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How To Deal With Family Conflict This Holiday Season

Holiday gatherings have a gift for drumming up family conflict—and that’s before you add in 20 months of pandemic stress. But with a bit of work (and many deep breaths), there can be peace on the horizon.

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There’s something that happens to me when my older sister starts talking, no matter what she’s talking about. My stomach clenches, my face heats up and I can hear the blood pulsing in my ears. I become snippy and overcritical, and in every sentence that leaves her mouth, I hear a hidden criticism of me and the way I live my life. In short, I regress fully and completely to my teenage self, becoming ferociously insecure and ruthlessly competitive with my sister for our parents’ approval.

In my previous career as a family therapist, I was relieved to find that I am not alone in my experience of spontaneous age regression. Other people undergo this phenomenon, too! Tolstoy wrote that happy families are all alike, while each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way—but, with all due respect to Tolstoy, he was not a family therapist.

Every holiday season brings a wave of clients to therapy, each seeking answers to conflict-themed questions: How do I put up with my mother’s hints that I’m getting long in the tooth and, if I want to give her grandchildren, I need to start trying now? What can I do instead of strangling that sibling who just can’t stop reminding everyone how accomplished they are? How can I possibly deal with being seated next to That Homophobic Uncle at dinner yet again?

The current state of global affairs is likely to create new conflicts among traditionally amicable families and put added strain on historically divided ones. What happens when grown-up siblings disagree on the matter of vaccinations and social distancing? How do Christmas dinner showdowns between left- and right-wing family members look when cancel culture or trans rights get brought up? These questions might be exacerbated for folks who haven’t had to navigate big family gatherings for nearly two years. Not only do COVID politics make things more complicated, but COVID restrictions have also put us out of practice at being with challenging family members.

Family conflict has a way of hitting the heart particularly hard. It often triggers painful childhood memories, can go unresolved for decades and frequently results in many of us getting stuck seeing or hearing about family members we don’t like. So what do we do with this conflict? Is finding resolution—or at least reducing tension and stress—possible? I believe it is, though it frequently requires effort, self-reflection and compromise.

How do we . . . deal with the feels?

Regardless of what your specific family conflict is about, it’s liable to bring up some powerful emotions— even if you’re normally cool-headed. I’ve known veteran psychotherapists, fearless CEOs and hardened activists who were reduced to tears by something a parent or sibling offhandedly said at dinner one time.

Family members have this powerful effect on us because they play a key role in shaping our sense of identity: Family tells us if we are a golden child, a screw-up, “too sensitive,” the baby, the black sheep, or the disappointment. We usually grow up and develop new narratives about ourselves as adults, but when we are among family members, those old stories can rise up and take over again.

The trick is remembering that we aren’t defined by the way our family members see us—or even by the way our family members make us feel. Just because being around my sister makes me feel like the second banana doesn’t mean that I actually am second-best, nor that she really sees me that way. I’ve had clients stock their phones or wallets with notes full of key phrases they want to remember, like “My father’s expectations and my self-worth are different things” or “I am in charge of my own life now.”

When we reclaim our own stories, family conflicts lose some of their emotional power over us and we can begin to shift old patterns and respond in new and liberating ways. Instead of lashing back at a parent who insinuates that we’re not living up to our potential, we can react from a place of understanding that this parent might actually be feeling shame about their own perceived failures. Instead of getting so angry about a cousin with “problematic” political views, we can protect ourselves by maintaining solid boundaries while also staying open to conversations that might change their views.

How do we . . . handle potential safety issues?

Many of us have been raised on the mistaken idea that conflict resolution is about turning the other cheek or making allowances for bad behaviour in order to preserve artificial family harmony. This is particularly painful when potential risks to physical and emotional safety are involved. It’s essential to remember that one perfectly acceptable conflict resolution strategy is to end or limit relationships, especially when safety is at stake.

You don’t have to resign yourself to Christmas dinners sitting next to someone who was abusive to you, and you don’t have to send your kids to play with an adult who isn’t COVID-vaccinated if you aren’t comfortable with it. Nor do you owe anyone explanations when it comes to your safety or that of your loved ones. A simple “I don’t feel safe in that situation” is sufficient—you can choose when and with whom to go into further detail.

How do we . . . set boundaries?

Another major source of family conflict is unwanted expectations or the pressure for us to live up to standards or ideals that don’t align with who we are. This kind of conflict often arises over issues like having children, career paths or coming out as LGBTQ+. When a family member starts to exert pressure on you to do something you don’t want to do, try using a simple two-part strategy: First, firmly and politely set a boundary. Then, hold your boundary against attempts to test it.

It’s human nature to test boundaries, and family members sometimes feel particularly entitled to do so because of shared history. Many of us are raised with the assumption that familial bonds imply some kind of ownership—that because we know someone so well and because they are related to us, we are allowed to drop the social norms of politeness and respect that would otherwise apply. Hence the unsolicited advice, gossip and hurtful joking that negatively impact so many families.

Setting a boundary means offering a clear statement of what you are and are not okay with. In many families, boundaries are unheard of, so you might be surprised at how effective this technique alone can be at stopping unwanted behaviours. Setting effective boundaries involves being direct and honest while refraining from mean-spirited attacks. For example, you might say to a parent who won’t stop badgering you to get on the property ladder, “I know you’re trying to be helpful, but when you keep telling me to buy a home I can’t actually afford, it makes me feel bad. I’d like to change the subject.”

Holding a boundary is when we stand our ground after making that sort of statement. It means refusing the many invitations to return to old patterns of conversation and conflict. For instance, if you have a sibling who likes to make hurtful comments about your love life and you don’t want to talk about it, don’t get into a conversation about your love life. Ignore common strategies they might use to reel you back into an argument, such as “Stop being so sensitive” or “I’m just trying to have a conversation!” These comments are a reflection of the speaker’s issues, not yours. Set your boundary and stick to it: Change the topic; explicitly say, “I’m asking you to stop trying to force me to talk about this”; or leave the room if you have to.

How do we . . . manage political differences?

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Political conflicts with family members are challenging because they bring up fundamental questions of right, wrong, good and bad in a context in which most of us are deeply sensitive to feelings of belonging and rejection. When we tell a family member that their opinion on a sensitive political issue is wrong, what they tend to hear us saying—whether we mean it or not—is, “You are a bad person and you don’t belong in my family.”

Managing political differences in families can take several different forms. Keeping one’s distance, for example, is a powerful strategy that is safety-focused. Sometimes a political conflict with a family member is deeply personal and so painful that it threatens one’s psychological well-being, such as a white family member making racist remarks around a family member who is a person of colour. In such cases, I might recommend maintaining a healthy amount of space, as engagement is unlikely to be helpful.

In other cases, you might prefer to agree to disagree. This means compromising by setting aside political disagreements for the sake of the relationship and focusing instead on common ground. What are the traits you like about one another? What shared interests do you have? If possible, I suggest making an explicit agreement to not go there when it comes to potentially explosive political disputes. Over time, this strategy can create deeper trust and serve as a foundation for building bridges.

As for bridge building, sometimes it can actually serve your familial relationships and your political beliefs to engage in meaningful conversation about political differences. After all, if you can help your family to better understand your position, then you might actually change their views. The catch is that this strategy requires patience and emotional skill. Rather than simply trying to explain why you are right and they are wrong, it’s often more effective to lead with questions and curiosity: Why do they believe what they believe? Where did this perspective come from and what does it mean to them? What would it take to change their mind? This approach tends to be the most fruitful with family members who you feel have a genuine interest in building a strong, reciprocal relationship with you.

How do we . . . mend fences?

Repairing a broken relationship is one of the most re- warding parts of conflict resolution. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to not walk on eggshells anymore?

Relationship repair usually starts with an invitation: One person asks the other to have a brave conversation about what went wrong. Once the other person accepts, the next step is hearing each other’s experiences in order to come to a real understanding of the other’s perspective, needs and hopes. Apologies can help this process, but if you do apologize for something, try not to expect immediate forgiveness. Both forgiveness and repair are a process that can take time. Don’t rush a repair so that you can get to the “good” part, where nobody feels bad anymore. Move at the speed of trust.

Sometimes, family members will signal that they want to repair the relationship: They may ask for it directly, extend olive branches or even cast longing glances at you over the table at a family gathering. These are good signs that a repair will work out. Other times, neither party will know what they want until they try—this kind of fix takes the most courage of all.

Relationship repair requires openness to negative feedback. Generally, a fix won’t work if you aren’t able to really listen to the other person and hear where they feel things went wrong. This isn’t to say you have to uncritically accept everything the other person says, but, in order to shift a conflict dynamic, you have to be able to at least validate their emotions even if you disagree with their perspective.

People often assume that, because I am a mediator, I am an expert at resolving my own conflicts. On the contrary—though I often joke that I’m certainly an expert at getting into conflicts, it’s the getting-out part I still have to work on. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about conflict, it’s that all the skill and strategy in the world won’t necessarily change family members’ behaviours. Paradoxically, that’s actually made conflict less scary for me, because I no longer have to measure my success solely by how others feel about me. I can’t control that. I can only focus on working to be the person I want to be. I can forgive myself when I make mistakes. And I can commit to always trying to do better the next time around.

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