Updated: December 3, 2012 8:49AM
Sometimes feeling the joy of the season isn’t as easy as TV commercials suggest.
The holidays can be an especially stressful and uncomfortable time, especially for the suddenly single or newly widowed, newlyweds trying to establish their own traditions and estranged family members who are reluctant to join the family festivities. Divorced and blended families, single parent or same-sex families also can be faced with challenges during the “hap-happiest season of all,” as the song describes it.
Not only are we operating under the notion we should be happy, but for some of us the season means we’ll be expected to all be under one roof, sometimes for days at a time, with the same people who are most able to push our buttons.
To avoid conflict during the holidays, it’s important to seek out common ground instead of dredging up past grievances during get-togethers. “Your mission as either a host and a guest at a family gathering is to keep the peace and try to find things you like about a family member that everyone else is prepared to dislike,” said Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and co-author of the 18th edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette.
For instance, if you know the gathering will include a new spouse, same-sex partner or unruly stepchildren, welcome them into your family and give them a chance, says Post. “You might not like them or want them in your family. But you have to accept the reality that they are now part of your family and the best way to keep the peace is to make an effort to get to know them. And if you do, you may be surprised to find you may share many common interests.”
However, if you feel that detente is not possible within your family you might consider another option. Maybe it’s time for new celebrating traditions limited to immediate family and friends who might otherwise be alone.
According to social psychologist Dr. Susan Newman, author of The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever, there is still another way to avoid dysfunctional family gatherings. The solution lies in one simple word: no. It eliminates the need to push yourself to the max or to spend the holidays somewhere other than where you want to be.
“Learn to put yourself and your family first and say no to family gatherings you know will likely become toxic — then don’t obsess about the consequences,” said Newman. “Most people are understanding, especially during the holidays. And, if they’re not, do you really want them in your life? Remind yourself daily that ‘no’ is extremely liberating and needs no explanation. And to say it is your right.”
It’s important not to be wishy-washy about any decision that involves changes in family tradition. “People are not mind readers. No one knows that you object unless you say so,” she added. “There is nothing wrong with wanting to eat Christmas dinner at another family member’s house this year instead of yours or declining to host the annual New Year’s Day party.”
It’s not the holidays themselves that are the problem. Rather, it’s our expectation that we are at fault if our family doesn’t mirror the traditional Norman Rockwell image of the picture-perfect and apparently conflict-free families. So when your aunt insults your hairstyle, your brother cracks racist jokes, or your nephew sulks when he doesn’t get his own way, this idealized picture is shattered.
These troublemakers have had years of experience learning just what buttons they can push to get a rise out of other family members. You can make a difference by stripping them of their power over the entire family by not allowing yourself to be baited into behavior that is out of character.
To avoid a confrontation, you also can try and resolve differences before and not during any family party. Make a phone call, send an email or write a letter in an attempt to make peace before you go.
If this fails, strategize in advance and come up with some appropriate responses to defuse the situation and break the cycle. Then practice them until they become automatic. You also can also enlist other family members to do the same thing. If their remarks have disrupted family gatherings before, this should not be a hard sell.
Another strategy is to go on the offensive rather than always being defensive. Sometimes noticing others and redirecting the conversation to them can defuse conflict.
And whatever else you do to keep the peace, never initiate a discussion of either politics or religion, two topics guaranteed to stir passions and wreck havoc on all your peacemaking efforts.
Jean Guarino is a local free-lance writer.