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Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family…in another city.
George Burns

The holidays are racing toward us now, and with them comes those sober adventure/survival trips mistakenly called “visiting family.” Make no mistake, these can be calamitous. Think Meet the Parents or Home for the Holidays—maybe even Bates Motel. These festive gatherings can feel especially foreboding when it is your girl’s family territory you are venturing into. With that in mind—and for the sake of preserving love—we thought we’d offer a Survival Guide to Family Visits.

Begin with situational awareness. There are two realities you must—must—keep in mind when dropping into potentially volatile terrain:

Family is kryptonite. Not always, and not in every situation. Some family gatherings are rich and beautiful; may it ever be so. However, in this broken world filled with broken family cultures, “going home” can have a kryptonite effect. Don’t be surprised when she suddenly turns ten years old again, slips into family-speak, falling like Alice down the rabbit hole. That dazed look, that surrender to pressure and performance, the sudden loss of all ground gained in the last several years = kryptonite. Comments from you in the vein of, “Hey—what gives?” will not prove helpful. You must treat her as you would treat someone under a powerful spell.

You are not on vacation. No matter how excited she is about going home, you must—must—keep in mind what our friend Dan helped us to name: “A visit is not a vacation.” Vacations involve things like tents and the utter freedom of the backcountry, or beach chairs and umbrella drinks. You can drop your guard on vacations; you must never drop your guard on a family visit.

If you keep these two things in mind—that family is often kryptonite and a visit is not a vacation—you are much more likely to come out of it with love intact.

Now, given these realities, what follows is some counsel for navigating the jungles of Vietnam…

Pray beforehand. This seems so utterly obvious, but very few people do it. You want to lay down some covering fire before you get into the fog of war. This is especially true for your girl who may well fall under the spell once she sets foot back in her old haunts. Ask her, “Hon—what are you hoping for in this visit? How would you like to live? What do you fear? How can I help you while we’re there?” And then, pray into those things. Try and disarm as many booby traps ahead of time as you can.

Do not get baited. Because once you are in the realm of the “visit,” you've got to be on your toes so as not to get suckered into one of those booby traps. Especially with your girl. This isn't the time to sort through what you think of her family, or how her relationship with her sister bugs you. The posture you need to take with one another is, we will sort it out later. Those backroom conversations that start with, “Your mom is so weird” never, ever go well. Before the two of you make the jump, agree to sort out any conflicts after the ordeal is over. Meanwhile, it’s I love you. Were good.

(And don't try to process as soon as you get out the door. In the early years of our marriage, after a visit, Stasi and I would inevitably get into an argument before we even left her family’s street—usually because I would want to start unpacking family issues and we weren't yet clear of the warfare of it. I was young and naive.)

Stay engaged. Do not abandon her to the family sacrifice. The pull to check out is going to be very strong. Once her dad kicks in with the crass jokes or her aunt starts on with the man-hating thing, everything in you will want to join Uncle Ed at the clam dip or little brother downstairs playing Halo. Do not give in. Stay by her side. She needs you, even if she isn’t acting like it. Refrain from looking at your watch, laughing at stupid political statements made by anyone present, and alcohol in significant amounts—the internal editor goes on a break and you’ll say things you later regret (however true they might be).

Fake it. Yes, you love Jell-O mold with marshmallows in it. Yes, you’d love to see the spoon collection. No, the cat on your lap doing that lost-kitten-kneading-drooling thing isn’t bothering you at all. If your team is crushing her family’s alma mater in the game currently on TV, do not openly rejoice. Fake it. Her father is always brilliant, her mother is always beautiful, you love her siblings, and you're having a wonderful time.

Now yes—much of this advice is given with a touch of cynical humor, but it was bought through painful experience and the truth of the matter is this:

You never simply marry a woman—you marry a family.

They are now, or soon will be, your family too (!). And no matter how much damage they may have done to your beloved over the years, she will always want things to be better. She wants relationship with them. So you want to build relational capital over time, with the view that eventually the two of you can have a redemptive influence there. Bite your tongue, stay engaged, fake it. For love.

However—if it does get ugly, if you see your girl going down for the count because her mom or dad keep saying such devastating things, then you need to get her out of there. Eject. Pull her aside and tell her you have massive stomach pains and diarrhea and you need to go. Give her an excuse to use with her family, and get out of Dodge. Develop a few code words beforehand which the two of you can employ with one another.

This tactic is only for dire circumstances; in lesser calamities, when you can sense that the little family canoe is about to go over the waterfall like that scene from The Mission, it’s time to intervene with…

Distraction. Break out your best stories: “Hey—did I ever tell you guys about the time I almost burned down the house?” Or the trip to Nicaragua (pre-load your phone with photos you can use to further distract the family). Juggling. Opera. Handstands. Make a fool of yourself, like David before the king of Gath. Better still, ask her grandpa to tell that story (again) about the time he was a gold miner. Ask her brother to break out the video from his recent ballet performance. People love to talk about themselves and it's a fabulous means of distraction.

So you lost some dignity. At least you avoided a disaster.

Above all else, be charming. No matter how much you loathe the meal/conversation/humor/culture, break out the charm. Win them over. You are building capital. This is about long-term redemption.

And this is about loving your girl and offering your strength on her behalf.

Because visits are not vacations.