The Raphael Remedy

When a Vacation with Family is Anything but a Vacation…

by | Jun 22, 2015 | Relationships

I remember a session with a client who had recounted a horrifying “vacation” with family. Dealing with her over-controlling mother, tension with the stepfather and a fussy baby had transformed a one week vacation into 3 weeks of purgatory. I was really able to relate.

Been there. Done that. Not fun.

When summer vacation or holidays come around, and especially for those who have families in other states, it’s often expected to spend your vacation time visiting them…or having them visit you. Seems logical.

Now, if our families had the good sense to live in places like Tahiti or Hawaii and, not only to live there but to own luxury hotels on the beach, then such vacations would make perfect sense and I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.  But few of us had the foresight to choose our parents that carefully.

The truth is that for many people, balancing family visits with precious vacation time often comes at a price. Sure, you want to see your folks, but if your relationships are already characteristically strained, then planning such visits needs to be done carefully and realistically.

The first thing I would like to do is define some terms:

  • Vacation – a break from work.
  • Family visit – spending time with family.

Note that these are not synonyms. Now, for many people, time spent with family is relaxing and rejuvenating. What can be more important than making such time a priority? When family members live far away it can be very challenging because we really miss them and yearn to reconnect.

But there are times that we need to be proactive and realize there may be limitations of what you can expect on a joint family vacation. If you have a mother or father or sibling who is fussy, demanding and hard to be around, then renting a house together usually won’t magically change them. If you’re fussy and like things a certain way and your family plays things very loose, then such an arrangement won’t magically change you either.

Before you plan such a “vacation”, it’s wise to be clear. Is this a vacation or is it a family visit? If you’re trying to combine the two, then sit down and write out your expectations. Once done, take an honest look and ask yourself if it’s realistic. If you value quiet and your teenage nephews have a band and love to entertain the family, then picturing quiet evenings playing monopoly ain’t likely to happen. If a parent is alcoholic and most family get-togethers end up in fighting and angst, are you prepared to handle that or do you have an escape plan if it gets out of hand? I was once stranded on Duck Island, NC, with hurricane Hugo headed straight toward us on a “vacation from hell” with no escape. We’d flown down to family and they drove the 7 hours to North Carolina. We were prisoners. Rookie mistake!

Next, assess what your needs and desires are for this trip. Are you looking forward to spending time with family and are you willing to accept the difficulties and chores that may be involved with that? If so, great. Proceed as planned. If on the other hand, you’ve visited for the past 3 years and haven’t had a ‘real’ vacation where you actually get to take a break and do what you want to do, then maybe you need to reconsider spending all of your vacation time on a family visit. If invariably ‘vacations’ with family put you and your spouse at odds, then maybe you need to skip the trip this year and plan something else or split your available time between a family visit and time spent alone with your own immediate family. Sometimes staying at a hotel or having a separate cabin and setting the boundaries before the trip can do the trick. If you know that you and your husband and kids want to see old friends or go kayaking, let your family know ahead of time that you have your own plans on certain days so there’s less hurt feelings and disappointments. They may actually appreciate the break from entertaining too. If they get upset and try to control what you do, then that’s not a good sign and all the more reason to decide what you can handle and have realistic expectations.

One last tip:

  • If you are married – your obligation to your family of origin comes after your obligation to your own spouse and children. Ordering your priorities accordingly can help clarify what you should and shouldn’t do in such situations. If your spouse has worked very hard, is very stressed and truly dreads these family visits, then keeping his or her need in mind for an actual vacation should be your priority.
  • If you are single – sometimes those priorities are not as clear, but considering your own needs for rest and rejuvenation is important as well. Single people often get a lot of guilt thrown at them if they say “no” to family demands and desires. But as a single person, you don’t have the benefits of a spouse to care for you and support you, so taking care of your own needs isn’t selfish…sometimes it’s simply self-preserving.

If you struggle with family in these areas, talking to a counselor or coach can be very helpful in resolving stress and hurt feelings and in charting a course for better relationships with everyone.

Happy Summer!

Allison Ricciardi, LMHC
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