Is This Normal? Family Conflict and the Holidays

Written by: Ann O'Neill

Is this normal?

  • Do you avoid holiday family gatherings because you’re way behind on your knitting or because you think you may have an unidentifiable rash?
  • Feeling trapped in an awkward silence after Grandma has six martinis for Thanksgiving dinner and begins to discuss all the fellas she could have married besides your Grandpa?
  • Do you catch yourself warning your spouse, “If Dad  (…Cousin Eddie, Your Mother, Father Leo…)  says one thing about national health care  (…vegetarians, intelligent design, Islam…),  I will Let – Him – Have – It?”
  • Notice the overflowing candy dishes in your mother-in-law’s house that no one is supposed to touch?

No other time of the year expects as much from us as the holidays.  We are expected to be joyful, thankful, generous, polite, and culinarily perfect while Cousin Eddie, in a tryptophan/Jim Beam haze, is sharing an inappropriate joke at the kids’ table.  The holidays can bring families together, and they can expose individual differences in stark relief.

What are effective ways to manage family conflicts during the holidays?  This is a great question but first, a tutorial on how families work.

Families function as a system.  The system thrives on sameness. Family members acting in predictable roles ensure the system’s sameness and its perceived survival.  Change isn’t always welcome because change may require members to redefine their roles, and then the system itself would change.   This uncertainty is scary for many.

In addition, the sameness or status quo of a system is often misinterpreted as closeness or being connected with family.  Being close with family doesn’t mean donning the same roles (and traditions, for that matter) with rigid consistency.  Many dysfunctional family systems require mountains of tense silences and oceans of things unsaid in order to preserve the status quo of their systems.

Most likely, we’ve already cast ourselves in new roles than the ones we had in our families of origin.  Are you not telling your parents that you’ve converted to Islam for your fiancé?   Not comfortable announcing that you’ve decided to become a vegan?  That you think intelligent design should be taught in schools?

New roles can be perceived as threatening, especially when holiday gatherings assume all will be joyful and connected.  The tensions between moving back into old roles, asserting new roles, and being all the things the season expects, can be overwhelming.

I have some suggestions

Take what you think will work for your system, but please keep in mind that you have a right to enjoy the holidays.  You have a right not to let the holidays exhaust you.  You have a right to celebrate the holidays in ways you find significant and meaningful.

  • Check your own expectations about family gatherings.
    • Are you anticipating an argument with Father Leo to the point where you launch into the evidence for evolution after he says hello?
    • Do you feel that you’re owed some validation for your sweet potato soufflé or for your recent foray into blogging?  Be mindful that your own expectations don’t sabotage your experience.
  • Accept that you’re not going to change anyone’s beliefs about anything.
    • Politely decline the invitation, however passive-aggressively it may be offered, to bite on a passing jab at your political, religious, or social beliefs.
    • A simple statement of, “No, thanks. I’m not going there tonight.  I’m going to see what’s happening at the kids’ table with Cousin Eddie,” can work wonders.
    • You’ve asserted your position not to engage, and that’s powerful.  Get up and leave the table because often, there will be multiple attempts to draw you into an argument.  Remember, you’re expected to play your role.
  • Don’t let the negative define your total experience.
    • Many people let one negative encounter define an event despite the thousands of positives that happen.  Keep your perspective truthful.
    • Yes, your mother-in-law uses overflowing candy dishes as vehicle for control, but you saw your niece walk for the first time, your sweet potato soufflé was amazing, and you didn’t get into it with Father Leo.
  • Assert your personal boundaries.
    • Just because it’s the holidays doesn’t mean that you have to tolerate cruelty, attacks on what’s important to you, or someone else’s dysfunction.  Be direct. Be calm. Use “I” statements. Keep it simple. Then, change the subject.
    • “I don’t agree with you, and I don’t want to discuss how I raise my children.  Where did you get that recipe for the cranberries?”
    • “I think we have different opinions on abortion, and I’m going to leave it there.  Are you going to Florida this winter?”
    • You can interrupt Grandma, mid-fella story, and say, “I’m going to help with the dishes (…check the coffee, take a walk…).  Excuse me, please.”

Tension and conflict are normal during the holidays.  Managing both so you enjoy the holidays is good health.

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