But some families have deeper problems than others. When alcoholism or other addiction, divorce, suicide, abuse or other trauma or tragedy happens, everyone in the family gets hurt. And the hurt can reverberate for generations. Sacred family gatherings can get soiled as old hurts replay, often unconsciously.
“So often in these families … there is so much disappointment because people get their hopes up high in fantasies that this time our family will get together and be a happy, loving, healthy family,” Walfish said. “And we all come with our baggage and the tapestry of the history of our childhoods, and unfinished business.”
How to avoid getting entangled in snits and feuds, yet still be open to sharing Christmas love and joy? Walfish and other psychotherapists, counselors and conflict specialists suggest you develop a plan, with ready-made responses to nettlesome situations. It helps you refrain from taking bait that leads to trouble.
“¢ First, drive yourself to the gathering. Don’t count on someone else to drive you home.
Set reasonable arrival and departure times. Consider limiting your visit to two hours, if need be. A time limit helps you be more thoughtful and inhibits reflexive, reactive responses, Walfish said.
Have a ready-made reason to leave, whether it is stating you have to work the next day or you have someone else to visit.
“Escape plans are really smart. Just have a Plan B and an escape plan, so that you have something you can say,” said Rebecca Daniel-Burke, director of professional projects and career services for the American Counseling Association. “It might be viewed as an excuse, but that’s OK. It gets you out.”
“¢ If someone raises a topic you are not comfortable discussing – be it personal, politics or gossip – just say so, Walfish said.
“What you say is, ‘I’m not comfortable talking about that,'” she said.
Walfish’s other suggested replies: “I’m not comfortable walking that road or proceeding in that conversation.”
Keeping peaceful, boundary-setting phrases in your back pocket helps, Walfish said.
It can be as simple as saying “I don’t know” when asked what you think about a sensitive issue or what your position is on a controversy.
“It’s not unusual for people to provoke old stuff at family gatherings. So it’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know’ for the sake of peace,” Walfish said. “That’s my feeling. You can say, ‘Gee, I don’t know. I’m going to give that some thought.’ You don’t have to answer it right away. You’re not on the witness stand.”
Another response if put on the spot about a divisive topic: “You know, there are 10 people sitting here at our dinner table, and I’ll bet there are 10 different tweaked points of view, and I think in our family we have to agree to respect differences, or we just have to agree to disagree,” Walfish suggested.
Whatever you say, it’s important to keep your tone of voice good-natured and kind, she said.
“¢ Resist giving opinions or taking sides when asked about the latest family drama.
Laurie Puhn, lawyer and author of “Fight Less, Love More,” suggests saying something like: “It’s a tough situation, but it’s something you have to work out together. I don’t have a place in that discussion.”
Don’t be surprised if the other person persists, she said. Be ready to repeat yourself. If the person tries to back you into a corner by implying your silence signals agreement with something, Puhn suggests the answer: “I’m not agreeing. I just don’t have a place in that discussion.”
“¢ Unwanted advice about your career, kids or weight can be peacefully deflected, Puhn said.
Her suggested response: “Thanks for your opinion. I will think about it.”
This shows appreciation, and benefits you in another way.
“The person giving you their opinion doesn’t feel the need to keep repeating themselves,” Puhn said.
Be confident, she said, and remember this visit too shall pass.
“You don’t have to convince anyone else of your right to have the life that you want. When you walk out that door, your life is what you want it. You’re only in that space a few hours,” she said. “So the pressure you feel to defend yourself should be alleviated knowing how great your life is out the door.”
“¢ If we have felt disappointed about past Christmas gatherings, we may need to change our expectations.
“There’s a collision that happens during the holidays and the collision is between fantasy and reality,” Daniel-Burke said. “We have so many things that are feeding our fantasies around the holidays. When you turn on the TV, and you listen to Christmas carols, you get into kind of a reverie and you want to think of things as ideal.”
You can still hope for a wonderful time. But you also can avoid a letdown by accepting that you may not have a wonderful time, Daniel-Burke said.
“¢ Be what Walfish calls a “curious conversationalist.” Instead of talking about yourself, ask family members about the things they are involved in.
“¢ If things get tense, cool down in another room, Walfish said. Excuse yourself for a bathroom break or take a walk.
“The key is to remove yourself … All of us have automatic, knee-jerk reactions when we’re immersed in our family dynamics,” Walfish said. “And it’s very easy to be blind to them, and when you’re blind, you’re in it and you’re caught. So remove yourself and get unstuck before you’re in the thick of it.”
Or in a tense situation, you can simply state you are feeling you are on overload and want to chill out and enjoy the turkey.
“And then you can get up and go to the kitchen and help clean up or serve,” Walfish said. “Take an action that takes you away from the fighting. It’s always helpful to take an action step and walk in the opposite direction of the line of fire.”
“¢ “Find some of the good moments in between the bad ones. Remember why you are there,” Puhn said. “You’re there for the good moments.”
Don’t become so obsessed with setting boundaries that you miss being a witness or participant in a sweet moment. Accept that things will happen that you may not like. You are not at the gathering to change a relationship or establish your identity, Puhn said.
“The event is not about you. It’s not about making you happy,” Puhn said. “Keep your eye on the prize … the five minutes you’re in the kitchen preparing turkey with your mother and she shares a recipe that’s special or you see a grandparent with a grandchild.”