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4 Ways to Set Boundaries for Your Holiday Family Gathering

Will you be hosting this holiday?

Congratulations! You wouldn’t have landed the honors had it not been for your cooking, decorating, or hosting skills. Maybe even all three. With the sole exception of Christmas, I don’t have the time or patience to swap out seasonal decorations in my house every quarter. Kudos to those who do.

But may I also offer you my sympathies? Hosting a holiday get-together is the very definition of hard work. More than just the given—that is, physical—labor, serving as a host will also require you to perform emotional—and spiritual—labor.

Take the issue of boundaries, for example. Whenever people assemble, conversations will ensue, and so will differences of opinion. But when there are so many divisive issues waiting to twist an innocent dialogue into a conflict, how do you protect your holiday celebration from devolving into an emotional mess?

Good question. Here are four suggestions for establishing necessary boundaries.

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1. Prepare Ahead of Time

1. Prepare Ahead of Time

Consider preparing your guests ahead of time on what you hope they’ll contribute. (If you wish to include food and drinks with this request, go ahead, but the point here is on their emotional and mental contribution.)

Placing this request is especially crucial if one member is dealing with a hot-button issue and the news has spread to the rest of the family tree. If that’s the case, call other relatives. Preface your request by explaining how you need their support to help everyone feel welcome at the gathering.

Try these statements:

  • “It would be great if we all agree to let cousin Alice decide to mention ____ (fill in the blank with the provocative issue facing your family) at the table. Can I count on you not to broach it otherwise?”
  • “If she does bring up the subject, may I ask for your agreement to respond in kindness?”
  • “Do you mind setting an example by listening more than talking, especially if politics—or any other controversial topic—comes up?”

If your relatives are like me, hearing your request might pique an immediate curiosity. Am I the only one you’re making the special request for? In other words, they might wonder if you’re singling them out. Do you think they’re the problematic guest?

This is why it’s best to approach everyone on the guest list with the same request. This way, not only are you increasing the likelihood of securing everyone’s consent, but you won’t run the risk of unintentionally offending anyone either.

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2. Pray

2. Pray

Years ago, the Lord left me with an indelible instruction, which is apropos to our topic. If you’re expecting something big on the horizon, pray for that event now. Don’t wait until the day before or, worse, the day of.

The bigger the matter, the sooner we should cover it with our prayers.

Like your holiday celebration.

What can you pray for? If you ask the Holy Spirit this question and wait for His answer, He will download specific prayer points into your heart, every one meaningful for your specific situation. After all, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit our Helper (John 14:26). The Spirit is always poised to resolve every dilemma, including yours. I heartily endorse seeking the Lord for clues on how to pray.

In addition, the following bullet points might also help.

Pray for:

  • The peace of God that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7) to permeate the atmosphere
  • Those in attendance to prioritize each other, not themselves (Philippians 2:4)
  • Love to cover a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8)
  • Wisdom for you to carry yourself well, regardless of curve balls (Proverbs 4:7).

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3. What Do You Need?

3. What Do You Need?

Despite your best effort in calling other family members ahead of time and praying for peace to prevail over Thanksgiving or Christmas, Grandma might still pester your Gen Z sister on her latest tattoo.

What do you do if your holiday gathering erupts with awkward, stony silence or the opposite—rageful rants and acerbic comebacks?

Knowing what you need to regroup is key. As a rule of thumb, deep breathing effectively resets our nervous system. So, whenever you’re triggered, take the time you need to inhale from your stomach. Hold and release it slowly through your nose. Repeat as many times as necessary until you feel calmer.

Having said that, get curious about what you need to calm down. Do you need to excuse yourself from everyone else? Sit in your bedroom to collect your thoughts? Pat the dog in the yard?

Knowing these details ahead of time would help you in case something goes wrong.

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4. Slow to Set Physical Boundary

4. Slow to Set Physical Boundary

Say Uncle Jack has a grudge against one of his adult nephews. The uncle calls you and says something to the effect of, “Over the years, that no-good rascal has owed me loads of money, and every time I asked him to pay me back, even in installments, he has made excuses for why he couldn’t. I don’t want to see his face at your house for Christmas. Don’t invite him.”

First of all, I do not envy you. Your hypothetical uncle has managed to wedge you between a rigid rock and a hard place, and I’m sorry for the emotional turmoil his request might have sparked.

Secondly and more importantly, what should your response be?

If it were me, I’d be so tempted to give in and exclude the nephew from the party—exactly like the request/demand the hurt uncle made. Plus, I’d be dodging an intense showdown. By appeasing Uncle Jack, I’d avert a possible argument between the two men and keep my uncle from being upset at me. Win/win. Right?

Not so fast. Be cautious when it comes to setting a physical boundary. Anything we do in a physical form is hard to recover from, partly because the action is so glaring and unambiguous. Excluding—or worse, disinviting—a family member leaves behind a long shadow, precisely like Scripture says: “A brother offended is harder to win over than a fortified city” (Proverbs 18:19, AMP). The person you exclude might retaliate and blacklist or badmouth you.

So then, what?

If a relative insists on you not inviting a certain individual, you can always refer back to point #2 above: pray, particularly for wisdom.

Unsure how the answer might appear? God has given us a tip on the characteristics of divine wisdom: “But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace-loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere” (James 3:17, NLT).

Take this verse and ask the Lord to confirm what it means. It might mean gently explaining to the angry uncle that you desire to unite the family for a peaceful get-together. It’s not your place to take sides concerning their conflict.

But there are other alternatives, too. The Lord might prompt you to invite both while serving as a peacemaker (Matthew 5:9). Or He might want you to agree with the hurt uncle and not invite the one who owes money.

The point is, you can rest on the promise in James 1:5, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” Ask the Lord for wisdom—and set a physical boundary only if you absolutely have to.

Having a number of folks over for the holidays can be stressful. But may all of our holiday celebrations reflect who Jesus is: loving, giving, and prioritizing the other ahead of ourselves (Romans 12:10, 1 Corinthians 10:24, Philippians 2:3-4).

FREE PODCAST RESOURCE: 

Need help building better boundaries? You've come to the right place. Join licensed therapist Carley Marcouillier on the Therapy + Theology Podcast each week as she tackles a common question related to therapy, mental health, and faith. Listen to her episode on building boundaries by clicking the play button below - and be sure to subscribe in your Apple or Spotify App so you never miss an episode:

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