Family culture is an interesting dance. It is one we usually do not realize we are participating in. We have learned the steps over many years and our family can usually be in sync. When additions to the family come, the routine is disrupted and can cause some friction.

In Zig Ziglar’s ham story, he describes how the bride in a newly married couple cut off the end of the ham before baking it.
Her husband asked why.
The wife responded that her mother always cut of the end of the ham and that was the way it was supposed to be.

Not accepting “the way it was supposed to be,” the husband called his mother-in-law and asked why she cut of the end of the ham before baking. The response was that her mother cut of the end of the ham.

More curious than ever, the husband called grandma and asked her why she cut off the end of the ham. The answer was that she had a small oven and that was the only way to get the ham to fit.

Grandma had a reason for cutting off the end of the ham. The next two generations did not. They were blindly following custom without rhyme or reason. It was “the way it was supposed to be.”

In our families, we have some of the same things. Perhaps they are not as silly as the ham story, but it could be simple things as well. Some people like to eat several different flavors of soup on Christmas, some heavy appetizers, some a full meal with Prime Rib, Turkey, Ham, etc. I could go on and on. When a couple gets married, their traditions are rarely the same.

I’ve noticed the dance between mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws seems to be more difficult during the holidays. Things are done differently and since most of us don’t even realize the cultural dance we are each doing, we cannot identify why the dance is so awkward, there is just a stressed or uncomfortable feeling that begins to brew.

This can be even more difficult if there are more family members that know the dance and the mother-in-law or daughter-in-law are standing there and do not know how to step in. Perhaps one family likes to jump and do the dishes immediately after the meal, where the one person is used to sitting and enjoying the others’ company before cleaning up. Or maybe most of the attendees know where everything goes, but the one person has no idea so they stand back. The host gets offended because the one person is not helping with the clean up. Animosity brews.

The sad thing is that often times, this miscommunication has happened for many years. There was never an invitation to learn the dance. It was just expected that the person would know the steps, because “it was the way it was supposed to be.”

How do we identify that this is happening?

  • Communication

    • If you find yourself starting to get frustrated, try being a bit vulnerable and ask some questions.

    • “I realized I have no idea where you keep your mixer, can you please show me?”

    • “One of our family traditions is to have green chili on our mashed potatoes, would you mind if I bring that also?”

  • Grace

    • Be on the hunt for your own assumptions.

    • Do you think they are “doing it wrong?”

    • Remind yourself that they do not know your routine.

  • Work with your teammate

    • There is a good possibility, your partner does not realize how difficult learning the dance can be. Talk to them about your vulnerability. They may not know the steps, but they speak the language, maybe they can help you communicate better with their family

    • I am always a fan of a code word. If you have seen “Four Christmases” they used “Mistletoe”. Have a codeword for times when you need to get some back up or maybe even an escape plan.

    • Remember as wacky as you think the family may be, they are still a part of your partner’s life so use grace when talking about the difficulty you are having.

Of course, there are many family situations that cannot be navigated with the suggestions above. In those, the holidays can be painful and often dreaded. It may cause heartache because you long for the time when you used to look forward to this time of year. If that is the case, remember we are here for you. We can help you sort out the hurt and come up with coping strategies.

Dondi Gesick, MA, LPCC
Seeing clients in Greeley and also offering appointments at the Stover Mansion