Keeping Peace in the Family

By Benedict Carey, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times
December 1, 2003

One recipe that holiday-themed magazines never include is how to make good wine from sour grapes.

How to take the teeth out of a biting comment from a drunk aunt, how to make a cousin’s bitter memories seem bittersweet, how to get father and son seated in front of the TV so they focus their invective on the football game instead of each other.

Such feats of social alchemy are either left undone, to potentially calamitous effect, or fall upon that long-suffering archetype: the family peacemaker, diplomat, go-between. Perhaps it’s a sister, son or grandparent who tries to oil the social hinges without being trampled like a doormat, and who’s especially needed around the dinner table at Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah.

The holidays are an emotional tinderbox for many families precisely because the pressure is on to comply with the Hallmark-card image of this time of year — warm, loving, familial and full of treasured memories, psychologists and sociologists say. Unlike many other religious occasions or memorial celebrations, they create an expectation of intimate social interaction that often is neither justified nor sensible. That’s why people who fashion themselves as agents of family harmony sometimes prompt or exacerbate the very scenes they’re so desperate to avoid. Artful peacemaking, psychologists say, requires a basic understanding of the illusions and traps inherent in holiday feasts — and how to avoid them.

“One mistake people make is to think this is their one big shot to give advice, to fix a problem for someone else in the family,” said Leonard Felder, a Los Angeles psychologist and author of “When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People” (Rodale, 2003). Holiday meals seem like the perfect time for this, he said, because the whole event revolves around togetherness and healing.

In fact, these are the worst times to ventilate. Mom and Dad are there, maybe, along with brothers and sisters, the spouse and kids, perhaps a close friend or two — any number of the most important people in our lives. Outside public humiliation at the workplace, holiday embarrassment is about as emotionally withering as it gets. For most families, the jealousies and grudges have a history and emotional power that dwarfs everyday squabbles.

“I’ve had patients in their 60s, sisters, who are still locked in jealous rivalry over everything, where they travel, how they remodel their houses, on and on,” said Elaine Rodino, a Santa Monica psychologist. Rodino’s approach emphasizes levity: “Keep the occasion light. Simply do not get suckered into discussing family issues.”

But it’s not always easy to avoid family issues when the gatherings often include multiple branches. It goes without saying that most adult children, when around a parent or sibling, will feel some tension between their current lives and their former identities as boys or girls. In the eyes of a sibling, you may always be the 16-year-old who got stuck trying to crawl through the cat door after a night of drinking.

Sometimes it is the smaller, seemingly unimportant decisions inherent in holiday gatherings that can lead to big blowouts, said Laurence Basirico, professor of sociology and anthropology at Elon University, in Elon, N.C., and author of “The Family Reunion Survival Guide” (Identity, 2003). “Say your family likes to eat at 6 o’clock and clean up after, and we don’t mind the kids watching PG-13 movies and your brother’s family does it all differently,” he said. “It could be they want to order a pizza with everything on it, and you always get just pepperoni. In families that know each other well, with a lot of history, these small disagreements can lead to big problems.”

One moment you’re trying to load an Adam Sandler movie into the VCR to settle the kids; the next you’re caught in a dispute about morality, American culture and the day you got busted at age 12 trying to shoplift a copy of Penthouse.

To better understand how these gatherings affect personal relationships, Basirico interviewed 566 readers of Reunions Magazine, a journal for planning reunions of all kinds. Those surveyed included families across the country who were reporting on their experiences with extended-family reunions — in effect, large-scale versions of holiday celebrations. In his analysis of their answers, Basirico found that many of the most successful and satisfying reunions had something in common: They were highly structured affairs. “Everyone knows the program: at 9 a.m. there’s a hike; at 11, a contest; at 1 o’clock, a cookout,” he said. “You’ve eliminated the decision-making and, by doing so, also eliminated the potential for these family disagreements.”

Felder, the Los Angeles psychologist, takes this idea a step further.

Often, he said, it’s no secret which family member is most likely to light the fuses. In a survey of 1,358 men and women, Felder found that 77% of people reported that there was one person in the immediate family who got on their nerves. Almost 60% of those surveyed said they dreaded a holiday gathering because of a likely personality clash. The solution: recruit help.

Before the event, call family members or loved ones who could act as allies in the event of a family dispute; rehearse tactics for defusing emotional bombs, or at least softening their impact. If dad brings up the crashed Jeep again, do me a favor and laugh, will you? “I call this lobbying for allies, so you have backup if things get nasty,” Felder said.

Some of the standard tips for smoothing holiday dinners are very good ones: limit the alcohol, don’t let occasions drag on too long and pay attention to seating arrangements so that those who don’t get along aren’t seated too close to one another.

The key point, psychologists say, is to recognize that small talk and humor are often preferable to any family “healing” that is so popular among TV talk show producers. It’s the adroit holiday host who can project warmth and intimacy while keeping the conversation safely in the shallows, well above deeper family angst.

Calvin Morrill, a sociologist at UC Irvine who studies group behavior and conflict, said researchers call this adroit superficial intimacy “surface acting.”

“There’s an enormous number of situations where intimacy is expected and people don’t have a full commitment for that,” he said. “But their behavior gives off the sense of intimacy — the smile, the wink, the leaning forward. They’re using all the skills of a good conversationalist.”

In short, being good company is itself a vote for a family cease-fire — and a reminder to hostile parties that they have the rest of the year to bicker.