Relationships with immediate family are tough. Especially when you have six younger full-blood siblings and two divorced parents with new partners. That's where I'm at.
For years I was convinced the damage that comes with growing up and falling out of touch with family requires repair. But now that I'm a twenty-something soon-to-be college graduate, I realize repair isn't the answer. In most cases, repair is impossible.
So I've put my hope elsewhere. The damage is being molded into something other.
In this post, you'll read a summary of the story that displays the greatest reward my four year college experience has given me. In the midst of running late to classes, traveling around the world, and spilling coffee one too many times the greatest reward is the relationships I still have with my family back home.
Four Christmases ago, I never imagined I would allow myself to be in the same room as my mom's boyfriend. My parents didn't divorce until 2016, but I was holding out since 1998 they'd get over their issues.
The first threat of divorce happened when I was four. And, if I remember correctly, I pouted by running to the farthest distance I could fathom going alone. I camped out at the end of our block, about ten houses away until my parents promised to stop fighting. My resistance made me realize I had influence, and it gave me hope.
Fast forward a decade, and a whole series of tension that earned an affair only I was aware of for years started to shatter that hope. By 2012, I was heartbroken by what I was witnessing between my mom and dad.
So I ran away to college and skipped as many holidays as possible. I used missions trips, bad weather, and a demanding work schedule as legitimate excuses to visit on various weekends but never on holidays.
While desperate to spend time with my brothers during those first few years away from home, I couldn't get myself to do it during Christmas or New Years. The celebrations were too sacred. So many solid memories where attached to these seasons, I was convinced I couldn't risk letting new memories ruin them. It was easier to pretend they weren't important anymore.
Behaving like that doesn't do anyone good, though. Especially those who can't see what you're wrestling with inside. My parents didn't like it, for sure. But my brothers lacked any understanding and my reactions hurt them the most.
Apologetic, I tried to fix things. Between 2013 and 2015 I had three responses that backfired dramatically.
1) I called on a regular basis so I could prove I was emotionally present
2) I set limits for what I would and wouldn't talk about
3) I turned every phone call and visit into a mission to change people
People, especially family, don't like to be pandered to or given a set of terms for relationships. Family especially doesn't like being pressured to become someone different by others they've grown old with.
I was trying hard to transform what existed before I ran away. But I was completely missing the point.
After two years of claiming no one had their shit together, I fell apart myself. In a single week I saw myself go from a busy and successful college student to an immovable sack of emotions and unclear thoughts (read LEARNING TO LOVE BETTER BECAUSE OF DEEP HURT). It took a breaking point, therapy, and an affirming community to realign my intentions.
Instead of trying to fix things, I decided to create something out of the broken pieces. Instead of transforming what existed before, I shaped the brokenness into something new.
Between 2015 and 2016 I had three responses that worked well.
1) I called when it was relevant, important, or I genuinely missed people
2) I had preferences for what I would talk about, but never set limits
3) I stopped trying to change people
The moment I questioned my own motives - the season I focused on how I could pour out instead of be poured into emotionally - made the outcome of my desires and the current status of my relationships with family positive.
There's a line scripture that outlines what the fruit of a good spirit look like.
"The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control."
I took these words and applied them to my actions.
For a period of time, I called my dad routinely for the sole purpose of asking for his wisdom and advice. I spent a month saying little to my mom so that she could vent all of her frustrations with our relationship and I could ask forgiveness. Every other week I would reach out to my brothers and make little gestures like meme posts, words of encouragement, or general check-ins.
I stepped off my pedestal and asked to be fixed instead. Through the repair of myself I could build on the damage that existed and make something both new and sustainable.
Last Christmas, I sat in the same room as my mom's boyfriend. Twice, actually. It wasn't as weird as I was expecting. He was another human being, and my lack of drive to be an ass made me treat him like any other stranger I was meeting for the first time.
Sure, he has a history with my family I'm not a fan of. Yeah, it's easy to justify mistreatment based on past rage. But those fruits I listed? Those actions I tried that backfired? Nothing I believe or have learned justifies me being a rude person. Nothing gives me the grace to refuse forgiveness and to engage with anyone as if their former self isn't a blank slate.
So we had coffee ... then celebrated Christmas together. My dad had I and all my brothers celebrate with him Christmas day. My mom had I and all my brothers celebrate with her Christmas eve.
Having each of us boys unified in the same room, at separate times, with each of our parents was reason enough to be joyful. Our love and our faithfulness to each other granted me the patience of unfamiliar faces celebrating with us. It helped me find the gentleness, kindness and self-control to make Christmas a genuinely good and peaceful celebration.
I returned to school in the new year happy. I would have bet my life on the impossibility of that sentence in 2012.
We all put our hope in a lot of things. It's a good way to make pain work in our favor. But hope isn't always placed in the right things.
I challenged myself to place hope in things outside of my control. And because of that change I wouldn't trade the fruit I've reaped in return for anything I would have gained before.
Family is worth recognizing you're not a hero. You're one of them. They don't want to change because you've grown up. They want to mature and grow up with you.