There's a Pink Elephant under the Christmas Tree

Facing Sexual Brokenness around the Holidays

            Written by Sean Maney, Executive Director — December, 2012At this time of year, many people ask us about how to handle talking with extended family over the Christmas season.  Sometimes, parents want to know how to handle talking to their gay son or daughter and his or her partner.  Other times, it’s couples who are going through recovery for the man’s sexual addictions, and they don’t know if they should share their struggles with their in-laws or adult children.  They all know that if nothing is said then the entire holiday may feel like a “pink elephant” is in the room, crowding out the festivities.  But if they bring up touchy matters in a bad way, then their family problems may destroy the Christmas celebration.

How can we help the holidays feel “merry” in the midst of such tensions?  I’m not an expert in family dynamics, but talking with several families has helped me learn a few do’s and don’ts.  A marriage that is hurt by sexual addiction is going to be hard on the whole family, and disagreements over the morality of same-sex partners will always cause some level of tension. Yet I believe that if everyone shows some grace and patience with one another, God can use these things to bring about wonderful blessings, even in the midst of all of the holiday hoopla.

We recommend that couples early on in recovery develop an agreement about how they will talk about how the recovery process is going for both of them.  Some couples never talk about how recovery is going because it is too painful to bring up.  It’s just a lot easier for a spouse to stay in denial than to face the hurt that comes with betrayal, and it’s a lot easier for someone struggling with addiction to not face the pain he has caused his wife. On the other hand, some couples begin talking about recovery all the time.  Every day is more talk about groups, recovery literature, and counseling, and hardly any talk about anything else.  In both instances, learning how to form healthy intimacy is not taking place. But if couples agree that every so often (a few days, every week, or sometimes every month depending on the couple) they will have an intentional conversation about how recovery is going, then real intimacy and relationship-building can actually take place.  It’s during one of these talks that we suggest couples discuss who and how they will tell others about the sexual addiction.  You don’t want to be on different pages about this once your relatives arrive.  The last thing anybody wants for a Christmas surprise is to find out the whole family just learned of your relationship struggles!

Couples whose children are gay identified should also talk ahead of time about how they want to communicate to their child and his or her partner.  Many parents are so uncomfortable with their child bringing his or her partner home that they say the child is not welcome at all.  I think this is tragic.  Instead of being a stand for biblical truth, this often has more to do with fear and awkwardness. Unfortunately, it also usually creates even more distance between the parents and the child.  If the parents work together to communicate their needs first to each other and then to their adult child, then instead of separation, parents can still draw close to their children while not affirming their life choices. Before the visit, both parents need to find time to discuss how each of them is feeling about the visit.  This is also a time to decide together what boundaries they want to set.  If one parent is not comfortable allowing his son or daughter to stay in the same room with his partner, then both parents need to stand behind that decision.  They should also talk about other things they may need to discuss, such as whether they are comfortable with partners referring to them as “mom” and “dad.”  They should also discuss their hopes for the visit and the things they are looking forward to and how to include the partner in those activities.  If they are going to be around others, how will they introduce the partner? Of course, once the parents talk, they also need to talk with their child. This should be a real conversation, not just “a laying down of the law.”  Parents need to be open to the feelings and concerns of their child. Together, with much prayer, they can find a way to preserve unity and not allow disagreements about sexuality to ruin their time together.  No matter how much people disagree, I find everyone would rather be together when opening up presents on Christmas morning than to each be alone.

The question of who should know of the struggles is a hard one.  Just because somebody is a family member does not mean they are a safe person to tell.  If your sister posts all the family business on Facebook or your grandma puts all the family gossip on the church “prayer chain” without getting permission first, you may want to be slow to share with them. Generally with couples in recovery, we find the men are too embarrassed to tell others.  However, spouses need safe people, sometimes especially their family, to know what is going on and to give support.  We urge that the spouse tell the husband who she is telling and why privately before she shares with family members.  Most of the time, a man who is in recovery, although embarrassed, will understand and support his wife’s decision to share. At times, if a person feels very unsafe to the man, the spouse needs to acknowledge his concerns. Likewise, sometimes parents are faced with the dilemma of their child with same-sex attractions wanting them to keep his or her struggles private. Many people do not want to be “out” to the entire world. In these situations, we urge the parent to be respectful of the child’s concerns, while still being direct about his or her own needs.  The child may need to be told that the parent needs a couple of safe people to talk and pray with.

If at all possible, do not wait for the holiday visit to have these conversations.  Have them earlier so that during the holiday everyone can rest, enjoy one another, and focus on Jesus.  After all, Christmas is not meant to be a time for thinking about family dysfunction. It’s a time to be meditating on the miracle of Christmas – that God sent his only son to be born “Emmanuel,” God with us.  Us, the crazy, sinful mess we all are. It is a time to think about God’s goodness and love, not just our troubles and failures.  And at times, I have seen God do truly miraculous things for people over the holidays.  I remember one man sharing about how over Christmas vacation his wife’s father took him for a walk and shared that although he was hurt by his son-in-law’s behaviors that he loved him and that he and his wife were supportive of him in recovery. That same father-in-law later became a mentor to this man and helped him greatly, even helping him pay for some specialized recovery programs. I also remember a story about the partner of a gay-identified child. Years after the partner had broken up with the couple’s child, he called them to say that he had left the gay lifestyle.  He said that although his parents were not Christians, the Christian witness he saw through the parents of his partner who had invited him in at Christmas was one of the things God used to call him out of the lifestyle and to Jesus. Our families can be a great blessing to us and to others.  We should look forward to being with them and receiving their love, not fearing their condemnation or judgment.

            If there is a good communication and openness in the relationships with the couples and families ahead of time, than that pink elephant can be shown to the door.  More so, you can find time to reflect on how Jesus loves you and your family and with the angels declare, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).