Navigating through Family Expectations during the Holidays

Woman with sad face looking out window and Christmas tree in foreground“The Holidays!” Hallmark movies and cards present the holidays with warm, nostalgic scripts and scenes. Songs of the holidays resound with jingles of joy. Decorated homes and cookies portray all things nice and beautiful. The center stage for the holiday festivities is the family gathering. But for victims of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), being with the family of origin—where the abuse occurred or was disregarded—incites trauma and recalls all things not so nice, like inappropriate touching, incest, and secrets.

Expectations and motivations fill the air during the holidays triggering additional trauma for survivors of CSA. In this blog, I will guide survivors of CSA and their spouses in how to:

  1. Identify dysfunctional expectations imposed by the “ruling” parent or sibling through pretense statements, oblivious statements, and guilt statements, and
  2. Execute a plan for navigating through the holidays.

Consider the following statements of expectation beneath which lie the underlying motivations of the “ruling” parent or sibling.

The Pretense Statement

The Pretense Statement makes something that is not the case appear to be true.

The setting:  The annual family picture is about to be taken. Everyone is colorfully dressed and looking their best.

The statement:   [Made by either a parent or sibling] “Smile everyone!”

The underlying motivation:  “Everyone, look like we’re a happy family.”

This experience can be traumatic and nauseating for the victim of CSA who for most of their childhood was pressured to live and look like nothing was wrong even though there were deplorable family secrets. Years and even decades later, the family continues its attempt to portray an image that covers the secrets.

The Oblivious Statement

When a father, stepfather, or any older male in the family sexually abuses a girl, the tragedy might include a mother who is oblivious or acts oblivious to the abuse. The victim grows up with the sense that no one will ever save her or understand her. This childhood trauma extends into adulthood when parents’ ongoing oblivion is revealed in their expectations.

The setting:  The victim of abuse is informed that her childhood perpetrator, Uncle Charlie, will be at the family gathering this year.

The statement:   [Made by a parent with a cheery tone] “Uncle Charlie will be coming this year.”

The underlying motivation:  “I hope you’ll speak to Uncle Charlie this year. We should all get along. We’re family!”

The victim finds it incomprehensible that other relatives, especially her parents, are oblivious to what a creepy letch Uncle Charlie is. Other’s oblivion is traumatic for the victim of CSA because it is a bitter reminder that her voice and cry for help was never heard.

The Guilt Statement

Guilt often becomes the modus operandi within family systems during the holiday season.

The setting:  The victim/survivor has learned to set boundaries, no longer being the people-pleaser trying to meet everyone’s expectations. But the victim’s controlling parent continues to use guilt when the holidays approach.

The statement:  “What do you mean you won’t be here the whole day?  Everyone else is staying late into the night.”

The underlying motivation:  “I must have control over the behaviors and responses of each family member.”

Guilt statements are an attempt to control behavior. But attempts to control through guilt are traumatic for the victim of CSA because they trigger the control exerted during abuse.

How to Execute a Plan of Navigation through the Holidays

Every situation is different. There is no “one size fits all” solution. But if your wife is a victim of CSA, here are some tips that might reduce anxiety when implemented. Some of the steps have a financial cost. But doing nothing has a greater cost because well-being is sacrificed.

  • Have a discussion with your wife who is a CSA survivor. Give her the opportunity to express her wishes. What is a “win” to her? Establish your plan and set boundaries before the family gathering occurs.
  • When you are making or responding to arrangements for the holiday family gathering, do so by email rather than by phone.
  • When using email for the arrangements, use the 7-minute rule. In other words, write the email and then return to it later and edit it before sending it. Be available to interact with your wife regarding the content of the email, but do not force your input.
  • If you are going out of town to visit family for the holiday, stay in a motel. Do not stay overnight in the house where your wife was sexually abused.
  • Keep the number of hours/days of your stay as minimal as possible, even if you traveled a long way. Communicate your plan. For example, “We are happy to come. We plan to arrive at [time] and we need to leave by [time].” If everything goes well, you have the option to stay longer but with no obligation.
  • When the family gathering is out of town, plan an activity so you are not sitting around the entire time in dysfunctional communication with extended family. Take your wife out for an hour or two and have coffee together. If you are in her hometown, drive around and have her show you places that are happy memories for her.
  • If you are hosting the family gathering and your wife is doing most of the food preparation, consider purchasing the holiday meals offered by local grocery stores. However, don’t interfere if the meal preparation is therapeutic for her. But if it is not a therapeutic task, present this idea as something that might enable her to focus her energy on well-being.
  • Your wife does not want you to do battle for her. She wants you to be the broad and soft shoulders on which to land at the end of the day and any time during the day.
  • Don’t confront during the holidays. If you need to advocate for your wife, do the major work at another time so the holiday is not scarred by a tumultuous memory. Remember that there are extended family members who will get some sick pleasure in the future by frequently referring to the family scuffle.
  • Learn to say, “No.”
  • Have friends praying for you.
  • Allow yourself and your wife time to recover afterward. Make sure you have “white space” in your calendar.

What ideas have worked for you? Please share them in the “Comment” section so that I might include your ideas in a future blog.

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