Dear Dr. T.,
I have always loved Pesach- as a young girl and as a Mom of little ones and teens.
But, the last few yom tovim have been trying, to say the least, and I wonder if you could help.
You see- most of my children are ‘young-marrieds’ with a few children each. Because they live in out of town kollelim, they all want to come home for the seder and be with family.
So, what’s the problem? Well, though my children got along reasonably well when they were singles, when they get together for a prolonged period, there is friction between the different couples and the assorted spouses. Though most of the conflict stays under the radar, I feel tense and on edge until everyone is safely out my home.
Can you help me understand what is going on here and perhaps suggest some ideas that will minimize friction?
Dr. T. Replies,
Though this is not an unusual challenge, it certainly is a complex one: we simply cannot tell our married children- or their spouses- how to behave. We also have a limited picture- a snapshot, really- of our own child’s dynamics with his spouse and children: we see only what they permit us to see. While there is always the temptation to blame the ‘other’- non- family member, it may actually be our own child who stirs the pot.
Ancient childhood issues help form our personality and dictate our way of being in the world. So, while an eldest child may have been the undisputed ‘boss/king/queen’ in the family, a younger child with a spouse on his side may feel secure enough to throw off the yoke of tyranny. For an excellent exploration of sibling roles, read Dr. Twerski’s I Didn’t Ask To Be in This Family. This very readable book makes many suggestions on dealing with sibling issues.
It is axiomatic that adding different people to the equation [the marrieds’ spouses] changes the mix and nets different results. Added to that is the fact that most often the couples are crowded into one room- with their children- and everyone is off-schedule, over-tired, and forced to share bathrooms, cars, highchairs and the like. This kind of everyday stress and shared space can certainly contribute to the edginess as well.
Your child’s spouse is an ultra-sensitive topic: not one that I would ever recommend discussing with your child. While most people enter into the in-law relationship with lots of good will, there are also preconceived notions [“He’ll be the brother I never had.’] and fit issues [you are perfectionistic, she is casual; you are an extrovert, he is an introvert] that get in the way. Particularly when a family has a somewhat rigid, judgmental streak, adjustment can be difficult. So, for example, where cleanliness is a religion and orderliness is a virtue, the casual, and non-detail oriented spouse may show up poorly in the family. Similarly, in the family that is chronically late, the punctual, to-the-minute spouse may come across as uptight and petty.
There definitely needs to be a period of adjustment [sometimes a couple of years, even], an attitude of tolerance [ok, so she didn’t put the magazines away after she finished], and a modeling of openness. It’s ok to talk about what you need [It’s hard for me when you take the car without telling me first.], provided you can pull that off in a casual non-judgmental manner. Your children can pick up from you to express their needs, and, for example, talk about how they need quiet to put their toddlers to sleep. Perhaps, they can even suggest a mutual plan; something as simple as,” After seven, playing only in front of the house.” Not only is there the possibility of problem solving here, but, hopefully, some inspiration for your new family member to be up front as well.
By talking in a non-threatening away about our needs [provided there aren’t too many of them] we clarify our boundaries and set the stage for cooperation and mutuality.
Almost always, what we are looking at in these yom tov wars is the crush of too many people, an adjustment period that needs to take its own course, and unclear- or unspoken- needs or wants. Unfortunately, sometimes the situation is graver than this because it’s about a difficult person. Though we all have our quirks and flaws, the truly difficult person is something else entirely. He [she] is someone who can only exist on his own terms: not only do only his needs count, but he fails to recognize that others have needs at all. Like a third degree burn victim where any place you touch him hurts, this person cannot tolerate any small criticism or suggestion at all.
Though this particular column does not have sufficient space to talk about dealing with the difficult person, let me close by making a recommendation.
Family shalom is greater than the sum of its parts: shalom is worth more than any one person, yom tov, or situation. It is easy to sink into machlokas and rivalry, but at the end of the day, you want shalom.
So, tweak the situation [invite fewer people?], give in graciously, and hold those thoughts!
Be a model to your children of restraint and look forward to the nachas of your children following your lead and maintaining family cohesion.