The December holiday season is ideally a time of joy, peace, and deep connection with family and friends. Most of us look forward to reviving cherished traditions, and enjoy showing love, affection, and appreciation during a festival that has its roots in spiritual rebirth. On the other hand, this is also the darkest time of year. For many people
the holidays are fraught with stress and unmet longings. Old grudges are recalled; old dreams that were dashed come back to haunt again. Making matters worse, frantic pursuit of the perfect gifts for one’s spouse, kids, pals, and parents can put even the jolliest of us into what I call “primitive survival” mode, liable to snap at sidewalk Santas and sneer at the umpteenth letter asking for a charitable contribution.
More than just a time for giving, the holidays can be a time for forgiving. Here are some ways you might apply this philosophy to situations that crop up in your practice around this time of year.
Q: “My grandson never visits me” is the perpetual complaint of a client of mine, a widow in her early 80s. She just found out that he and his wife are planning to stay with his other set of grandparents over the holidays to show off their new baby. My client is so disappointed and angry that she is threatening to dissolve the trust fund she set up for the young man years ago, which is currently paying for his graduate school. I fear this will cause a rift in the family that, given her age, might never heal. How can I talk her off this ledge before it’s too late?
A: As you suggest in your question, I believe the solution lies in talking with her. At the beginning, it’s going to involve patient, empathetic listening as you encourage her to explain how the repeated slights of her beloved grandson have angered and wounded her. Once she feels you have heard her and her intensity level has dropped down a notch, you can ask her more questions about his situation. Why might he have chosen to visit the other grandparents this year? Is one of them in poor health, which would motivate the grandson to visit sooner rather than later? Or if the couple has been alternating visits between sets of grandparents, is it just their turn?
If this line of questioning doesn’t help her understand her grandson’s dilemma and soften her position, take a step back and ask her about the emotional legacy she would like to leave. What values and messages does she want to pass on to her grandson and future generations? Is one of them the importance of family? Love? And, hopefully, forgiveness?
Once your client has given some careful thought to this question, she may be more open to your recommendation that she avoid a decision motivated by anger, hurt, or spite. Long after she is gone, her grandson would remember that she cursed him by withdrawing her affection and support. Not only might this create a financial hardship for the young family, especially if he is compelled to give up his work toward a graduate degree, but it risks leaving an emotional scar for the rest of his life.
Encourage your client to open her heart, listen to her better nature, and try to understand and forgive her grandson. Later, when the time is right, she can tell him how disappointed she was not to see him, his wife, and the new baby over the holidays. If she does this in a vulnerable, non-blaming way, I anticipate that she will eventually get what she wants: more contact with him and his family.
Q: My clients are in the midst of a fight that is straining their 26-year marriage. The wife wants to start the new year by quitting her job, which she has disliked for some time, so she can go to Guatemala and help develop local craft-based businesses. At this point in her life she wants to give back to others, and feels it would be a way to truly live her values. The husband, an attorney, can’t forgive her willingness to give up her income, since he believes his own job is not secure. They are in fairly good financial shape, with both their children out of college. Is there a way to resolve this impasse?
A: I know a couple in a similar situation, only reversed: the wife, a therapist, is staying put in her hometown while her husband pursues his dream of improving village life in Central America. They seem to be working it out well, but this kind of situation would be a difficult emotional challenge for a couple who don’t have a strong relationship.
My first question, therefore, would be about the degree of closeness, connection, and communication in this marriage. If the relationship is rocky, you might suggest counseling or therapy to help the couple get through this major life transition. It may be easier to get them to agree to this by telling them about a husband and wife who resolved similar challenges with therapeutic help. If you have already connected with a good couples therapist, this professional can probably provide you stories from her or his own experience.
Even if the couple doesn’t need or want separate counseling, you might consider having a mental health professional join you (with the clients’ permission, of course) when you meet with them individually. I think this is justified in many instances by the fact that this Third Age of life necessitates more careful, compassionate communication and sharing of goals and values.
After empathizing with the husband’s fears, I would try to help him understand the degree of financial security that the couple does have. I’d also probe tactfully to see if he’s afraid of losing his connection to his wife if she leaves to pursue her dream. Should this be the case, the two of you might brainstorm ways to keep the relationship solid in spite of the distance. Meeting with the wife, you can support her desire to make an impact on the world, while helping her appreciate her husband’s worry about ending up with inadequate income. Does she have any concern that the two of them may grow apart if she goes to Guatemala?