Carving Up the Turkey without Carving Out the Family
Enough already! That’s what many are thinking with the approach of the Thanksgiving holiday.
Last year’s holiday celebrations were tainted by political tension and the threat of COVID. This year the controversy appears to reside with the “vaccinate vs. anti-vax conflict.” Once again families are torn over how to be together when they can’t agree about a significant difference.
As a family therapist, I’m a frequent observer of such quarrels. I get to see both sides—the anger, fear, frustration, and sadness. Although members of immediate and extended families may not agree on important issues, their emotions are remarkably similar.
They are angry because people they care about, and want to be with, don’t share their perspective. They worry the continuing distance will impact their family. They fear losing important time together and grieve the loss. It’s a lot to take on top of everything else that’s changing in the world. That’s often why they come to therapy.
If you want your family to survive during political unrest and pandemic upheaval, you’ll need to rely on some preservative attitudes and habits to make it through dinner.
Think of these as the seasoning that makes everything taste better.
Basically this means avoiding the trap of trying to “logic” someone into your way of thinking.
It may work in a debate or in court where a judge or jury makes a determination about the merits of an argument, but it will not work when emotions are high. At times like these our anxious “fight or flight” brain is often in high gear, preventing us from thinking calmly and rationally about another’s viewpoint. Give it up. Let it go. It won’t bring family harmony. Try another strategy instead.
At times like these our anxious “fight or flight” brain is often in high gear, preventing us from thinking calmly and rationally about another’s viewpoint.
I’m in the position of listening to people tell their stories. They tell me what they think, why they think it, and why they do what they do. It makes sense to them. Although I may see flaws in their thinking, I generally do my best to assume good intentions. They are trying to solve a problem in life and to them what they do makes sense.
Therapy often involves assuming the best of intentions while gently offering an alternative perspective, but you don’t need to be a therapist to use the same approach.
Even though you may reach a different conclusion about why a certain action should or should not be taken, assume that someone else with a differing viewpoint has a good intention in mind.
Even though you may reach a different conclusion about why a certain action should or should not be taken, assume that someone else with a differing viewpoint has a good intention in mind, i.e. they are not deliberately trying to make your life harder. If you want to offer an alternative position, do it with kindness and respect.
When you know you are unlikely to agree with someone on a number of topics, focus on the things where you do agree—e.g. activities you enjoy, favorite memories you share, books or movies you like.
Plan for things you can do together in the time you share. These can include playing board games, cheering on a favorite team, watching a movie, and the like. In most cases we can arrange our time together to reflect the things we enjoy and the places where we agree, as opposed to focusing on our differences.
After all, isn’t our freedom to be different from others really what makes America great, and one of the reasons we give thanks.
Suppose someone at your family gathering does insist on “poking the bear,” i.e. trying to start an argument just for the sake of controversy. There are folks like this. They appear to relish the energy created by an argument.
You can, of course, take the bait and engage. Some families and some relationships can tolerate this kind of tension regardless of the discomfort it may create for others in the room.
In many cases, however, a better approach is to say something like, “I love you too much to argue with you.” You may have to repeat it several times.
The point is, I care about you. I want to have a pleasant time with you. I want other people here to be comfortable.
The point is, I care about you. I want to have a pleasant time with you. I want other people here to be comfortable. For that reason, I’m not going to engage on a topic where I know we both differ significantly. Now is just not the time or place.
In just a few short days families and friends across the nation will begin a series of celebrations—many after a two-year hiatus.
They’ll gather together in a variety of settings. They’ll hug and laugh and cry. They’ll sit around dinner tables, carve up a turkey, scoop out mashed potatoes, ladle on the gravy, and pass the cranberries. Ideally, they will work their way through a sumptuous meal to a delicious slice of pie.
Seasoning your conversation with one or more of the strategies described above will help satiate your desire for family time and avoid indigestion.
Dr. Jennifer L. Baker is the Founder & Director of Good Dads, and a clinical psychologist specializing in couple and family concerns. Dr. Baker is married, has two children and eight grandchildren. She can be reached for comments or question at Jennifer@gooddads.com.