Have Family, Will Travel

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon

This year I headed west with most of my family. We were off to see some of the natural wonders of these United States: Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park, among other idyllic spots. Traveling with one’s family of origin as an adult is a mixed bag, equal parts excitement and anxiety, but I knew in my bones that the trip would be memorable: fun and silly, yes, and also potentially tense and frustrating. In other words, a family vacation!

Having now had some time to digest the experience, I’ve come away with a clearer understanding of how to thrive in the midst of potential family drama. Over the next few weeks I will touch on each of the lessons I took away from the experience. Up first: boundaries.

Boundaries? I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Boundaries

Mental health professionals are fond of talking about boundaries. Why, you ask? Because they are a vital part of healthy human relationships and they’re tricky as hell to maintain. Boundaries are one of those things that most of us assume we have plenty of, thank you very much, until we find ourselves acting out of character. If not discussed or reflected on, boundaries can get blurry and confusing.

Case in point: when I was a younger man and living many states away from my family, I would visit and sometimes find myself at the end of the trip exhausted, frustrated, and vowing to not repeat the experience. Of course, I found it difficult to put a finger on what to change in order to improve my visits and by the time my next one rolled around I’d forget the promise I made to myself!

In hindsight, of course, the one obvious mistake I made was choosing to value other’s needs or wants above my own. I chose to spend as much time as possible with members of my family without setting aside any for myself and my sanity. I didn’t realize this at the time because I didn’t know I had a choice. I had no boundaries!  

Saying No

It can feel mean-spirited or even disloyal to say no to family members. The pressure to squeeze as much nostalgic joy as possible out of time with family is, I’ve found, both external – “Why won’t you come to the pool with us?” – and internal – “I’m a bad son if I don’t go to the pool with them.”

The illusory goal of Rockwellian tranquility, unfortunately, quickly morphs into short tempers and exasperation when on the horns of a false dilemma: I can either be a good son or a bad son. Thankfully, there is always another option.  

Those of us who are able to have healthy relationships with our families – and it’s important to note that not all of us should maintain relationships with our families of origin – can fall into the trap of wanting and wishing for a storybook family. Sure, we can admit our families drive us crazy, but it wasn’t that bad was it?

Maybe not, but we’re not kids anymore. It’s necessary to individuate ourselves. Ignoring this need can lead to repeating the same mistakes over and over again, always looking for a different outcome. The intention “to family,” if I may coin a new verb, is noble, but the impact can be painful without acknowledging our own limitations and preparing accordingly. Learning to say no is necessary for everyone’s good mental health.

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

I must admit that prior to this family trip I remained firmly and blissfully in denial. On a number of occasions my wife would ask for some small detail about the trip and I found myself dumbfounded. What trip? What are you talking about?

In those moments when I could not bring to mind our plans, I realized that my fear and worry were having their way with me. Unknowingly, I was forcing the trip into some deep nearly inaccessible region of my non-conscious mind. After more than a few humorous discussions about this denial, my wife and I came up with a plan.

We admitted our concerns to one another and planned not simply to have mental, emotional, and physical boundaries, but to utilize them. We made the advanced decision to detach consciously in order to have more fun. We discussed how we were going to survive and thrive in the midst of this summer vacation.

Family relations might still and forevermore create stress, but I have a choice in how I respond to that stress.  

Flexible Boundaries

The simple solution: we intentionally planned time away from the family in order to maintain our sanity and better our odds of having fun.

We walked into the vacation fully expecting feelings of overwhelm and planned accordingly. We identified excursions just for us and invested in our own experience. We detached with love from the larger group and created our own adventures. By taking care of ourselves first we were better able to be present for everyone and everything else.

Boundaries, of course, must be firm, and it also helps if they sometimes are flexible. If you are not capable of bending, if you remain rigid, you will break. Historically, steel supplanted iron because of its hardness, yes, but only in combination with its flexibility. Firm and flexible is another way of defining strength. When in doubt, remain firm and bend like steel rather than break like iron.

In the context of this vacation, when our plans didn’t pan out the way we had envisioned, my wife and I rolled with it. Sure, we grumbled about actually having to exercise our flexibility, but we kept in mind the reality that we were going to be just fine. Internally, I steeled myself for unknown, but expected bumps in the road.

My past experiences of overdoing family have somehow allowed for a wee bit of wisdom to creep into my life. Premeditated and boundaried love allowed me to experience the fullness of this family vacation no matter what. When things went according to plan, I flourished. When those plans went awry, I admitted my frustration and moved on as best I could. A trip detour, after all, is simply another route to adventure.

Next up: the power of novelty!