The holidays are here! Many—if not most—folks around you are eagerly anticipating family get-togethers and reconnecting with far-flung relations. You, however, are feeling something a bit different—a growing sense of dread.
Family is what it's all about at the holidays. According to a Pew Research Center report, 89% of those surveyed planned to have either a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal with extended family this year. The typical host planned to set places for a dozen relatives; 62% said 10 or more would be present for the holiday meal.
Depending on your family, the traditional holiday dinner can be an opportunity for bonding, or a launching pad for a simmering family conflict. Sometimes both.
You come from one of those family where the dynamic is uneven at best. It’s not quite bad enough to abandon the idea of family holidays altogether. But you approach each one with a certain wariness born of experience.
Just last Thanksgiving, you recall, your sister and her family showed up late—like four hours late—without an apology. The side dish they were responsible for came to the table still in the Trader Joe’s bags into which the ingredients were placed half an hour before. When you opted NOT to delay Thanksgiving dinner another 45 minutes to make the side dish from scratch (after all, the turkey was ready two hours ago), a fight with your sister ensued which resulted in stony stares around the dinner table and pointedly ignored requests to “please pass the salt.”
This year, that same sister is in the midst of an acrimonious divorce (which may explain, in part, the scene last Thanksgiving). But for the "sake of the kids" (said kids being in their late teens) she and her soon-to-be-ex are going to spend one "last" family at your house (they didn't get along during the best of times; just the thought of them together this year turns your stomach into nervous knots).
Something else is added into the mix—your mom, still a minx at 72, wants to bring her new boyfriend to the festivities. There is a slight problem though. She is still “technically” living with her old boyfriend, who has given no indication that he wants to move out. He may not even know she has moved on. But you know he is expecting an invite.
Plus there’s you. You’re your own problem. You’ve been brain washed by nearly 50 years of holiday TV commercials that depict every celebration-themed dinner as the ultimate in family fulfillment. Awe! Stevie is sneaking a Christmas cookie, grinning mischievously while Grandpa looks on with a smile! College-aged Joe surprises his younger siblings by showing up in a snowstorm on Christmas eve! Middle-aged sisters really can put on a fabulous holiday spread, smiling the whole time as their ridiculously handsome husbands gaze on with approval and the cherubic children around the table grin in anticipation.
Your family get-together is definitely NOT commercial-worthy.
As a result, you drink one glass of wine too many, make nervously awkward references to how glad you are that everyone made the time to get together, you enlist your 10-year-old niece’s help with making your famed bacon-wrapped jalapenos for an appetizer and she forgetfully rubs her eye. You grow resentful when everyone leaves you alone in the kitchen to do all the work while they sit in the family room watching football. Your husband comes in with some innocuous question and you respond with a baleful, “Get out of here! If you’re not going to help me then I don’t want to see you!” He glowers while retreating.
Then your Trump-loving brother and your “Bernie-Bro” nephew delve into a topic that all intelligent people pretend doesn’t exist during the holiday season: politics. You can hear the shouts all the way from the family room.
No wonder you’re not excited about the upcoming holiday season! Maybe, you think, you should just scrap all of it and take a last-minute trip to Costa Rica or Belize or somewhere very, very, very far from here. Except you’ve spent all your mad-money getting ready for the “celebration” with your family.
If you really are determined to get together with your family (because, you tell yourself with desperation, this year it’s gonna be fun!) then it might serve you well to read through the following Six Helpful Hints for Handling the Holidays with Family:
Now, all of this presupposes that your uneven family dynamic doesn’t rise to the level of outright abuse or true toxicity where genuine terror may ensue. In that case, you truly may want to skip the holiday traditions entirely—easier said than done, of course. Taking the step of separating from toxic family members is incredibly hard, guilt-inducing and takes tremendous courage. If that is the path you feel you need to take, it is best to work with a professional to help you find the right approach.
As for the rest of us, here's a little bit of dysfunction pretty much in every family. But when family members have good boundaries or they handle conflict in an appropriate way, those little dysfunctions don't come to the forefront (we hope).
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