Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Tips for Successful Family Gatherings

Now that the holidays are over, how did your family gathering fare? Was it fun and full of happy memories, or are you just glad it’s over? Are you considering never attending another family event? Would you like to forget you even have a family? If so, you’ve come to the right place.

The easiest piece of advice if your family is toxic to you would be to Just Say No, and tell you never to go back, for your own sake and self-preservation. But life isn’t that cut and dried. There are a lot of us who genuinely would like to get along with our families and have our family gatherings filled with happy memories of good times shared. There are also a lot of us, who, for one reason or another, simply aren’t willing or ready to make that kind of a break with our fundamental family ties…because without family, even a dysfunctional family, what are we, but alone?

Nobody likes to be alone. Especially on the holidays, when, according to what see on television, everyone else is out having the time of their lives.

So today I want to offer some positive thoughts and information on things you can do to make your future family gatherings, be they over the holidays or for any family occasion, a little more pleasant.

1. Lower your expectations: Most people go into the holidays with Norman Rockwell expectations and end up deeply disappointed, even depressed and suicidal. Where do most of these expectations come from? Your television. Starting in October, advertisements abound showing happy families gathering and sharing their holiday joy. Keep in mind that these advertisements are designed to sell you products, and are not a realistic representation of what goes on in most families.
Just like skinny runway models are not true representations of the average woman, warm and fuzzy advertisements with everyone laughing and smiling around a holiday table as they pass the food and drink are not true representations of a holiday family gathering. They are somebody’s image of an ideal—and ideals are extremely hard to reproduce in everyday real life.

And don’t blame yourself if your holiday event falls short of the idealized version you see on TV. This is tantamount to blaming yourself for not having a body as hot as your favorite movie star’s. Looking good is what they get paid to do. If you got paid to look that good, you would, too. Any woman can look sexy with the right hair, clothes, and make up. If you don’t have access to the same spas, trainers, dieticians, life-coaches, cooks, housekeepers, nannies, drivers, and secretaries or assistants they do, then how can you expect yourself to look as good as they do?

Same with the happy families on TV. If you don’t have access to the same funds and production crews that they do, how can your family gathering, be it for a holiday or wedding, be as picture perfect as they portray theirs to be? They probably don’t even know each other! They’re just a bunch of strangers acting like a happy family.

So don’t fall for the emotional hype. Work with what you have, and stop trying to imitate some marketing specialist’s unrealistic image of what your family gatherings should be like.

2. Arrive with a smile and determination to look for nuggets of good humor throughout the day. If someone brings up a topic you’d rather not discuss, just smile and say, “Gee, I really haven’t thought much about that lately.” Then excuse yourself to head off for the food and or drink, maybe even asking if there is anything you can bring back for them. (If you're already at the table, pick up the nearest serving dish and offer some food. "Would you like some more mashed potatoes?") Switch the focus to them, in a non-confrontational way. Don’t let them get your goat. Once you’ve returned with whatever they might have asked for, or passed the green beans, just smile and say, “Here you go,” and then move on. Either way, the uncomfortable topic has been diverted.

3. Use the event as an opportunity for growth as a person. Practice the skills of patience, kindness, tolerance, acceptance, and/or self-control. Congratulate yourself every time you manage to take the high road and not snap out at the person who is trying to get you to lose your cool, either deliberately or inadvertently. Use it as an opportunity to learn about how you “don’t” want to be.
4. Set your intention to have a good time, no matter what. Get a good night’s sleep beforehand. Arrive rested and relaxed. Read up and prepare yourself to view the gathering as a spiritual event. One in which you know your spirit will be challenged, and you refuse to let anyone shake your good mood. One of the best books I’ve ever read that has to do with dealing with difficult people is Thank You For Being Such a Pain, by Mark Rosen.
5. Eliminate three words from your vocabulary for the day -- Always, Never, and Ever. The reasons why are explained in this article.

6. Stay sober. I know this is a hard one, because a lot of people use alcohol to get through the day, thinking it’s the only way they will be able to deal with it, but in truth alcohol only contributes to the problem, because it magnifies whatever issues are already on the table, or lurking just beneath the surface.

7. Don’t choose sides in any conflict that develops. Period.
8. Stay away from discussions involving sex, politics, and religion. Arrive prepared with alternate topics to bring up…bring photos of the kids or your last vacation. Anything important to you or your family that you’d like to share. Try not to get your feelings hurt if your efforts to share are ignored or dismissed. Congratulate yourself for at least having the willingness to try.
9. Invite a friend or two who might have nowhere else to go for the holiday dinner. Sometimes bringing new people into the situation will help to keep unruly relatives on their best behavior. Or will at least make them consider restraining themselves in the presence of guests.
10. Drive separately, so that you can escape if need be. If you can’t leave the house, then leave the room. Go into the kitchen and see if you can help there. Busy yourself with clearing plates and empty drink glasses/cans. Or just go and refill your own drink. Maybe spend some time in the bathroom, practicing deep breathing exercises. Go for a walk if you can. While you’re in the bathroom or on that walk, call a friend you’ve arranged to call beforehand if things get dicey. Enlist some moral support, and do it guilt-free.

11. And it may well go against the grain, but if you feel you absolutely must go to the family gathering, then go and aim for one positive encounter during the event, and build from there. Next time aim for two, and privately celebrate your successes. It might take a few years to get where you want to be, but if this is your family, or your mate’s family, you’ll have as many years as you need to, to work on it.
12. Another sanity-saving option is to arrive late and leave early. Simply limit your time with your closest relatives, so that whatever of the above you might be willing to try has a bigger chance of success.

This article from Spiritual Zen has some really good ideas, such as be prepared and have a plan, seek to understand rather than be understood, and know when enough is enough.
And for the less spiritual and more practical among us: Practical Tips for Dealing With Difficult Relatives Over the Holidays
When all else fails, disengage.
Because sometimes nothing less than Just Say No will do. Plan an alternate holiday gathering/event and proceed with it guilt-free, telling your family you’re simply taking a break and will see them next time.


Maggie Toussaint said...

Hey Liana,

Winter holidays are a double-edged sword. We all want that peace and joy, but we often end up with harried schedules, caustic interactions, and failed expectations.

I've struggled with being happy at Christmas for years. I don't know if it's because of my parents dying near Christmas or if it is a lingering vestige of a disastrous Christmas from my childhood. You'd think I would not be affected, but I am.

For me, the route to peace was to lower my expectations. So I don't decorate as much or make six dozen batches of cookies or write as many cards or get the perfect gift for loved ones - in the scheme of things, it really doesn't matter. I focus on the time I have to spend with others. I enjoy not rushing around and I find opportunities to help others.

Great post!


Mona Risk said...


Your tips are interesting not only for Christmas gatherings but in general. I love family gatherings and don'tmind working and cooking for weeks before the family arrives. I conditioned myself that the gathering is for my guests to have fun, eat well and share each other's comapny. My biggest joy is to see the little ones playing together and then everyone telling me, I wish I could stay longer. I had a wonderful Christmas this year in spite of the lousy weather, my daughter falling and fracturing a rib and a sick grandchild. But the general mood was relaxed and happy. My guests stayed for ten days.

Celia Yeary said...

LIANA--I love the title of that book. I think I need to buy it, because the only family I have left are two sisters who don't like me anymore--notice I didn't say "love," for I think they probably do. It's just that they can't get over little tiffs from decades ago. Bah.

When my parents were young and Daddy was still alive, all of us had young children, and we all gathered at their house sometimes during the holidays, and for the most part, had fun. But those days are gone.
We don't travel at Thanksgiving or Christmas and neither do our kids in Michigan. But we're up there at Halloween, and it's almost like Christmas because we take gifts, we take the boys shopping, and we all have a good time.
We spend one day with our daughter and her husband, but she only has grown step-children who are never around. So it's just the four of us and two dogs. You know? We enjoy ourselves very much.
Your post is timely and might give someone food for thought.
Thanks--well done--Celia

Ginger Simpson said...

Great post and most appropriate tips. I've found that most stress is price-related, so cutting the number of gifts we give has helped tremendously. In fact, this year, instead of spending money on things people really didn't need...or probably appreciate, we adopted a couple of friends who are going through very tough times. Hubby and I paid their electric bill, bought them a tank of gas, and I even got to go doll shopping for the first time ever, so my friend would have a gift for her little nieces who she cherishes. I can't tell you what a rewarding feeling that brought to both my husband and me.

A couple of years ago, my siblings pooled their money and went to the Dollar Store and created gift bags for the homeless. On Christmas day they visited places where the homeless hung out, and distributed over a dozen bags. My sister said the look on the faces of the recipients was worth more than any amount of money she and the others spent.

StephB said...

Awesome tips. Let's just say I've learned by trial & error how to successfully navigate my husband's famil (the maternal side) but it wasn't easy. Once I ACCEPTED the fact they were not in any way interested in me or the person I am, then family gatherings got much easier. Now I watch my kids, watch the football games or whatever sports game is on and generally don't talk much because no one wants to talk to me.

I joke with my friends - they don't like me because I'm alien - from New Hamphsire! LOL!!


LK Hunsaker said...

I especially love the too-high expectations tip.

I have to say, though, that engaging in active conversations with family and listening to that as you grow can help you see that differing opinions doesn't have to mean personal separations. Sometimes that happens in families, I realize, but I learned a heck of a lot about developing thick skin and brushing off opposing points of view just from our varied family discussions at get-togethers.

There is something to be said for it. I can love my relatives without agreeing with them. That extended well into outside life.

Fiona said...

Great post. You are right about the insidious advertising. I taught my kids years ago that the purpose of commercials is to get you to want something you don't need, to make someone else rich off of your money. Everyone's family is dysfunctional to some extent. Enjoy the people you are related to, even though it was not by choice. Then skedaddle to be with your friends, the ones you chose!

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Liana,
Great blog and some very sound advice for getting on with difficult relatives.



Sheryl said...

Do you know, when I saw the title of this blog, I immediately thought, ‘smile’. It does wonders to put people at their ease. It also gives the guest or family member who is carrying some historical angst or grudge to reflect and perhaps realise how grumpy and ungrateful they will look if they sit and scowl, bemoaning their supposedly sad lot, and end up spoiling it for everyone--mostly the host or hostess.

I was uber-proud of myself this year. I might have read your blog before Christmas, Liana, because I was beautifully calm, pushing all negative thoughts to the background. I allowed myself some emotional reflection--whist walking my dogs and getting my aims and thoughts in order--as, like Maggie, I have lost people around Christmas. The loss of my brother was a particularly painful one. And then, I got on with the task of not allowing myself to be upset or engage in other people’s problems, ergo making Christmas (three events in all--the main one for which I catered AND organised games, etc, etc) as lovely as it could be for everyone. Yes, I enjoyed this Christmas. Excellent advice, Liana!

Diane Craver said...

Great tips and post, Liana!

Our holidays were wonderful except for waiting until 9:30 on Christmas Eve to eat dinner. LOL I always had Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner for our kids and other relatives. But this time, my son and daughter-in-law wanted to host Christmas Eve dinner after church. We had delicious appetizers while the dinner was delayed due to the lateness of our daughter-in-law's relatives. LOL

Christmas Day was nice except some of our kids had to leave earlier than I thought they would to go to other places.

When our children were small, holidays were rough with trying to make both sides of the family happy. We did a road trip to my parents which was 3 hrs. away and tried to celebrate with both sides for Christmas. We'd hurry have our Christmas in the morning, rush to husband's side for noon, then hop in car to go to my side. It was insane. We stopped and made changes after a few years of this.