Editor's note: This column is the second in a three-part series on families at the holidays.
Holidays are especially stressful times for families in which a divorce has taken place, as well as for blended families that bring together two families in the same household. It's not that holidays are always a picnic for other families, but divorced and blended families face some special challenges.
It seems like all the stuff that can make life difficult for divorced and blended families gets stirred up around holidays. Who spends what days with whom, which family gatherings take precedence, what are the family allegiances due to stepparents and stepchildren -- not to mention step-grandparents, step-aunts and -uncles, step-cousins, etc. -- all become questions that need to be addressed. Whatever issues led to ending previous marriages often come up again during such times. And because our culture continues to hold up and idealize the image of the intact, two-parent, 2.3-child household at the holidays, divorced and blended families can feel like they don't really fit, like there is something wrong with them.
As with all families, divorced and blended families also don't tend to do their best problem solving with the extra stress of holiday periods. So with that in mind, let me offer some suggestions for how divorced and blended families can best negotiate the holidays.
First, agree to a holiday schedule, in writing if need be, that covers days, times, events, etc. If we can accommodate traditional family gatherings (her family opens gifts Christmas Eve, his opens gifts Christmas Day) all the better. If we can't, then we need to do things like alternate years or come up with some other solution that is fair to everyone.
Second, accept that all of us will have a bit different understanding of "family" at such times as well as how to honor our family connections. When our husband wants to wish his former mother-in-law a "merry Christmas," that is not necessarily a threat to our marriage. When a son wants to spend extra time with his biological father rather than his stepdad, that is normal and healthy. With blended families, don't demand that steps -- parents, children or whatever -- are treated like biological family. Let everyone do what seems comfortable. This probably needs to be said out loud, especially to children.
Sure, there are limits here, but whenever we can, we want to give each other the freedom to be family with whomever we need to.
Third, cut everybody some slack. During the holidays we are all going to be a bit uptight and get frustrated more easily than we normally do. We want to make a special effort to forgive and forget. At such times it is often more important what we don't say than what we do say. A word of criticism not spoken, an objection not put into words, hurt or angry feelings thought through before they are talked through -- these can all make a big difference in how our holidays turn out.
Finally, we need to get some help if things seem to be getting out of control. When our families start to fall apart with holiday stress, it is a good idea to touch base with a family therapist and sort out what's causing the problems, and what we can do about it.
Holidays can be wonderful times. They can also be times we just try to get through. With a bit of work, though, most of us can celebrate the holidays in ways that bring out the best in the family relationships we have created and cherish.
• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."