Eight Tips for Dealing with Difficult Relatives over the Holidays

Gretchen Rubin

Every Wednesday is Tip Day on Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project

For many people, the holidays are a joyous time; for many people, the holidays are a dreaded holiday. One factor that can make it tough is spending time with difficult relatives. Here are some strategies for keeping family dinners pleasant:

1. Before you walk into the situation, spend a few minutes thinking about how you want to behave. Don’t just react in the moment; consider how you want to act. If you’ve had unpleasant experiences in the past, think about why they were unpleasant and what you could do to change the dynamics of the situation. You may just need to be more careful about getting enough sleep! If you want a peaceful dinner, think about how to contribute to a harmonious atmosphere. In particular…

2. Think about how topics that seem innocuous to you might upset someone else. You may think you’re showing a polite interest, but some questions will rub a person the wrong way: “So do you have a boyfriend yet?” “When are you two going to get married/start a family?” “Didn’t you give up smoking?” “Can you afford that?” “When are you going to get a real job?” Show an interest with more open-ended questions, like “What are you up to these days?” or “What’s keeping you busy?” Also…

3. Avoid strife. Some families enjoy arguing passionately amongst themselves; however, most don’t handle arguments very well. If you know Uncle Bob’s views on politics are going to drive you crazy, don’t bring it up! 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,” “Let’s not talk about that, and give the rest of the family something to be thankful for,” etc. There is a time and a place for everything.

4. Don’t drink much alcohol. It can seem festive and fun to fill up your glass, but it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re drinking. Alcohol makes some people feel merry, but it also makes some people feel combative, or self-pitying, or lowers their inhibitions in a destructive way. I basically had to give up drinking because alcohol makes me so belligerent.

5. As best you can, play your part in the tradition. For some people, traditions are very, very important; for others, no. You may feel irritated by your brother’s insistence on having exactly the same food every Thanksgiving, or by your mother’s extreme reaction to the possibility that you might not come home for the day. Try to be patient and play your part. In the long run, traditions and rituals tend to help sustain happiness and family bonds. On the other hand…

6. If you’re the one who wants everything to be perfect, try to ease up on yourself and everyone else, so you can enjoy the day, whatever happens. Make the best of the situation. Even f the day isn’t exactly the way you hoped it would be, try to enjoy what it is.

7. Don’t stuff yourself. Research shows that in fact, most people add just one pound during the holidays – but then they never lose it. You’ll have more fun if you’re not feeling uncomfortably full and then guilty about having eaten too much. Think about strategies for staying in control of holiday eating; feeling bad about having eaten too much can make you feel irritable and angry, which spills over into your interactions with other people.

8. Find reasons to be grateful. Be thankful that you get to cook, or that you don’t have to cook. Be thankful that you get to travel, or that you don’t have to travel. Be thankful for your family or your friends. Find something. Studies show that gratitude is a major happiness booster. Also, feeling grateful toward crowds out emotions like resentment and annoyance.

Wait, you might be thinking, these strategies don’t tell you how to deal with your difficult relatives — they tell you how to behave yourself. Well, guess what! You can’t do anything to change what your difficult relatives are going to do; you can only change yourself. Also, in many situations, people behave a difficult way in reaction to something else. So you may think your niece flies off the handle without any reason, but she’s furious because she thinks you’re needling her about her appearance. If you behave differently, she will too.

Have you found any helpful strategies for dealing with a difficult Thanksgiving situation? What more would you add?

5 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Sabrina Friend says:

    Bring along an old photo album and some index cards.  Ask the other family members about the photos in the album, who what where when, how did they feel.  Getting people outside of the present and into other times can bring out the best in them and keep the conversation away from hot buttons or boring repetitions of the same boring stories.
    If you have no photos, ask questions about their past.  What was their wedding like?  Who was the pet that they liked the least, the most?  This can bring you new insight into dull folks and get the irritating people to be less so.  Interview them as if you have never met them before.
    I have video of my parents discussing old photos, it is precious to me as my dad is gone now and I learned that one of my grandmothers was always trying a fad diet.  Who knew?

  2. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Thank God I don’t have difficult relatives .   .   . but inviting a couple of good friends that sparkle and are full of personality and FUN overshadows the grumpy ones.  . if there are such creatures.  Our family is known for good times — and a few of us are always known for killing ourselves laughing. 

    My son has created his own version of all the holidays for everyone.  We don’t ask anyone to bring food — but once there in the large kitchen all the kids and adults have assignments (not called that, of course), tiny or large, that are fun but also learning experiences that will help them as adults.  If something flies off the mixer, who cares — we are leaning against the wall laughing.  He is a gourmet cook but involves the guests in paths of cooking and preparing they have never taken.  When one of the boys has made the mashed potatoes with help, the next kid puts the potatoes into one of those pastry squeezer things and squeezes them out in the last minute in designs on the plate.  As the children get to be teens, they each have a holiday when they carve the prime rib or carve the turkey with help at first — and then another puts parsley along the edge of the platter — and earlier they have put the vast quantity of wonder hor d’oeurves together — always with inventive garnishes.  One way or other we are all involved and proud of our results or laughing at our failures with everyone else.  We celebrate from the moment we walk into the house but no one is alone as we enjoy each other in ways that otherwise would never happen.  What happens is that we bond from group experiences, and always have stories of past holidays and the wild things that have happened.  We have had the 18 foot Christmas tree fall over (don’t ask) — and everyone fell apart laughing as we tried to salvage it the best we could while the 6 strongest righted it again.  It has become a treasured story – not a disaster.

    One year – a surprise – a 9 year old grandson spontaneously suggested that we should sing at the table.  No one had ever done that.  But he – who I had never heard sing – sang the first song and then suggested the next and we found ourselves timidly at first singing and then almost getting boisterous.  We became one — and all because of a young child that must have had a deep heart.  It became a tradition — and binds us and sometimes makes us tearful every time.   

    It is our attitude in life — and it resounds into our everyday attitude and the feelings inside which we call love that binds us.  We gather everyone to our hearts and how could anyone resist that? 

    Anyhow, this is how we celebrate — and we don’t plan things and make them stilted.  We laugh and love — and our hearts are full.


  3. avatar macwoof woof says:

    great suggestions and wonderful comments. bravo.

  4. avatar Linda Myers says:

    Your last paragraph said it all, nice article.