Christmas, Passover, Thanksgiving, weddings, funerals, birthdays, graduations, reunions, any special occasion… wonderful in theory, but can be challenging in real life. Here are some of the most common types of challenging family event, along with some ideas I’ve learned from my clients on how to cope. No single strategy is right for every person or situation, but hopefully these examples of what has worked for others will give you some ideas.
The moments that you would most want to be with a loved one tend to be the moments that hurt the most, when that loved one has been lost. Here are some strategies that have been helpful for some people:
- Stay home and mope. Seriously. Sometimes when you’re grieving, you just grieve.
- Do something else, something different. Go on a cruise, watch a movie, have dinner with friends, volunteer at a soup kitchen.
- Do the event as usual, and honor/remember the missing person in some way.
Family member who has done harm
It can be hard to enjoy a family event when your abuser (or the abuser of a loved one) is participating. It’s even harder when others in the family knowingly permitted the abuse, and/or sided with the abuser after the abuse was known. Here are some strategies that have been helpful for some people:
- Don’t go. If your family members are still siding with your abuser against you, who wants to hang around for that?
- Let your family members know that you refuse to be in the presence of your abuser. If they want to invite the abuser, you’ll see them some other time instead.
- Go, hold your head high. It’s your family.
- Prepare with your allies in the family ahead of time to be ready to intervene and support you in any possible interaction with the abuser.
(Note that if it is you – or your spouse or child – who has done the harm, others will have a legitimate reason for their discomfort. If you want to overcome that discomfort, that’ll take making amends for harm done, and doing some work to earn back trust. Worthwhile, and off this post’s topic.)
Were political differences ever merely about differences in strategies to achieve a common goal? Or have political discussions always been hot because they represent differences in values? Nowadays such discussions are hotter than ever, because some people’s politics can lead to environmental destruction, injustice, and violence. So if Uncle John advocates for certain politicians or policies, others around the table could legitimately hear, “You want me dead,” or variants thereof. That makes for rough conversation. Here are some strategies that have been helpful for some people:
- Don’t go. Who wants to hang with people who wish you harm?
- Go, and make an agreement with that person to avoid discussing politics. A truce can enable all to enjoy the event and the company.
- Challenge that person’s statements and present your own view. If you do this, do not expect to convince that person. The goal should only be to stand up for what’s right, not to “win” – because winning may not be available.
- Ignore that person’s statements and just tell yourself that they’re an idiot, and that what they say doesn’t matter.
In some families it’s considered impermissible to have a romantic attachment to someone of a different class, ethnicity, religion, etc. In some families it’s considered impermissible to be sexual-orientation non-conforming or gender non-conforming. There are other categories of supposedly undesirable people as well. So some of your family members may be disrespectful or even exclusionary towards you or a loved one. This can put you in a bind because you may wish to maintain the family relationships, but not at the cost of colluding in the harm of the target of the family’s hate. Here are some strategies that have been helpful for some people:
- Show up as if you and your spouse/kids have as much right to the air as any other family member. Then it’s your choice to either ignore the disrespect, or confront it.
- Go by yourself, to maintain some contact. You might not go as often as you would if you had your spouse/kids with you.
- Don’t go. “I’m spending the holiday with my spouse/kids. Package deal: if you can’t respect them, you won’t be seeing me.” Many people end up with some version of this one, because it prioritizes the respect and well-being of their spouse/children. It also leaves the door open, should any of the haters come around.
(I acknowledge that there may be legitimate reasons for family members categorically disapproving of one’s choice of marital partner, for example out of concern that the marriage will not be financially viable, the children will not be raised in the family’s religion, etc. Even so, once the choice has been made, other family members have their own choices about how they treat those involved.)
Just some ideas. Feel free to post your preferred strategies in the Comments section.