How to Love Your (Dysfunctional) Family Well (and Every Family Is Dysfunctional)
I remember Ravioli Thanksgiving the best. There was an urgent knock on the door of the guest room where my wife and I were sleeping that Wednesday night around 10:30 p.m. I opened the door to see my mother looking disheveled and anxious. She informed me that my older brother’s house had been broken into and that we needed to go across town and see how bad the damage was. We arrived to find a busted front door, clothing strewn about the living room, and two police officers half-heartedly interviewing my brother, seeming less-than-optimistic that his belongings would ever be recovered. It was a long night.
The next morning, we received a call that a water main had broken at my aunt’s house where we were supposed to arrive in a few hours for our annual Thanksgiving meal. This was the straw that broke the holiday camel’s back. With the rest of the family recovering lost sleep and emotional energy, my wife and I found ourselves alone in the kitchen on Thanksgiving afternoon, warming up some cheese raviolis and watching Friday Night Lights on Netflix.
Like everyone else, I grew up in a family with its share of dysfunction. We are what is now affectionately called a “blended” family, with each of my parents entering into their marriage with two kids already in tow. My oldest half-sibling is 30 years my senior and our family diagram looks a bit more like a spider web than a tree. We have our share of addiction, divorce, scandal, and tension, but we also have our share of joy, recovery, reconciliation, and hope baked in as well.
Over the years, the Lord has done a lot of work in my heart to help me better love my family, dysfunctions and all. Here are a few practices I have found helpful along the way.
One of the biggest temptations when returning home to a dysfunctional family is to find a way to emotionally disconnect from the situation. Our phones and other devices allow us easy access to friends, social media, and other distractions around the clock. What we learn from the incarnation of Jesus, however, is that presence matters. When we are engrossed in what is happening to someone else somewhere else, we only contribute to the dysfunction in front of us and we fail to love our families well.
Challenge: Designate device-free windows in the day when you will leave your phone (and laptop, tablet, etc.) on the charger and be fully present with your family. Give special consideration to meal times and the hour or so before and after.
This is the first season of your life when everything hasn’t revolved around what is happening at home. Your family (in most cases) will be genuinely curious about what you have been experiencing, even if you are still living locally. Instead of responding with a shallow one-word response when asked how life is going, choose to share more deeply and allow people in to your world for a moment.
Challenge: Pick two personal stories from the past six months that give people a sense of what you’re loving or struggling with right now and be prepared to share.
Welcome the Stranger
If your family is anything like mine, holiday gatherings have changed quite a bit since you were a kid. People get married. Babies are born. People pass away. Someone may bring a friend or new significant other. One way to love our families well is to see ourselves as cohosts for the party. We don’t need to be cooking the dinner to practice hospitality and create spaces where people feel loved.
Challenge: Is there someone new at this gathering? How about a family member who always seems left out, even unintentionally? Keep your eyes open for ways to welcome them more fully into conversations and activities.
Engage in Dialogue, Not Debate
One significant concern many of us have about returning home is that we will find ourselves subject to ignorant comments or heated debate around any number of social and political issues. Our time in college as well as our first months and years post-college have expanded our perspective to the diverse experiences of people around the world. Suddenly, a dinner conversation highlights a previously unseen bias in our family of origin. In these dissonant moments, we choose love by working to deepen understanding and relationship, instead of trying to defeat an opponent.
Challenge: Use these simple ground rules if you find yourself in a tense conversation:
Be respectful and assume the best about your family member. Remember that they are a person made in God’s image with a complex history (and may have changed your diapers!).
Ask questions about their perspective that help you get to know them better, such as, “What have you experienced in your life that led you to that conclusion?”
Share personal stories that illustrate your perspective. You might say something like, “My neighbor Tony actually shared his experience with me on this issue. Do you mind if I tell you his story?”
Call out comments, not people: “Can you explain to me what you meant by that? It sounded to me like the comment you made was potentially stereotyping a whole group of people. I know your heart and I can’t imagine that was what you meant. Would you mind explaining that?”
Dysfunctions aside, uninterrupted time with people can be exhausting. Even Jesus had to find time to get away and be alone with his Father. You are not meant to be “on” at all times, and, especially if your family is particularly challenging, you will need to find some downtime to rest and recover some energy. The key here is to communicate what you’re doing and to enter back in fully after you’ve rested.
Challenge: Consider your normal family gathering schedule. Are there one or two brief periods in the day when you might be able to slip away without disrupting anyone? You could offer to run an errand or simply go for a walk outside—anything that will rejuvenate you and help you fully engage later.
If you find yourself in a dysfunctional family gathering this holiday season, take heart—you are not alone. The Bible and its continued story in the Church today is essentially one long dysfunctional family story. From Abraham to Ruth to David to Jesus and the long, broken narrative of God’s people in the world, the story of God’s work is the redemption of a messy, selfish people into the unified, reconciled bride fit for Christ in the coming of his kingdom. Your family is a snapshot of the work God loves to do in the world. He is gathering broken people from every broken nation into one redeemed family under Jesus.
How can you play your small part in that redemptive work this holiday season?