How do we deal with difficult family members or avoid enraging conversations with a certain relative or in-law over the Christmas period? Do we avoid the person whenever we can, excuse ourselves from the room, change the subject, or maybe even call them out?
We’ve all been there – or at least many of us have (and if you haven’t, you got lucky). You’re celebrating Christmas – the day itself, or perhaps Christmas Eve or Boxing Day – with your own or your partner’s family, and someone says something so egregious that you want to stomp your feet and shout at them.
An acquaintance of mine is “driven batty” by an anti-vax in-law who keeps going on about it. Another person recently found out that a relative was anti-abortion. “I don’t want to talk to this person at all anymore,” she says, “and that’s probably obvious to the rest of my family at this point, even though I’ve tried to hide it. I’m dreading any interaction at Christmas, in case it spoils my or anyone else’s day.”
‘You could call your reaction to said relative a seasonal allergy, akin to hayfever brought on by a real Christmas tree…’
Perhaps you have a relative who is a Jordan Peterson fan (if you don’t know who this ‘philosopher’ is, don’t look him up, because his position that ‘men are order’ and ‘women are chaos’ is one of his milder stances). Or perhaps a male relative keeps making sexist statements or criticising feminism; you know, that outrageous belief that women and men should be equal.
You could call your reaction to said relative a seasonal allergy, akin to hayfever brought on by a real Christmas tree, and made worse by high levels of, or prolonged, exposure. So, what are the social antihistamines you need?
The most extreme mechanism is total avoidance. For instance, if you have a partner, you might have Christmas with only one branch of your respective families. Not a goer? Well, you could try to stay as far away as possible from that person for however long you’re in the same house. Make sure, discreetly, that you’re not sitting next to each other at the dinner table.
When you have to interact with the person, and if conversation strays to the objectionable topic, try changing the subject. If they keep talking about it, perhaps use a pretext for leaving the room. You could say ‘bathroom break!” and head in that general direction to calm down.
You might ‘choose your battles’, if possible. Perhaps your yardstick is behaviours or comments you don’t want modeled to your child(ren).
At a point, you may feel you have to call them out. For instance, if they say something racist, homophobic, misogynist or supportive of Donald Trump (to whom all of those adjectives apply), you might tell them why that’s objectionable. How they respond is up to them.
If they’re trying to force their beliefs on you rather than just stating their own, perhaps tell them that everyone has a right to different beliefs and opinions, but they don’t have the right to push those onto someone.
If you do get heated, that’s totally understandable, but if you’d rather not, here are some suggestions from people wiser than me.
Tips On Keeping Your Cool When You Have To Deal With Difficult Family Members
Gretchen Rubin, who has a podcast and blog about happiness, wrote New York Times-bestselling book The Happiness Project, her chronicle of a year ‘test-driving’ how to be happier.
Gretchen has written a blog post about how one of the “biggest happiness challenges” of the holidays is dealing with difficult relatives. “You want to have a nice dinner,” she writes, “but Uncle Bobby makes you crazy”. (Mentally swap out Uncle Bobby for the name of your relative.)
Gretchen’s tips aren’t focused so much on how that relative behaves, but on how you could behave to avoid unpleasant situations. “You can’t change what your difficult relatives are going to do,” Gretchen writes. “You can only change yourself.”
Some of her suggestions:
“Ahead of time, spend a few minutes thinking about how you want to behave” – which might include getting more sleep as we’re more irritable when we’re tired – and “picking a seat far away from Uncle Bobby”. Another is ‘Don’t drink too much alcohol,” (though that can be a hard ask at Christmas).
“Dodge strife,” Gretchen adds. “If you know Uncle Bobby’s views are going to drive you crazy, don’t bring up the subject! And if he brings it up, you don’t have to engage. Try to make a joke of it, and say something like, ‘Let’s agree to disagree,’ [or] ‘Let’s not talk about that, and give the rest of the family something to be thankful for!’ etc.” Fair call. That way you’re being funny as well as topic-avoidant.
Here’s another of Gretchen’s tips: “Think about how topics that seem innocuous to you might upset someone else.” Basically, try not to become that annoying relative yourself.
Dr Abigail Brenner, an author and psychiatrist, wrote the story ‘7 Strategies to Deal With Difficult Family Members’, which is particularly useful if you have to see someone more often than at Christmases. She writes: “1. “Don’t try to fix the difficult person.” 2. “Be present and direct.” 3. “Do encourage difficult people to express themselves” (this may sound counter-intuitive, but maybe they just want to feel heard). 4. “Watch for [avoid] trigger topics.” 5. “Know that some topics are absolutely off-limits.” 6. “It’s not about you, usually.” And 7. “Your own well-being comes first… never allow any personal interaction or relationship to infringe upon or challenge your own well-being”.
Maybe, sometime, you’ll call out your relative for their comments or behaviour, if appropriate. But you might decide not to do that at Christmas, especially if that will upset or irritate other relatives who just want to enjoy the day (particularly whomever cooked most or all of the Christmas dinner). Just make sure you’re not seated next to Uncle Bobby when you’re enjoying your Christmas pud.