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…
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.
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