Dear Sophia: How to survive my family’s holiday gatherings?

When experiences and views of loved ones differ, how can we still enjoy each other's company?

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Dear Sophia:

I love my extended family deeply, but the longer I have lived away from them and had my own life, the more difficult it is to sit through holiday gatherings. I have had different experiences of the world and don’t agree with my family’s views any longer. I don’t want to argue with them and just want to enjoy what we do share. Can you help?

Sincerely,

Aching Heart

Dear Aching Heart:

The comedian George Carlin once said, “The other night I ate at a real nice family restaurant. Every table had an argument going.” When you get two human beings together, even from the same family, there are bound to be differences. Our families are where we first learn about the world, and we take those expectations and behaviors—functional and dysfunctional—with us wherever we go. As you are discovering, dear Aching Heart, moving away from one’s original family system can create new perspectives and inspire growth and change. This also creates grief because things that you and your family took for granted when you were growing up are no longer shared. It is a tough place to be. I admire that you want to stay connected and try to have positive experiences this holiday season.

Expectations and goals

The first thing I suggest you do is clarify what your goals and expectations are for each gathering. This will shape how you approach the situation. Sadly, just because you want to enjoy what you have in common as a goal, Aching Heart, does not mean everyone else does. The only person you can control at these events is yourself. I encourage you to think about the following:

  1. If you are hosting the event, you can put rules in place for what you talk about during meals or other activities. It is helpful to be clear and kind when sharing these, preferably before everyone gathers. Focus on your goal for the gathering: To enjoy what you share and make new, special memories this year. Decide what to do if a topic of conflict arises: Redirect? Remind them of the rules? Reiterate the goal of the gathering? All three? You get to decide.
  1. If you are not hosting the event, discern what you are willing to do when a hot topic begins to be debated. Are you willing to say that you are not talking about it and change the subject? Are you willing to get up and leave the room if they continue to talk about it? Are you willing to engage the subject with curiosity and respect? 
  1. In each scenario, I also encourage you to make a plan before the event about how you will be able to make time for yourself to cool down or take a break from more intense family members. If you are hosting, perhaps have games, a favorite family movie, or other tradition—like a walk or charades—at the ready to keep people focused on creating a new memory instead of sniping at each other. If you are not hosting, make sure you have a car, room, or other way to leave the festivities, if needed. 
  1. You may also need to adjust your expectations. Uncle Joe is known for getting drunk and going off the rails at family gatherings. Grandma Sally has learned the wonders of the internet and wants to tell everyone about conspiracy theories she has discovered there. Or, God forbid, a family member resorts to overt bigotry and hate speech. It may be difficult to expect any of those folks to respect your requests, so you need to adjust your expectations and decide what you will do when they behave accordingly. Perhaps the old adage, “If you propose to speak, ask yourself: ‘Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?’” would be a good guide in these circumstances, as well as a plan for physically exiting the conversation, if needed.

What if I want to engage?

If you have the bandwidth and you want to engage in fruitful conversation, Aching Heart, then you have to slow things down to the heart level and not get caught up in arguments at the head level. The Episcopal Church has a wonderful free resource available to you called From Many, One: Conversations Across Difference. This comes out of 1 Corinthians 12:14 – the body is not made up of one part but of many – and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s assertion “Conversation with others across difference is not just a nice thing to do. It is a spiritual practice of love in action.” I agree. This is also the spiritual exercise of seeking Jesus in all persons, especially when it is a perceived enemy. And sadly, in this day and age, someone who disagrees with us is often seen as an enemy instead of another human being coming from a different perspective.

From Many, One is simple, but quite profound. It relies on these four questions:

  1. What do you love? 
  2. What have you lost?
  3. Where does it hurt?
  4. What do you dream?

The four questions also have sub-questions which can be found in the resource. These questions could be used as a conversation game—either in a one-on-one conversation or as a group. You may all be surprised at how much you still have in common and it would hopefully accomplish your goal of enjoying your time together. Staying curious and being somewhat vulnerable may be difficult at first, but others may follow if you take the lead, Aching Heart. 

By focusing on your own behaviors and staying curious and kind, I hold hope that you all will have a very happy and healthy holiday season!

Faithfully,

Sophia

  • Danáe Ashley

    The Rev. Danae M. Ashley, MDiv, MA, LMFT is an Episcopal priest and marriage and family therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, Minnesota, and is currently a priest in Seattle and a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC (www.soulspaseattle.com). Danae uses art, music, drama, poetry, and movement in counseling, spiritual direction, and creation of ritual. Her interfaith Clergy Care Circles for therapeutic group spiritual direction directly supports diverse clergy in varied circumstances across the country. Danae's favorite past times include reading, gardening, traveling, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke.

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