Managing Tense Family Relationships During the Holidays – Part II

Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

In part I, we discussed the reparative option: attempting to resolve the conflict. Given that these are family members and people that you most likely will see off and on for the rest of your life, resolving conflict is the best option. But there are times when family dynamics are too dysfunctional or the tension is too high to realistically resolve existing conflict. This is when you might want to consider the following two options.

Avoid the conflict

There are times when avoiding the conflict is your best alternative. A prime example is when previous attempts have been made to reconcile the differences and have fallen short, or when emotions surrounding the problem with the specific person are particularly intense. These situations and others probably require the help of other people or even a professional to mediate the conflict. And some of these issues may never get resolved.

So, let’s say you’ll see this person at your holiday get-together. Your approach options can be to:

  • Ignore them and pretend there’s no problem
  • Interact with them and pretend you’re not affected
  • Treat them like they have a communicable disease and stay as far away from them as possible

I recently talked with a man in this situation. He owned a successful business and for a period of one year employed his wife’s brother as a salesman. The brother-in-law abruptly quit the company one day because he felt the owner treated him unfairly. Many words were exchanged and attempts to work it out failed. The conflict became worse and eventually ended in legal proceedings. At the next holiday gathering, the two men were both present, as usual, but neither made any effort to talk, or even acknowledge each other.

While this may seem like an explosion waiting to happen, it was the best option in this situation. Both men wanted to attend the holiday event to be with family, yet neither had any interest in talking with each other. The owner of the business was pretty sure that if he avoided his brother-in-law at the family gathering, there would be no scene that would spoil the event for the rest of the family. He was correct and the evening went as well as could be expected.

There are many legitimate reasons you might choose to avoid a family member. The tricky part is being honest with yourself. Have you truly reached a dead end in your attempt to reconcile or are you merely afraid to confront the person? If it’s the latter, keep trying. Once it becomes clear that your efforts are going nowhere, rest in the fact that you’ve done what you can.

Celebrate with other “family”

Up to this point we’ve talked about handling difficulties with one person. But what if the family itself is the problem? Some families have serious issues ranging from negative attitudes to a history of abusive behavior. Just the thought of spending even a few hours at a holiday gathering with your family feels like a tortuous experience. When the aversion to being with family members is this strong, it’s worth looking at other alternatives for the holiday.

Sometimes good friends feel more like family than your blood line does. Seek out supportive people in your circle of relationships that might be interested in getting together for the holidays. Organize a meal, gift exchange, or other activity. Be a “family” member for someone else less fortunate than you. Use the time you would spend at your traditional holiday event and volunteer to help those at a shelter, food kitchen, church or other community outreach.

The holidays will be what you make of them. If you choose to suffer through tense family relationships for yet another year, then you can do so. But why not take control of your holiday time? Make peace with your family members. When this is not possible or the family dynamic is too toxic to be around, find other people to celebrate with. It’s not who you spend the holidays with that matters most, but the love you share with one another.

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