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My Husband’s Ex-Wife is Like a Sister to Me:

How to Navigate Family Dynamics This Holiday Season

The season of glad tidings and joy is, for many parents and step-parents, a signal that they will soon be swimming the cloudy waters of extended family dynamics. 

The holiday season can be the most challenging time of year for anyone. 

First, we’re hit with a big fat financial burden, then we’re dragged into the zone of overindulgence and offered too much to eat and drink. Often we’re placed alongside family members who don’t hold our political, cultural, or even spiritual views, and through it all, we’re expected to be brimming over with ecstatic happiness and good will toward all.

For parents of blended families, the season also dredges up a whole series of difficult questions –Who will be where on which day? Who gets the kids which presents? How can we keep everyone’s spirits up in spite of it all?

I got a crash course in these thorny issues early on. The holidays of my own childhood were run by parents and stepparents in the throes of traumatic divorces, and though they meant well, they lacked the kind of self-awareness we take for granted today. 

Through it all, I learned to associate the season with being yanked in a million different directions. Forget naughty or nice, I felt guilty–guilty of wanting to be with the other parent, no matter who I was with. It was a painful experience that no child should have to endure.

Decades later, when I became a full-time stepmom, that holiday sorrow came screaming back with the season –but as a 10-year Navy vet and mental performance coach with an advanced degree in performance psychology, I had the skills to do something about it.

Above all, I wanted to protect our kids’ holiday season–to keep it safe, fun, and celebratory–family time in the best sense of the phrase. 

That’s why I knew that all of us should celebrate the holidays together. 

At first, I invited my husband’s ex because I wanted the holidays to be easy on the kids, but as years passed and we repeated the ritual, she became so central to my holiday that it would feel like my sister wasn’t there if she was not at the table. 

We took charge of our holiday season instead of letting it take charge of us. Working as a team toward a common goal required effective communication regardless of anyone’s history.

Most of all, it required grace on both our parts. Isn’t that what the spirit of Christmas is about?

Here are four ways you can practice mental skills to be better prepared for the oncoming holiday onslaught: 

Turn on your holiday awareness and locate your distress spots

There is nothing quite like the holiday season to turn on the distress. The holidays challenge our finances, our family dynamics, and, in fact, our whole sense of community and connection. These challenges are even more intense in a post-pandemic world, a turbulent and divisive political environment, and an economy under duress.  

This holiday season, enter consciously and practice focussing your energies on only those things you have real control over. You cannot control what the media is reporting on the news, but you can control how much time you spend watching and reading about it. You can’t control inflation, but you can control your budget. 

Have a holiday vision

Often, our holiday dreams and holiday nightmares have a way of turning into self-fulfilling prophecies. This season, be mindful of your expectations and learn to construct experiences and behave in ways that will align with those expectations. We plunge into the holiday season ready for the same patterns, the same family dynamics that we have suffered through year after year, without adding effort to change.

You can design a new holiday season for yourself, closer to the kind that you would find fulfilling, and if you don’t end up having the exact time you were hoping for, at least you will have been guided by a vision toward something better. 

See your holiday through someone else’s eyes

One of the most robust tools we have is the ability to approach a situation from the outside, looking at a scene from afar. You might look upon your holiday dinner table as a stranger might see it, or as your spouse might see it, or through the eyes of one of your children. 

Practicing this empathy does two things. First, it gives us new insights into what really may be at play, but second, it also gives us the much-needed distance to practice our physiological responses to distressors. People confronting an obstacle–and what is more of an obstacle than difficult family members!–experience instantaneous symptoms–quickening pulse, tightening chest, and, at the extreme, even sweats, panic, and dissociation. 

Inserting a third party POV allows you to enter from a new angle, and keep your wits about you. 

Put emphasis on the most important POV–your own

In extended family situations, we have a tendency to live more passively, to let the ideals and perspectives of those around us “shape the day.” This holiday, step outside the circle and reflect upon your ideal holiday, not the one sold to you by commercials peddling fancy chocolates and alcohol.

Personally, I prefer a quiet, low key holiday season. By a stroke of luck, much of my family does too, but we would never have figured this out if I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on what I really wanted, outside society’s expectations, and communicate all of it clearly and directly to my family. 

In short: stop aiming for the perfect holiday, and start aiming for your perfect holiday. 

Not every effort to change will work. It wasn’t a given that my husband’s ex and I would become close–after all, we could have just as easily not liked one another from the start. We could have repeated the dramatic patterns I learned from my parents, unconsciously.

What’s important is that we tried to design a holiday our own way. 

Designing your own life is, in fact, one of the core tenets of practicing mental skills for stress management. The very best thing we can do is model these skills for our children–and teach them to own their own experiences -to make better choices than their parents did.

You too can practice the holidays before you live them. By doing so, you’ll be giving yourself the greatest holiday gift of all: a new vision for greater harmony and greater fulfillment.

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