Marriage Enrichment: A few tips for reducing conflict on family vacations

Meeting together before the trip and going over expectations can help ‘avoid ruffled feathers’ on the journey

By Marian Christiana

Summer is upon us, and many of us will be using our vacation time to visit family.

My husband, Ralph, and I just returned from such a vacation. I say “vacation” but I am using that term very loosely. “Traveling” would be much more like it. We spent a week in Los Angeles visiting our extended families and old friends. Ralph’s brother, Phil, and his wife, Gayle, flew down from Oregon, and the four of us rented a place at the beach together.

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Well, it was nice, but I have a very large family in the L.A. area, not to mention the fact that our daughter lives there. When our son, who lives in San Francisco, first heard of our plans and that we were thinking about a California trip, he and his wife decided to drive down and join us. Don’t get me wrong. We were thrilled to see our children. Spending time with them is always very special. However, as each additional person joined our “vacation,” my idea of sitting on the beach reading a book went right out the window!

Ralph and his brother planned to visit their older sister and her adult children and grandchildren while we were there. I have three siblings living in the area with all of their adult children and grandchildren who I wanted to see, too. We were also planning to visit Ralph and Phil’s childhood neighborhood, schools, and old haunts along with attending a Los Angeles Dodgers game, as well as spending an afternoon at Santa Anita Park, home of thoroughbred horse racing in southern California.

On top of all that, my 93-year-old stepmother has been in a skilled nursing facility for the last month, and I needed to visit with her. I felt like a ping-pong ball as we drove up and down and all around the freeway systems of Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Vacations come with all kinds of expectations. We knew before we left that I would not be able to spend much time with my siblings. To ward off hurt feelings, I explained to them before I left Chattanooga that our schedule was full. I invited them to join us on the few free days that we had, but as it worked out I only saw them once.

By explaining up front what our plans were, there were no hurt feelings over unfulfilled expectations. Communicating about our expectations before we leave for vacation has served us well over the years. Our worst vacations have been the times when my husband and I had different expectations about the trip and neglected to share them with each other. We have found that even after 38 years of marriage, we are still not mind readers.

One expectation that I did have was that the trip would be full of love and laughter. I am happy to say I was not disappointed, and that expectation was met! One expectation that I did not have, though, was that while spending time with my siblings we would rehash old negative memories regarding my stepmother. I was amazed at how strong some of my siblings’ feelings were after all of these years. I had expected those old hurts to heal by now.

My stepmother married my father 50 years ago, and my father passed away 37 years ago. They did not have any children together. My stepmother hasn’t been a central part in any of our lives since the passing of my father, but she has been a very attentive grandmother to all of our children. My siblings and I have 18 children and 19 grandchildren between us.

Until very recently, my stepmother has remembered every birthday, baptism, Communion, confirmation, graduation, and wedding of our children and grandchildren. Apparently none of the love and attention she has shown to our children over the last 37 years counts for much when wounds from childhood are still festering.

The conversation with my siblings reminded me how important it is to acknowledge each person’s unique story, and to realize that we all do not have the same feelings about a particular experience. Sometimes in families there is a tendency to become the collective “we” when reminiscing, and our individual experiences are no longer considered. We forget that in reality we are individuals whose life experiences may change the collective “we” narrative. It is important to remember that the other person’s story is just as important as our own story. To expect another person to have the same thoughts or feelings about an experience, or topic, without some open and honest communication, is a sure-fire recipe for disaster.

Along these same lines, everyone has his or her own hopes and dreams for time off from school or work. If you are planning a vacation this year, let me suggest that you add another element to your planning strategy. Set aside some time for good communication with all of the participants, even the young ones. Listen to each person describe his or her expectations for the trip. Pay attention to body language. Listen respectfully to everyone involved. Ask everyone to be respectful of the others involved. Create a list of expectations.

Certainly, not all of those expectations will be met. Allowing the person with a particular set of expectations, however, to express his or her hopes to the group, followed by an open, honest explanation as to why it may not be possible for everything to turn out as hoped for will help avoid ruffled feathers during the actual vacation. Set priorities as a group and plan a trip that has a little something for everyone. From experience I can tell you that managing expectations prior to the trip will help reduce conflict while on your journey.

I hope you all have a summer full of love and laughter. Safe travels!


Mrs. Christiana is coordinator of the diocesan Marriage Preparation and Enrichment Office.

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