Why Families Fight Over the Holidays

Years ago in a marriage and family class, my professor drew big circles on the whiteboard to represent family systems. He talked about "closed" systems and "open" systems and all sorts of other terms that eventually filled his circles with arrows and scribbles and a general sense of disorder. This past holiday season I found myself thinking a lot about those circles.

Every day I live in my own circle. It's the "Harrison Family System." It has its own set of rhythms and priorities, preferences and conflicts, dance moves and pizza toppings. On Thanksgiving we loaded up the minivan, drove four hours, rang my parents' doorbell, and stepped back into the "circle" that raised me: Mom and Dad's family system. It was as familiar as my mom's green bean casserole, and yet it fit like skinny jeans after a pregnancy. How can something that made you who you are no longer fit who you've become?

My answer came three weeks later when Christmas rolled around and we spent a week living in another "circle," the one that raised my husband. I realized that marriage is a little like tossing two family systems into a bag and shaking it until they smooth each other out. In the end, what you take out of the bag is entirely new.

Sometimes it's beautiful, like a stone polished with friction. And sometimes it's broken. Sometimes we realize the pieces we were given were never whole to begin with and trying to build something healthy is like assembling a bicycle with missing parts. Even if we can make it look normal on the outside, will it ever race down a road? So how do we make peace with family systems? Where do we even begin? Here are four principles I've been mulling over this holiday season.

1. Recognize that every family system is flawed.

From the moment sin entered the world, nobody had a shot at doing this "family" thing perfectly. Romans 3:10 says, "There is no one righteous, not even one." Or perhaps we could say, "In the middle of this big fat family conflict, there is no one completely guiltless. Not even one."

In the middle of this big fat family conflict, there is no one completely guiltless. Not even one.

We are broken. And we are in relationship with others who are broken. When we begin with this mind-set, we begin with humility. Then with a spirit of humility, we are ready to . . .

2. Acknowledge the specific failings of the family system.

I think there are two unhealthy tendencies for dealing with the shortcomings of a family system. We either want to sweep them under the rug, or we want to frame them on the mantel. Neither is beneficial. Mistakes under the rug are mistakes waiting to be repeated. They're festering mistakes, growing moldier and more bitter each day. On the other hand, mistakes framed on the mantel are "ruling" mistakes. They become the focal point of our home and, scarier still, our life.

So what do we do? We must allow principle number two (honesty) to hold hands with principle number one (humility.) Ephesians 4:2–3 says, "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace."

Making every effort means pulling the grievances out from under the rug. It means facing them. But with what kind of attitude? With an attitude of humility, gentleness, patience, and love. When we acknowledge our family's failures with a Christlike attitude, we're on the right track toward pursuing peace, unity, and reconciliation.

3. Lay the past to rest.

None of us own a time machine, which is why framing past failures on the mantel is so devastating. Nobody wants to be defined by their mistakes nor made to pay for them again and again. So after you talk . . . and cry . . . and confront . . . and apologize, it's time to lay the past to rest.

If you read on in Ephesians, Paul tells us to "be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Eph. 4:32). In other words, throw those failures into the trash along with the turkey carcass and all the other things you're officially "done" with. That is grace. And we all need it.

But what if I don't get my chance to acknowledge the hurt? What if the person who's offended me is dead or unwilling to talk? How do you forgive someone who won't apologize? Christians have written entire books on this subject, many with different opinions. Here's my two-cent answer to a hundred-dollar question: Go to Christ.

Sometimes He is the only Person willing to dig into the heartache of our past with us. Sometimes He is the only One who will cry with us. But amazingly, He is also the only One with the power to free us from it. In other words, if He's all you have left, take heart. He is enough.

4. Accept personal responsibility for the family system you're creating.

Finally, we must look forward. People with healthy homes are not people who've merely dealt with the past. They're people who have taken responsibility for the present and also the future. If this stings a little, believe me I feel it, too! I know how comforting it can be to blame someone else for all the things you dislike about yourself. Your inability to trust. Your penchant for shutting people out. That anger problem you have. But the reality is, each of us will appear before the judgment seat of Christ to be held accountable for our own lives (2 Cor. 5:10).

There is no hurt He can't heal, no relationship He can't restore, and no failure He can't redeem.

Here's the really beautiful implication of this truth: We're not slaves to the past! We don't have to repeat old mistakes or hand down sinful legacies! In Christ we have everything we need for life and godliness—everything we need to grow, to change, and to overcome (2 Peter 1:3).

As we move forward into a new year, you and I have great reason to rejoice! We are broken people living in a broken world, but we are not hopeless. We have a Savior. And there is no hurt He can't heal, no relationship He can't restore, and no failure He can't redeem.

Did you discover God’s Truth today?

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About the Author

Jeanne Harrison

Jeanne Harrison

Jeanne Harrison grew up as a missionary kid in the Philippines. Today, a frequent blogger and author, Jeanne is passionate about sharing her experiences and wisdom with potential world changers. She lives with her husband Clint and their four daughters in Macon, Georgia, where Clint serves as an executive pastor at a local church. When she’s not writing or changing diapers, Jeanne loves to teach, drink coffee on the back deck with Clint, and play a fierce game of ping pong!

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