The holidays are often a hot-button time for families. This is true now, more than ever, as the pandemic and political divisions are increasing family stress.
Karl Pillemer, family sociologist in Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology and author of Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, studies how to improve family relationships and avoid conflict. Based on his research, here are four tips for a calmer and more fulfilling family gathering.
“The best ‘hack’ for avoiding political conflicts. Here’s a simple way to decide whether to engage in a political debate over the eggnog with relatives. Stop and ask yourself the question: ‘Is there any chance of changing their minds?’ Often, the urge is to make your loved ones ‘really understand’ what’s going on in society and to show them how irrational or wrong-headed they are politically. But it only makes sense to talk politics when it is a reasoned discussion with people listening, and when there is a realistic possibility of changing someone’s opinions.
“The advice from those who have been there is clear: When you are together at the holidays, make contentious political arguments out of bounds. Create a ‘demilitarized zone’ and make it a rule to take noisy and unnecessary political debates off the table. When buttons are pushed on a repetitive and sensitive topic, just saying ‘no’ to the debate is an excellent – and potentially relationship-saving – option.
“Keep your advice to yourself (unless asked). Parents and adult children take note: The holidays are not the time to try to change one another’s lives. After being apart for a long time, you may have saved up all kinds of advice for your relatives. But now is definitely not the time to exhort your child to get a new job, get out of a relationship, or get his or her life in order. And the reverse holds true: This is not the time for adult children to try to convince the parents to sell the house or start exercising. Take a break during the holidays from trying to change one another.
“Create internal emotional distance. A great strategy when the family is together is to de-personalize negative interactions as much as possible. It’s a good time to consciously lower your emotional reactivity. Some family therapists suggest imagining yourself as a researcher in your family who can objectively observe what’s going on. By considering, for example, how parents’ (or parents-in-law’s) background and upbringing influence their attitudes and behavior, it’s possible to take conflict less personally and achieve some emotional distance in the relationship. Parents can take the same approach toward their adult children.
“Focus on the big picture. People who have successfully navigated potentially stressful family situations offer a ‘mantra’ you can use. Tell yourself this: the effort to accommodate your family is one of the greatest gifts you can offer -– both to them, and to yourself. The closest thing to a ‘magic bullet’ for motivating yourself to put the effort into a holiday gathering is to remember that you are doing it because you love your family. Another tip if you are having in-law issues: focus on the fact that they did, after all, raise your partner. Stepping back and taking this larger view can get you through to the new year with a minimum of stress.”