Managing Tense Family Relationships During the Holidays

by Gary Gilles

managing tense family conflict during the holidaysFor many, the holidays conjure images of family happily gathered around a home cooked meal or relaxing in front of a warm fire. But for others the family scenes they envision are of perpetual conflict and tension. What some consider a pleasant, memory-making time, others view as a nightmare to endure. Tense family relationships can not only spoil a festive holiday for the ones in conflict but possibly for the entire family.

So what can you do? Plenty. If you’re the one in conflict consider yourself in the driver’s seat. You have the ability to steer this conflict where you want it to go. This doesn’t mean it will work out the way you want. It does mean that you can take action to try and change the way it’s affecting you and possibly those around you. The choices you make will probably depend on your needs and how willing the other party is to engage with you on working it out.

Here are three suggestions for dealing with various types of relational conflict between family members over the holidays.

Resolve the conflict

Often the best alternative is to try and resolve the conflict. It’s not the easiest solution but it offers the biggest payoff. And considering this is family, someone you will potentially cross paths with for the rest of your life, it’s worth the effort.

Conflict is never easy or enjoyable but the quickest path to a real resolution always begins with someone taking the initiative to start the conversation. So, let it be you. Don’t wait for the other person. If you don’t know how to start, simply tell the person you sense tension and want to clear the air in order to have a better relationship.

You have the best chance of having a meaningful conversation if you follow these guidelines:

  • Invite the other person to explain their perspective first without countering or correcting them. This immediately eliminates defensive bantering back and forth that usually leads nowhere.
  • Give them your undivided attention. Step into a quiet place where there are no other distractions.
  • Listen for the emotion in what they are saying and try to empathize with them (even if you don’t agree). For example, say the person tells you with an angry tone that they felt ignored by you the last time you were together. You may not feel this is accurate but your goal is to empathize not argue. So you could say, “So, it sounds like you are angry with me because I wasn’t very attentive to you at the get-together last week.” The emotion is usually the core of what they want you to hear and understand. When you reflect it back to them it shows that you heard that core emotion.
  • Ask follow-up questions to further draw out the person’s concerns. This sends the message that you really want to understand their concerns by getting a larger context. You could say, “How would you have liked for me to have interacted with you that day?” Follow-up questions show that you are working hard to understand them.
  • Inquire about what they need in order to resolve the conflict. This keeps the conversation moving forward toward resolution.
  • Be willing to own your part in the conflict. As hard as it might be to admit, take responsibility and admit your error, if there is one.

Up to this point the conversation might sound very one-sided, and it is. You are deferring your comments initially so you can send the message that you care and are willing to listen. But, now you’ve earned the right to be heard as well. Ask if you can share your viewpoint. If it differs from theirs, which is probably will since there is a conflict, be gentle in how you express your disagreement. You want to honest but sensitive to what they’ve just told you.

There is nothing magical about this approach but it usually works out favorably to help both parties come to a better understanding of each other and at the very least agree to respectfully disagree.

If the tension in your relationship is long-standing or complex it probably warrants one or more discussions before the holiday gathering. You might suggest meeting over coffee or lunch with the same intention: to work toward a better relationship. You can’t control their response, but you can control yours. Your responsibility starts and stops with doing what you can to close the relational gap. The other person must also do their part for complete resolve to happen.

If you go to this family member with a humble attitude and a sincere desire to reconcile the relationship, chances are very good that you will find healing between you. If the other person is unwilling to work it out, you can still have the satisfaction of knowing you acted responsibly with your part.

Trying to resolve the conflict should be your first approach. But, there are situations where this isn’t possible or preferable. In part two of this article, we’ll talk about two more options for managing tense family relationships during the holidays.

Avoid the conflict

There are times when avoiding the conflict is your best alternative. A prime example is when previous attempts have been made to reconcile the differences and have fallen short, or when emotions surrounding the problem with the specific person are particularly intense. These situations and others probably require the help of other people or even a professional to mediate the conflict. And some of these issues may never get resolved.

So, let’s say you’ll see this person at your holiday get-together. Your approach options can be to:

  • Ignore them and pretend there’s no problem
  • Interact with them and pretend you’re not affected
  • Treat them like they have a communicable disease and stay as far away from them as possible

I recently talked with a man in this situation. He owned a successful business and for a period of one year employed his wife’s brother as a salesman. The brother-in-law abruptly quit the company one day because he felt the owner treated him unfairly. Many words were exchanged and attempts to work it out failed. The conflict became worse and eventually ended in legal proceedings. At the next holiday gathering, the two men were both present, as usual, but neither made any effort to talk, or even acknowledge each other.

While this may seem like an explosion waiting to happen, it was the best option in this situation. Both men wanted to attend the holiday event to be with family, yet neither had any interest in talking with each other. The owner of the business was pretty sure that if he avoided his brother-in-law at the family gathering, there would be no scene that would spoil the event for the rest of the family. He was correct and the evening went as well as could be expected.

There are many legitimate reasons you might choose to avoid a family member. The tricky part is being honest with yourself. Have you truly reached a dead end in your attempt to reconcile or are you merely afraid to confront the person? If it’s the latter, keep trying. Once it becomes clear that your efforts are going nowhere, rest in the fact that you’ve done what you can.

Celebrate with other “family”

Up to this point we’ve talked about handling difficulties with one person. But what if the family itself is the problem? Some families have serious issues ranging from negative attitudes to a history of abusive behavior. Just the thought of spending even a few hours at a holiday gathering with your family feels like a tortuous experience. When the aversion to being with family members is this strong, it’s worth looking at other alternatives for the holiday.

Sometimes good friends feel more like family than your blood line does. Seek out supportive people in your circle of relationships that might be interested in getting together for the holidays. Organize a meal, gift exchange, or other activity. Be a “family” member for someone else less fortunate than you. Use the time you would spend at your traditional holiday event and volunteer to help those at a shelter, food kitchen, church or other community outreach.

The holidays will be what you make of them. If you choose to suffer through tense family relationships for yet another year, then you can do so. But why not take control of your holiday time? Make peace with your family members. When this is not possible or the family dynamic is too toxic to be around, find other people to celebrate with. It’s not who you spend the holidays with that matters most, but the love you share with one another.

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