What Christmas Exposes About Marriage, Family, and Identity

Family ties are strong. And they bind. They bind us to our identities as children. For many married couples, Christmas reveals that our hearts have never really left our childhood homes. And until our hearts leave home, we can’t really begin a new one

The Aisle

Photo Credit: Brooke Raymond (Creative Commons)

 

ThefirstChristmas of my married life, we celebrated Christmas Eve with my wife’s family, and then the following morning we opened gifts with my family. Not a big deal, right?

Except our families live 900 miles apart.

And we couldn’t afford airfare.

In order to redeem the miserable, bleary-eyed, fourteen-hour, all-night drive, we made Christmas gift bags for the tollbooth workers. I’m pretty sure they thought we were psychotic. I think they might have been right.

Why did we go to such lengths? And why, at this time of year, are so many couples in the midst of their perennial conflict about how—and with whom—to celebrate the holidays?

I think the answer lies, in part, with something that happens on the wedding day. Or, more accurately, something that doesn’t happen on the wedding day.

THE WEDDING AISLE DIVIDES

We walk down the wedding aisle, and it’s an aisle that divides.

His family on one side. Her family on the other.

When we stand at the altar and exchange rings and kisses and two become one, our families remain seated. Two remain two. Two families divided by an aisle and separate histories and conflicting traditions and undying expectations.

They don’t ceremonially rise and intermingle to complete the ritual. And a wordless objection to the nuptials is voiced: you are my child, you will always be my child, that is your identity, and we quietly refuse to release you from those binding ties.

And so we appear free to step into our new identity on the wedding day. But when the holidays roll around we discover the ties to our identities as children—as sons and daughters—are not so easily severed. Decisions have to be made. Some traditions chosen, others sacrificed. And the conflict between husband and wife ensues.

Why does this battle spin out repeatedly over the years, with no cease-fire in sight?

I think it’s because, although family conflict must be resolved and compromises made, the final battle is never fought between families and spouses. The final battle is always fought within us.

THE REAL DIVISION

The real conflict is inside each of us—between our child-self and our adult-self. And it’s not just a holiday conflict. It’s a conflict that exists year round. Twinkling lights and candy canes simply have a way of revealing it.

As it turns out, growing up isn’t as easy as getting a driver’s license and a marriage license and a mortgage.

For most of us, our first identity in life is that of a son or daughter, and that identity is worked deeply into our souls, for better or worse. In the best of situations, we are cherished and beloved sons and daughters and home is a safe place—a shelter from a stormy world. In the best of childhoods, our identity as a child is infinitely valuable to us.

And it can sometimes feel impossible to relinquish something of infinite value.

So we move out and move on, but our hearts never really depart the safety of home. We remain sons or daughters first. Which is all fine and good, beautiful even. Until the time comes for us to become husbands and wives.

For others of us, family was a place of conditionality. Our standing in the home was always dependent upon behaving in a particular way or toeing the party line. Compliance was a means of survival. The fear of rejection and abandonment implied in every look and comment and shout shaped our identities as sons and daughters. To put that identity to rest and to step into the freedom of a new, separate identity would be considered a family betrayal. And so the shackles of fear prevent us from stepping fully into our adult-selves.

Either way, until we severe the ties that bind us to our child-selves, we will never be free to step into the freedom of our adult-selves. And this is never so obvious as at Christmastime, as husbands and wives engage in a battle of two child-selves, neither completely ready to forge a new adult identity together.

A BITTERSWEET FATHER-DAUGHTER DANCE

I attended a beautiful wedding weekend in October—the kind of weekend that leaves you warm with hope and promise. One of the most tender moments of the weekend was subtle yet breathtaking. At the wedding reception, while guests talked and ate appetizers, father and daughter joined each other in the traditional father-daughter dance. I sat close to the dance floor and watched as his cheeks began to glisten and her make-up began to run.

Father and daughter, crying the bittersweet tears of two people relinquishing their cherished identities. The painful tears of a father letting go, releasing his daughter to be a grown up—to be a wife. And the aching tears of a daughter accepting her freedom, entering into a new life and the creation of a new family and leaving something of her old self behind.

SEVERED TIES AND THE BIRTH OF ADULTHOOD

Letting go of our childhood identities can be painful—sometimes sad, sometimes scary. Always painful. As we sever those ties that bind, we enter fully into the daunting uncertainty of adulthood.

But this is how we know that it is good. Because freedom is always a little scary.

We tremble as we embrace our adult-selves—as we step into our identities as husbands and wives and mothers and fathers—because we are now free to choose our way in the world. And this way will be riddled with mistakes and failures and heartbreak.

But this is part of the grace of marriage: the very moment at which we must step into the intimidating journey of adulthood, we are joined by another soul on this path to maturity. We know that the learning will be difficult at times, but we have a constant companion in the school of life.

And walking together into adulthood, we will discover we are free to create a new family with new traditions and new holiday memories. And that is a joyful kind of freedom.

May you live this holiday with freedom from the ties that bind, and may you experience the joy of creating something new with your beloved companion.

QUESTIONS: Which of your childhood traditions or family obligations have you sacrificed in order to give birth to your new family? How has that sacrifice grown you? Share your thoughts in the comments section.         

DEAR READER, I’m excited to announce that my new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is now available in PDF format, and I’m giving it away free to new and existing e-mail subscribers! (It will soon be available in Kindle, Nook, and other formats but I wanted to honor the Season by delivering this gift to you now.)

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If you are an existing e-mail subscriber, your e-mail containing the next post on Tuesday, December 11, will contain a link to download your free copy of The Marriage Manifesto! Thank you for reading and many blessings this holiday season!

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Jennifer Newell

    Early in our marriage we would pack up the car and drive across the country from CT to IL to continue the family traditions of Christmas eve service followed by a big family Christmas at my parents house. But as our family started to grow and the kids got older this became a little bit harder and the desire to have our own family Christmas grew. So for the last 15 years or so we have had our own family Christmas at our homes and the day after Christmas we all gather at my parents house now in AL since their retirement. So we get to have our own family traditions and still gather at my parents house for the extended family gathering.
    My children would tell you that Christmas is not christmas without Cinnamon rolls. That is one of our traditions. The break between Santa and the opening of the parent presents is always coffee and cinnamon rolls.
    I think the hard part about growing is that you can grow out of who you were in your immediate family and have a different identity and yet because they still see you the same you can slip right back to old patterns and each time you try to stop yourself but it is a struggle still the same. I will always be their daughter or sister. It takes time for them to start to see you as the person you have grown into.

    • Nicethought

      That wonderful Jennifer and has led to a strong marriage for you and your spouse. 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      As always, Jennifer, your additional perspective is so refreshing. I like the idea that we’re just waiting for our family’s perceptions of us to catch up to the changes we’ve already made in our identities.

  • still_learning

    This breaks my heart because this is something that my spouse could not do and it has led to the breakup of our marriage after fighting about it for over 20 years. And before you think I didn’t give in, I did over and over again. But it led to him feeling no connection to me. I did forward your post on to him, for his consideration. I tell my one married child now to put your new family 1st before everything because that is what God commanded us to do. Thanks Dr. Kelly for a nice post and hopefully this will changes some hearts.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I’m sorry to hear about your story, but it sounds like your married child is benefiting from your wisdom. I hope you all have a good Christmas!

  • rachelahanson

    While I like all your posts I particularly appreciate this one, so I’ll start by saying “thank you for writing this.”

    As my husband and I approach our second anniversary (next Monday, hooray!) this is something that I have had some difficulty with. As a child, we never lived close to extended family and never had the money to travel for Christmas. As a result, I always expected that when I got married my husband and I would share the holidays together. However, because we live only a couple miles from his parents and 200 miles away from mine (far, but certainly more manageable than 900 mules) we have decided to alternate holidays. One year, Christmas with the Hansons’ and the next we spend it with the Kelsons’.

    Because this arrangement was not something I expected for myself when I reached this point in my life I’ve had a lot of difficulty in not developing our own traditions.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Congratulations on your anniversary, Rachel! 200 miles is still a lot! In my experience, that internal pressure to develop your own traditions will increase when you have children. Perhaps its worth beginning that conversation now and starting to “prep” the families that traditions may have to be flexible? Blessings this holiday!

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