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Most of us dream of having a wonderful extended family that sparkles with love, good humor, and mutual support. But families can become less than ideal–sodden with jealousy, resentment, and dependency. Some are flat-out toxic, and some really don’t care about one another. Holidays bring out the best and the worst, because we deal with what is.
Certain cultural traditions bind family members together, whether or not the members agree, cooperate, or even like each other. I’ve seen family gatherings in which hostile feuds are ignored (not forgotten) while people share competing potluck dishes and chat about how tall the children have grown. Other times a certain amount of shouting and cursing is expected. In those traditions, blood is more important than disagreements. Staying together regardless of the details is a family choice that can continue through generations.
Other families opt to float apart like astronauts untethered and drifting off into limitless space. When the family is marked by physical and emotional abuse, destructive selfishness, substance addiction, or violence, I would think the greater the distance, the better. Learn what you can from the situation and get out—not necessarily in that order.
Many of us, however, have neither an ideal extended family nor a toxic one. If the people who believe in reincarnation are to be believed, ongoing relationships are like throwing a deck of cards in the air and then waiting to see how the face cards land. In one life you might be the mom. In another you could be the brother or Aunt Hattie. The important part is the effort put into making the relationships of the moment work. Relationships work best when lubricated with respect and sensitivity.
Different families have different comfort levels both for the kinds of topics that are suitable and how open the conversation can be. Some families are not at all comfortable talking openly about anything more intimate than the weather. Others discuss intimate details of life over the mashed potatoes. Being crowded together over a holiday weekend (with or without alcohol/drugs) can push people who don’t usually talk about much into full-blown arguments everyone will regret later. When you feel your blood pressure rising as a conversation begins, change the subject, change the mood, or find a reason to walk away.
My family just enjoyed a joyful holiday—by choice. We include people related by birth, marriage, and friendship in the core group. We want the people who attend to care enough about one another to avoid preaching about the few subjects on which we know we disagree. We don’t worry about excluding people who can’t tolerate diversity without rolling their eyes. When the conversation wanders close to touchy topics, we make our comments less pointed. We accept without criticizing. When we have long hours to spend together, we may resort to playing silly board games, taking nature walks, and/or watching sports on TV. The point is for everyone to feel at ease and have a good time.
Most of us will have one or more family gatherings in the next several weeks. Remember why you’re getting together. If you dislike your family intensely, why not consider switching to a gathering of friends, instead? Wouldn’t it be soothing to have certain relatives stop speaking to you? How can you work around the individuals you dislike without derailing the mood of the celebration? Once you give yourself permission to be the best of the person you are inside (as opposed to someone your family expects), you’ll have an easier time predicting and creating happy holiday times, as well as attracting the people who are ready to enjoy being with you. When you’re comfortable within, you create comfort.