Thanksgiving is approaching, so let’s talk about conflict in the family.
People don’t always get along in the best of times.
Sometimes you have that relative that does something that is just socially awkward and sometimes there is a pot-stirrer in the family. The person with a serious mental illness or addiction can also add to the conflict. The person who is exhausted or has sensory issues, or is an introvert and their battery is running out… The person who martyrs themselves to put on the meal. The perfectionist, the lazy person, the bigot, the person who gets offended by everything, the person who says offensive things and has no tact, the selfish person, the self-absorbed person and the list goes on…
What is the pattern that you noticed? The person who is behaving poorly usually has a reason or a purpose.
Behavior is purposive. Why do we do what we do? There is a reason, a context for the behavior. That is how we can manage conflict, or if bad enough, avoid it completely. Learn their context, their “why” for the behavior. Once people feel understood, heard and seen, most acting out decreases. Most…
That doesn’t excuse it or mean we put up with it, because sometimes we need those healthy boundaries to mean we leave when the person acts up like that.
We can forgive them and keep our distance to remain safe.
We can still love them and leave their presence when they act poorly. There is nothing noble about being a doormat.
“He didn’t mean to hurt me,” is a common statement in my office after Thanksgiving.
That statement is great. I am glad that you understand that.
What did you do next?
Did you stay and get verbally or physically abused?
“What can I do? We traveled to see them and are staying with them.” (Maybe not travel to see them? Do you have to stay with them? That can create a trapped feeling, when things go badly.)
Did you make excuses for their behavior?
“If they were not drunk, they would not say such things.”
Did you attempt to stop the behavior before you left?
“We have had this conversation before and you just did it again. I don’t want to be around anyone who treats me or my family like that. We are leaving and I encourage you to think about the message you send me and my family when you talk to us like that.”
Did you set up ahead of time what the boundary was and have a plan of action for when the bad behavior occurred?
“We put on our coats immediately when there is verbal abuse. My kids know the routine. I want my kids to have a relationship with them but not like that. We call attention to the statement, it gets acknowledged and we leave. We leave even if the meal has not been served. I always carry snacks and have a backup plan because it is predictable. We have debated not going at all, but I am not ready for that.”
“The guilt trips start and the comments about going to college, weight gain, bigotry come out. My daughter is non-binary and their son is gay and they make those kind of comments. I no longer stay and suffer through those. It is not worth it to me. Frankly, it ruins the holiday for me. I would rather be around people who appreciate me.”
Did you have a code word for people to step in and help out? If you can predict who is going to behave badly, you have the ability to prepare for it.
“When I mention porcupine, I want you to step in and change the conversation or tell me you have to talk to me in the other room. Rescue me from the situation.”
“How about them Yankees,” is a phrase one family uses to change the subject to a topic that has less emotional charge.
Can you take a walk around the block or longer? Can you walk the dog?
“I am going to go take a walk by myself. It might be awhile. See you in a bit.”
“I spent over an hour walking by myself one Thanksgiving. They kept saying things that hurt and I could not get them to stop. I am beginning to dislike my family. We talk about it but they keep doing the same exact thing, as if they don’t understand that hurting people is wrong.”
“Next year, no family… I am going to volunteer at the homeless shelter or go get Chinese food with friends.”
“We are going on a cruise next Holiday.”
Can you take that urgent phone call away from the group? Can you set up a phone call to take place during the time you spend together?
“I have to make a call right now. It looks like it might be really important. I should be back in 45 minutes.”
“There is an app where someone’s name and number pops up on your phone as if they are calling you. I just tell people I have to take this call and I leave.”
Can you shorten the time you intend to spend?
“I am an introvert. My battery lasts about two hours. I wish it lasted longer than that, but I need to get away and recharge my battery or I am not pleasant to be around.”
Empathy does not mean you have to be a doormat.
Sure, choose your battles, but if Thanksgiving means you are trapped or feel like a hostage until they leave or you leave… leave. You can escape the situation in many creative ways, if the situation cannot be fixed or if staying in the situation is harmful.
Yes, calling the police, physical fights between family members and in-laws and worse- are stories I have heard about at Thanksgiving.
People long for connection with people and sometimes their expectations are not realistic. What they want versus what is realistic …
Talk about expectations.
Where is it held and why?
When and for how long?
What is served and why?
Who does prep and what food is done by whom?
Does money change hands?
Is there a situation that should not be mentioned?
Is there someone who needs to be watched or managed?
Are there code words?
Are there expectations about behavior (drinking, pills, smoking, phones) and comments by certain people- no politics?
Talk about it with your crew, as well.
Tell them what you might need and go in feeling rested so you can be your favorite self. Have an escape plan and a plan b. Set up a nap or debriefing afterwards.
As a counselor, it is always booked right after Thanksgiving. “I thought this year was going to be different.” The schedule is wide open because no one thinks they will need to come in. They romanticize Thanksgiving and have euphoric recall and then get surprised by reality and call first thing Monday morning.