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Families are our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. Everyone has a mixed relationship with their families. Everyone has both positive and negative aspects in their family relationships. We are the end product of our families and as such everything we like and dislike about our families is held within us. Building a relationship and understanding our extended family helps us to understand and develop ourselves. Once we have children, they need to lean into family and develop relationships with them become even greater.
Now let’s be honest, though we have negative feelings about our family, we have a lot of positives as well. In fact, there’s a lot of motivation to stay in touch and build your extended family. I’m talking about our grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. Interestingly, the busier we get the less room we seem to have for them. Family is something we take for granted.
Taking something for granted is normal and natural in relationships. We don’t need to feel guilty or shameful about it. In fact, that’s not going to help at all. What’s going to make a difference is getting clear about the value of the relationship. Once we’re clear about the value of anything, we have a better idea of how to prioritize it.
The value of family is this; there’s a saying that the sins the father shall be visited on the son. This is actually a piece of ancient wisdom. It’s not some scary spiritual principle. It’s reality, we absorb the negative and positive qualities of our parents. Our parents absorb the negative and positive qualities of their parents, and so on. Our job is to resolve the negatives and grow the positives. If we want to have happy and fulfilling lives, we embrace this mission. When we want our children to be successful we help them to do the same.
In this context, connection to family becomes vital and important. If you have family members you don’t want to be connected to, that’s understandable. We’ve all got wings of the family that have lessons we don’t want to learn directly. In this case, the lessons are how not to be like them. We don’t do this with anger and resentment, we do it with understanding and grace. We understand that they are where they are and where they’re going is not where we want to go.
Then there’s all the rest of our family members, regular folks like us who are just trying to get by in life. Looking for happiness enjoy. These are the people we want to connect with. To build your extended family, the simplest way to connect is to create a tradition of connection.
Holidays are a great excuse for creating traditions of connection. A tradition is something that we do again and again. We do it because there are values inherent in that action and we are upholding those values when we repeat that tradition. Those values are communicated to one another and to our children.
I worked for a blended family where the kids were really unhappy about going to Thanksgiving at one of the parents families homes. The complaint to the kids was that they never really had time for their own family, they got absorbed into the other family.
Working together, we got down to what was really important about Thanksgiving for them? They brainstormed, they liked the huge ride of food, they like to have the time alone together, they like that it was something special that they can count on every year, They like the food was there and ready for them but sometimes they like to cook also.
They realize that it wasn’t that they didn’t like the wider family, it’s that it didn’t have all of the values of Thanksgiving that they treasured. So they decided to create a new Thanksgiving tradition. Everything’s getting this blended family had a Thanksgiving brunch that occurred 5 or 6 hours before Thanksgiving dinner which was usually at 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. in this brunch they had everything they could possibly think of that they wanted, they had eggs bacon sausage blocks cream cheese bagels, pancakes French toast and waffles. Everything! This became an annual tradition for them and as adults they still celebrate it today. They also went to the larger family gathering and found over time that their unified spirit made them a force to be reckoned with. After a while they took over that gathering as well because they were in such a good mood from their brunch.
The point is that traditions will build your extended family more than anything else. If you have a branch of the family that you want your kids to become acquainted with, the most solid approach is going to be a regular gathering, even if it’s only annual.
What’s going to work is that you commit regular time, regular communication, and that you take into account the important factors of those gatherings.
Celebrating Your Extended
The low-hanging fruit is clearly birthdays and anniversaries. But what do you do if you’re extended family isn’t as open as you want them to be? You can invite them to your birthdays and anniversaries, but they don’t invite you to theirs?
Another family we worked with came up with a very simple solution. The annual family picnic/barbecue. This was a once-a-year event celebrated in the same location. It started out as a hosted event and it became a potluck event. They extended invitations to every member of the family that they could think of and sold it as the big family event of the year.
The first year they got a limited turnout. Everyone had such a good time the first year though they made sure that they brought more family members the second year. Eventually, this event snowballed and family members from opposite coasts and long distances started to come. Became the ground on which the extended family met.
What we all learned during the pandemic is that we can connect with anyone we want via video. How many of you made new friends live through video calls that you have yet to meet in person? We can certainly connect with family through the video.
The alternative to travel is to invite people to video in for a birthday event. They don’t come for the whole event, maybe they just come for the toast. These are small building blocks to building a family.
When you combine this approach with the annual family gathering event, you start to build some momentum. The idea here is to build a concept of extended family, one in which all the members start to see the value of interacting together.
Ways to go about this:
Set up a family Facebook page where you can share dates and events.
Set up a family WhatsApp, Messenger, video, Skype, FaceTime.
When planning travel, always look for ways to connect with family. If you have a business trip to a city where they live, make sure you build in extra time to visit with your family. Let them know that they’re important enough so that you’re going to squeeze them into your busy day !
Plan regular trips to branches of the family with whom you want to build relationships with. You might do this once a year or every 2 years. The key is regularity to build your extended family. If you visit them every other year they may visit you every other year.
The problem with family is it’s not always happy. If anything family members feel freer to air out complex with another than they might with a stranger. This is inevitable. Prepare yourself by planning for it. Develop a strategy for managing conflict.
The strategy you don’t want to develop is “take no prisoners”. This strategy will inevitably lead to alienation and destruction and communication.
Be clear about the things that are worth fighting for, and the things that are not. Remember that family has the greatest ability to trigger and trip one another up. After all the relatives of your parents who planted those buttons there.
Plan the time you’re going to spend with your family to avoid conflict when possible. For example, if you know that one branch of the family gets particularly raucous in the evening around cocktail hour, you’re probably better off not seeing them then if you don’t want to be engaged in that kind of environment.
When you do get engaged in conflict, give ground unless it’s something absolutely sacrosanct to you. Even then it’s fair to say something like ” I agreed to disagree”. Don’t try to win the battle! Deflect the attack. Don’t receive it. . By not receiving a point of view that you don’t want to receive, you maintain your own personal space.