How To Overcome Uncomfortable Family Dynamics During The Holidays

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Anytime you get a group of people together for an intimate event, there's a risk of friction. When that intimate event is a holiday celebration, and the group of people is your family, you're almost guaranteed to have fire-inducing levels of friction. The combination of history, tradition, expectations, and the confluence of strong but diverse opinions and personalities is a recipe for awkward family dynamics, and how you overcome them for the holidays is no easy feat.

Though ideally, we're all able to harness our most enlightened selves and attain a high degree of patience over the holidays, the reality is that we're actually most likely to devolve over the holidays, falling into older versions of our character. In the same way that sometimes you go home and forget how to clean up after yourself, you might go home and forget how not to trigger your brother or reopen a fight with your mother that's almost as old as you are. Bustle put together a list of common complications that rise within families during the holidays, inspired by a list of suggestions from social media, and talked them over with Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a NYC neuropsycholoigst who specializes in family dynamics and holiday-related stress and anxiety. Because while you can't control how the holidays unfold, you can prepare yourself to be as respectful and empathetic as possible, and you can control the way you react to whatever it is that goes down. Here are a few common themes that people wrote in about, and how Hafeez suggests addressing them:

1. When You Have A Newly Sober Guest

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When someone in the family is newly sober, it can be hard to know how to work around and with that person, without putting them on the spot, triggering them, or making things awkward. According to Hafeez, how to deal with this really depends on how long this person has been sober. If they've been sober for a few months already, it might make sense to have a conversation with them about what works best, ahead of time. But if someone is recently sober, especially in the first 90 days, Hafeez says it's a critical time. "If the newly sober person and the relatives want that person to be part of the holiday festivities, there should be a no drink rule in effect. With multiple glasses lying around, it is just too tempting for the newly sober person and too easy to sneak some drinks without anyone seeing."

While Hafeez agrees that the argument can be made that "they have to live in the real world", she maintains that the holidays are stressful enough. "This may be the individual’s first time ever being sober on a holiday. If they can’t count on the solidarity of their friends and family to back them, who can they count on? By making the gathering alcohol free, they are modeling positive behavior for [that person] that fun and festivities can be had sans alcohol." So if you can rally your family together to be on the same page for a newly sober family member you can both avoid a potentially dangerous situation, and create a new tradition for your family.

2. When You Don't Get Along With Your Partner's Parents

According to Hafeez, having a strained relationship with your partner's parents is incredibly common, and having a supportive partner who will stand up to their own mother for you is half the battle. Oftentimes that's not the case, and the partner is left to fend for themselves, creating tense dynamics both with the partner, and the parent. And while skipping the the dinner altogether might be the path of least tension, it doesn't do anything to change the dynamic, which you'll have to deal with forever.

"If this were a situation where you routinely see your mother-in-law, different guidelines on how to get along and co-exist would apply," Hafeez notes, but because the holidays are essentially one-offs, she suggests "taking all of your positive energy with you. Fake it till you make it. Compliment your mother-in-law. Ask her questions about herself. Show interest in her life. People love to talk about themselves."

Hafeez goes on to say that "when people aim to deflate another, it usually comes because they are not happy with themselves. If you can make your mother-in-law feel good about herself for the time period of one meal, you will probably see a shift in her attitude." And that's why it's important to go, because with such a limited time together, you might be able to change the course of your relationship, at least so that you can keep it light over the holidays.

3. When There's Beef In The Family

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Hafeez tells Bustle that in order to make a household of toxic or pot-stirring family members get along, a lot of preliminary work needs to be done. Each side might feel incredibly justified about being "right," and trying to change anyone's mind for the sake of one meal — that's a long game strategy. But according to Hafeez, you should take the time to speak to each potentially explosive person, before the event, and let them know you're essentially on their side and ask for them to do you a favor by keeping things peaceful.

"If you can predict volatile situations that might erupt, trying to diffuse them on site is never the way to go. You might have to make several difficult phone calls in advance and without placing blame or pointing fingers [...] say 'I know Aunt Louise makes obnoxious comments about your cooking and I feel for you, but please just don’t acknowledge for this evening.'"

4. When You're Not Happy With Your Current Situation

Going to a family event when you're not feeling good about where you are in life can feel incredibly tender. You know you're going to be asked questions and the fear of having to answer those questions might make you not look forward to the holiday altogether. Though it can be awkward for both parties when you dodge these kinds of questions, there's definitely a way to enjoy your holidays, even if you're not enjoying your employment/relationship/life status.

"I appreciate that you are all concerned about me and I know you have my best interests at heart. I just want to clear my head over the holidays," Hafeez suggests declaring to your family, to make things clear and to set the tone. You are not what you do or who you love, so you have the right to just be yourself for the night. "I want to keep things fun and light tonight," is an OK thing to say, according to Hafeez, and it's your right to then change the topic.

5. When Your Partner Is An Introvert, And Your Family Is ... A Lot

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If your family is loud, close, energetic, or even just large, it can be incredibly overwhelming for a newcomer to join them. If your parter is introverted and often gets left out of conversations, or feels uncomfortable during the holidays, it's not necessarily your job to bridge the gap. According to Hafeez, it's important to check in with your partner and make sure they're feeling comfortable and do what you can to bring them up to speed on conversations they might not understand, but ultimately it's up to your partner to find their own footing. What's more, just because your partner isn't saying anything at the table, doesn't mean they're hating it.

"People often mistakenly assume that quiet people are unhappy. There are people who prefer to sit back and observe and only contribute when they have something significant to say," Hafeez explains. "You don’t need to babysit the introverted partner but make sure you take time to connect with them one on one. Introverts value the important relationships they have in their life as they tend to be selective with who they let in and don’t collect acquaintances." In essence, your idea of a fun holiday might not be the same for your partner, so just because they're not having a wild time with your close knit family doesn't mean they can't enjoy the night with some meaningful one on one moments.

Important to note, according to Hafeez, exceptions that apply are if you have a partner with social anxiety. "Then, you must do everything that you can to be supportive and make them feel as comfortable as possible in a given situation. Find out who and what triggers their anxiety and try to mitigate it."

While all families have their own conflict, many potential complications can be mitigated or avoided by a little bit of preliminary effort. Check in with everyone before the holidays, get a sense of how everyone's feeling, what everyone's anxious about, and take some steps to reduce the changes of an awkward dynamic taking the stage during the holidays.

Expert:

Dr. Sanam Hafeez NYC Neuropsychologist, Faculty Member at Columbia University