Credit: Brad Holt / Flickr Creative Commons

On Thanksgiving, Family Tension and Cranberry Sauce

November 21, 2012

I am so excited about Thanksgiving. There are going to be plates and plates of beautiful and delicious food, and my family will gather around it in our Sunday best and exude love for each other as we reflect upon the many ways in which we are blessed.

I mean — there’s a first time for everything.

Somehow my expectations never quite match reality, which is very common according to Dr. Robin Ohringer, a Cambridge psychotherapist with 25 years of clinical experience with children and adults. She says that movies and television almost always depict holiday dinners as fun and loving, while in reality most people have at least one family member everyone dreads spending time with, not to mention the fact that most families tend to rehash the same arguments they’ve been having for years.

In my family, the recurring argument is about arguments. My father, a retired attorney, enjoys nothing as much as a “spirited debate,” as he might call it. The rest of us would call it a fight. Partly because these “debates” tend to involve raised voices, mocking laughter, and our emphatically unwilling participation. So really, it’s more like a hostage situation. But on the plus side, there is usually cranberry sauce.

Then there are the personality changes that accompany the holidays. Spending time with your siblings at your childhood home practically guarantees that you will regress. These days it’s a little difficult for me to force my baby brother to put on a dress and play “tea party” (since he is 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, I would probably have to ask him nicely. And I’d probably have to invite his wife.) But just because I can’t make him do things doesn’t mean I can’t be bossy. And given the proper motivation I can still throw tantrums with the best of them. Even though I display Buddha-like levels of maturity the rest of the year, it’s hard to maintain the Zen around the people who have to love you no matter how you treat them.

If you’re from a competitive family, you have the added layer of one-upmanship. I’m lucky — I don’t feel competitive with my brothers because I am secure in the knowledge that I had the best SAT scores.

Then there are the relatives who can’t control themselves. Like my aunt who, apropos of nothing, cracked herself up with the suggestion that I wear a sign in the subway that said “single and desperate.” That was helpful.

One strategy that I have adopted (and that Dr. Ohringer endorses) for fighting the fighting is inviting an outsider to attend your holiday gathering. People tend to be on their best behavior around strangers, so your family will be much less likely to repeat toxic patterns. And it has the added benefit of being a very nice thing to do for someone who would otherwise spend a holiday alone. Divorcees, widows, foreigners and people who live far from their families are all good candidates. Unfortunately, this strategy didn’t succeed for one of my friends. Once when she was a teenager she brought a date home — and all of her adult relatives got too stoned to carve the turkey, so her 16-year-old boyfriend had to do it.

If your family has a toxic routine, Dr. Ohringer suggests adding new activities to the day, such as going to watch the local high school’s football game or serving patrons at a soup kitchen. If you can’t leave the house, try assigning different tasks than usual to your family members. Pair them up with people they don’t usually interact with. Any change has the potential to shake up your family’s negative pattern.

But as frustrating as our families can be, they’re not all bad. The reason they can push all our buttons is that they know us better than anyone else. And isn’t it nice, albeit in a slightly twisted way, that they care enough to keep track of each and every pet peeve, sore spot, and humiliation in our entire lives? If that’s not love, I don’t know what is. 

For more advice, read our Q&A with Dr. Ohringer for tips on how to navigate your family thanksgiving.

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