This week we bring you a blogpost from the Good Dads archives. This article was originally published last December, but we think you’ll find that the topics we cover here are relevant every holiday season!
Enough already! That’s what many us are thinking while in the thick of the holiday season.
The last several holiday celebrations have felt … different. With a backdrop of social and political tension, pandemics and less-than-uplifting global events, it can seem as though 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 unrest and 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.
1) Leave the “logic” at home.
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. Let it go. It won’t bring family harmony. Try another strategy instead.
2) Assume good intentions.
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, 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.
3) Focus on making good memories.
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, etc. 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.
4) Don’t take the bait.
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. 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.
Through the end of the year, families and friends around the world will engage in a series of celebrations. They’ll gather together in a variety of settings. They’ll hug, laugh and cry. They’ll sit around dinner tables, exchange gifts and make cherished memories.
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 a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy. She is also the Founder and Director of Good Dads. She can be reached for question or comment at email@example.com.