Holidays and special occasions seem to bring out the best and worst in families. For most, it’s a wonderful time of reconnection and fun. But it can also raise or intensify conflicts. No wonder – such times tend to be emotional anyway, and then we add travel, crowded schedules and complicated logistics (children’s pageant at church, Christmas Eve at Grandma’s, home in time to put Billy’s new bike together…). Double that if yours is a “blended” family. Got stress?

When mentoring engaged couples, my wife Barbara and I encourage them to spend a lot of time talking about their families, because expectations regarding roles, traditions, and conflict resolution styles are largely determined by our childhood experience, and every family is different. If we don’t recognize and resolve those differences, it can hurt the marriage.

For example, how much “family togetherness” is expected? Suppose you grew up in a closeknit family where everyone’s expected to show up for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Uncle Wally’s Labor Day picnic, but your husband comes from a family where folks do their own thing? Healthy families have a balance of closeness and separation. Marriage creates a new family (Gen. 2.24), but that doesn’t mean you have no more connection to your extended family (1 Tim. 5:8). And while it’s good to have a family that supports you in your marriage, they also have to realize that you need to develop your own coupleness apart from them as well.

Here are some other tips for handling extended family issues:

1. Be united as a couple. Decide important issues before you arrive at the family gathering. Talk it through, make a decision, and then stick to it.

2. “Blood talks to blood.” This expression means that if there is a conflict with the husband’s family, for example, the husband should be the one who talks to them about it, because he has a longer history with them. His wife should support him, but not take the initiative. Obviously the opposite is also true – the wife should be the spokesperson to her family. Before anyone talks to anyone, however, be sure you both agree on what to say!

3. Know your coping style. People deal with stress differently. Some folks may need to take a walk and get out of the house, while others may want to meditate, pray or watch a movie to help them with their “attitude adjustment.” Do your thing, and let others do theirs.

4. Build your own traditions. Be sure to incorporate elements from each of your families where you can, but don’t be afraid to try something new.

Every family has problems. But you can do a lot to ease the tensions if you work together as a team and make sure that your own marriage relationship is healthy.