much less prevalent.  
  • Without the distractions of the outside world including grandparents, friends and family visits, and with no feeling that you are missing out on social activities (because they simply don’t exist at the moment), new moms and dads are forced to work together to learn how to parent, and turn towards each other for their emotional needs. I’m anticipating that if managed correctly there will be a ripple effect that leads to better co-parenting and stronger marital relationships as the baby grows and develops.

While it’s a universal truth that being new parents requires relinquishing pre-baby life and leaning in to a new reality, it’s especially true now. There is no escaping the loss of freedom and spontaneity while being restricted to your home with your partner and your baby. The best way to cope is to rely on each other, be present for each other, and tap into your own internal resources. Accept that it’s a temporary situation that comes with a gift, an opportunity to bond with one another and your new family member. 

This blog was first published on Yours, Mine & Ours.

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Surviving Home For The Holidays: Tips for Avoiding Conflict While Visiting Family During the Holiday Season

happy family at christmas

It’s a classic — the flurry of calls to my office in January from couples who feel their relationship is really strained – or even on the brink. The trigger? The visit home for the holidays – it led to a major blow out fight that felt all too familiar. If they can’t celebrate the holidays together with their families are they really meant to be together? Isn’t this a sign?

Not necessarily!  Going back to your childhood home is often a set up for conflict, distance, and strain in your adult relationship. Old ways of relating and managing conflict reemerge. Historical family dynamics are re-enacted without warning. A bit of anticipation and thoughtful planning can go a long way in preventing damage to your adult relationship.

The Holiday Challenges Faced by Two Couples

Sarah and Kate are the classic example.  Both of their families live in other states and when holiday time rolls around the pressure is on, especially for Kate who is an only child. She is everything to her parents, they look forward to her visits all year. And when she is home their attention is all-consuming. They want as much of her as they can get and don’t particularly relish sharing this precious time with her partner.

For Sarah it’s a different issue.  Until recently her parents weren’t embracing of her same sex relationship.  The last time she took Kate home for Christmas the reception was ice-y and strained. All of this adds up to a holiday season with the families that is ripe with potential for stress and conflict.  Both Kate and Sarah put so much energy into managing their own feelings about going home they lose sight of each other.

For Kevin and Jenna, traveling across the country with their young toddler and infant to spend Christmas with Kevin’s family pretty much guarantees tension, turmoil, and a nasty fight. Kevin and his mother (who has been a widow for many years) have a close, yet volatile relationship. His mother relies on her adult children for emotional and practical support. Kevin’s mom doesn’t hold back on expressing emotions. What this means, according to Jenna, is that every time they visit, Kevin and his mom have a screaming argument that includes threats, insults and curses. They don’t resolve anything, they just cool off and move on.

Jenna comes from a different kind of family. Her parents are happily married and were extraordinary care-takers and nurturers to their children. They never relied on their kids for emotional stability.

For Jenna, bearing witness to these arguments is traumatic. Now that they have children she finds the thought of this dynamic even more unbearable. She would prefer to spend Christmas elsewhere. Both Jenna and Kevin agree that they want their children to have a relationship with their grandmother. However, they acknowledge the even greater need to set firm boundaries so that their children will be spared this volatility and tension. They want Christmas to be magical and filled with positive memories. Even though they are on the same page about this, they are unsure and even disagree as to how to accomplish it.  This tension has been the cause of Jenna and Kevin’s worst arguments. Recovery from the visits and the subsequent fall-out is painful and slow, and the damage is lasting.  Needless to say, the thought of the holidays fills them with dread.

What these couples have in common is a feeling of despair as the holiday season approaches. The description sounds like post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Just anticipating the holidays brings back memories of past visits that didn’t go well. They start to re-live past events, together with the stress, anger, and hurt that occurred. Some couples replay the fights, the mere mention of what didn’t go well last time recreates the same tension and before they know it they are having the same argument.

What to do? 

Planning, Preparing and Communicating Can Help You to Get Through the Holiday Visit with Your Relationship Intact.

Plan

  • Don’t leave the time open ended and spontaneous.
  • Plan your days, including time together away from the family, things you want to do with your children, and time for your parents to spend with their grandchildren.
  • If possible do not stay with your parents and definitely don’t sleep in your childhood room.

Prepare

  • Go over the agenda and identify what triggers the fights so that you can prevent the triggers from taking you down a familiar rabbit hole.
  • Commit to time together and periodic check ins, these can be 5 minutes but should be done at least twice a day
  • Keep in mind the type of holiday traditions you are creating for your children, and be intentional – don’t leave it to chance.
  • Spend some time identifying traditions from your past you want your children to have and also those you would like to change. Even if you grew up with the narrative, “there is always a family fight at holiday time,” it doesn’t have to be that way for your children.

Communicate

  • Let each other know if there is something about visiting your families that you just can’t do or prefer not to participate in, and be open and flexible about this.
  • Ask your partner for support where you need it.
  • Make sure you hold your partner in mind during the visit.
  • Set limits and manage expectations with your family.
  • Communicate directly to all involved as much as possible.
  • All families have their idiosyncrasies and unwritten rules which must be taken into consideration. Within that, establishing adult boundaries and letting your family know your relationship and your children are your priority will send a strong message.

For Sarah and Kate there was this sinking feeling that they were lost to each other during family visits – they felt completely disconnected by the end of their stay

The solution was to plan ‘check ins’ so they could re-connect and re-group

A walk, a hug, even five minutes a day to just take a break, close the door, look at each other and ask “how are you doing?” made a huge difference.

They planned their time with the family so it wasn’t open ended – and included a few times to escape. They talked in advance about specifically what was hardest for them during these visits, they identified the triggers and then were able to ask for what they needed from each other.  They let each other know “I’m still your person and I’m here with you,” which created a completely different tone.

For Kevin and Jenna it was a bit more complicated. They had to do the planning, preparing, and communicating, but Kevin also had to accept that for the sake of Jenna and his children, the fighting with his mom had to stop. Even though it was his “normal” he had to find a way to disengage. Ultimately, they ended up staying elsewhere when home for the holidays and explaining it to his mom in the most loving yet firm way possible.

Families and holidays are often less-than-perfect, but you can make the most of your holiday times together.  By planning ahead, prioritizing each other and your children and making a concrete plan to do so – going home for the holidays can be a different experience for all.

Would couples therapy help improve your relationship when you’re home for the holidays? Contact Tracy Ross today to request an appointment.