Eight Tips for Dealing with Difficult Relatives over the Holidays.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Eight tips for dealing with difficult relatives over the holidays.

For many people, the holidays are a joyous time; for many people, the holidays are a dreaded holiday. One factor that can make it tough is spending time with difficult relatives. Here are some strategies for keeping family dinners pleasant:

1. Before you walk into the situation, spend a few minutes thinking about how you want to behave. Don’t just react in the moment; consider how you want to act. If you’ve had unpleasant experiences in the past, think about why they were unpleasant and what you could do to change the dynamics of the situation. You may just need to be more careful about getting enough sleep! If you want a peaceful dinner, think about how to contribute to a harmonious atmosphere. In particular…

2. Think about how topics that seem innocuous to you might upset someone else. You may think you’re showing a polite interest, but some questions will rub a person the wrong way: “So do you have a boyfriend yet?” “When are you two going to get married/start a family?” “Didn’t you give up smoking?” “Can you afford that?” “When are you going to get a real job?” Show an interest with more open-ended questions, like “What are you up to these days?” or “What’s keeping you busy?” Also…

3. Avoid strife. Some families enjoy arguing passionately amongst themselves; however, most don’t handle arguments very well. If you know Uncle Bob’s views on politics are going to drive you crazy, don’t bring it up! And if he brings it up, you don’t have to engage. Try to make a joke of it, and say something like, “Let’s agree to disagree,” “Let’s not talk about that, and give the rest of the family something to be thankful for,” etc. There is a time and a place for everything.

4. Don’t drink much alcohol. It can seem festive and fun to fill up your glass, but it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re drinking. Alcohol makes some people feel merry, but it also makes some people feel combative, or self-pitying, or lowers their inhibitions in a destructive way. I basically had to give up drinking because alcohol makes me so belligerent.

5. As best you can, play your part in the tradition. For some people, traditions are very, very important; for others, no. You may feel irritated by your brother’s insistence on having exactly the same food every Thanksgiving, or by your mother’s extreme reaction to the possibility that you might not come home for the day. Try to be patient and play your part. In the long run, traditions and rituals tend to help sustain happiness and family bonds. On the other hand…

6. If you’re the one who wants everything to be perfect, try to ease up on yourself and everyone else, so you can enjoy the day, whatever happens. Make the best of the situation. Even f the day isn’t exactly the way you hoped it would be, try to enjoy what it is.

7. Don’t stuff yourself. Research shows that in fact, most people add just one pound during the holidays – but then they never lose it. You’ll have more fun if you’re not feeling uncomfortably full and then guilty about having eaten too much. Think about strategies for staying in control of holiday eating; feeling bad about having eaten too much can make you feel irritable and angry, which spills over into your interactions with other people.

8. Find reasons to be grateful. Be thankful that you get to cook, or that you don’t have to cook. Be thankful that you get to travel, or that you don’t have to travel. Be thankful for your family or your friends. Find something. Studies show that gratitude is a major happiness booster. Also, feeling grateful toward crowds out emotions like resentment and annoyance.

Wait, you might be thinking, these strategies don’t tell you how to deal with your difficult relatives — they tell you how to behave yourself. Well, guess what! You can’t do anything to change what your difficult relatives are going to do; you can only change yourself. Also, in many situations, people behave a difficult way in reaction to something else. So you may think your niece flies off the handle without any reason, but she’s furious because she thinks you’re needling her about her appearance. If you behave differently, she will too.

Have you found any helpful strategies for dealing with a difficult Thanksgiving situation? What more would you add?

* Yes, it’s holiday time! If you’re giving The Happiness Project, email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com, and I’ll send you a personalized, signed bookplate for the recipient. Or ask for one for yourself! Just be sure to include your mailing address. Feel free to ask for as many as you want, and yes, they’re free.

  • unemployed

    After two years of unemployment, I am tired of getting asked about the job hunt. So I’d like to applaud your recommendation to ask open-ended questions like “What is keeping you busy”, etc. The truth is the job market is near impossible. So broaching the topic is likely just going to make the unemployed person feel bad. It’s commonsense, but we are much more than our careers. And to those of us that lost jobs that were very important/meaningful, it’s very painful to discuss… even with those we love. Wishing everyone a happy, heartfelt holiday!

    • Peninith1

      Here’s hoping that long wished for job comes your way very soon!

  • Hi Gretchen.

    It is good to take into account the mindset that no one, not even relatives or friends, can ruin your time if you don’t let them.

    Also, your point there about not stuffing yourself is a smart one. There is a tendency to stuff yourself because everyone else is, but the smart person thinks past the short-term made-up holiday time period and keeps in mind their overall health.

    You’re also right that there is no need to spoil the tradition of others, even if you are not too intent on fully joining in.

  • Guest

    Thank you Gretchen for reminding us to do our part and “own” our happiness. I was about to have my holiday ruined when i started thinking about how stressful it would be to see one of our guests tomorrow. I will try to focus on the positive, think about how i want to act and behave and not allow that person bother me.

  • Sister

    I really appreciate these thoughts. I have one difficult relative who makes me dread and want to run away from family holidays. I will be spending quite a bit of time with her tomorrow and I need to think through not only what her expectations are and what mine are but how I can avoid reacting to the paranoid ideas that she plants in every conversation.

  • Cam

    I needed this advice. Thank you! One tip I have found really helpful for dealing with nosy relatives came from a magazine. I ALWAYS get asked by my grandmother if I’ve met anyone “interesting” lately (translation: when are you going to start dating someone?). Then comes the guilt trip about “all my friends have great-grandchildren and none of my grandchildren are even married yet!” etc. So the magazine’s advice was to respond with a light, humorous touch instead of getting offended or overreacting. Response: “My goodness, I feel like a celebrity with so many people interested in my life and weighing in on my choices. Excuse me, my limo is here!” Then exit the conversation.
    The first time I used this, I have to say it didn’t really work, as my family thought I was crazy and just continued to talk about me after I left (but was still within ear shot). But now, they know it’s my trigger response when their questions are too personal and annoying, so luckily we just laugh about it now and they back off a little bit.
    I’ve also found it helpful to respond honestly, even if a bit sarcastic, such as “Well, better to wait and marry the right person than to have settled on someone not good enough!” Or, “Yes, you don’t have great-grandchildren but isn’t it great than none of us had children out of wedlock?” (a no-no in my family). Sometimes, that illicits a “Yes, that’s true” and end of conversation.

    • gretchenrubin

      Such good advice to try to use humor. It’s very hard, especially when you
      feel annoyed (or at least it is for ME), but taking a light tone really can
      defuse a tense conversation.

  • jenny_o

    I think that these tips can apply to any get-together, whether holiday or not, and whether it’s family or office or friends getting together. Great advice!

  • These are great suggestions. I have to do #2 all the time with my parents. They can be set off by the smallest things. I talk about the weather a lot. And even that can be tricky. 🙂

    One of the things that helps me with them is before I see them, I say out loud three things I appreciate about them. It creates a sort of filter or pretty veil that softens the impact on their less pleasant attributes. 🙂

  • Kathleen

    As always, good advice Gretchen. Happy Thanksgiving!

  • Ann

    Great tips…I need a 9th one though… My mother is always complaining about my hair. I’m not wearing a radical hairstyle, wierd hair color or mohawk. It makes me angry. Its like having dinner with the hair police. Any suggestions on that one
    PS She lost her own hair several years ago – perhaps she is just transferring her own issues onto me.

    • gretchenrubin

      That is so specific! How will you handle it? At least you know what to
      expect! Good luck.

    • jenny_o

      Ann, maybe you could ask your mother how she thinks you should wear your hair – no promises to change, but just to find out what she is comparing you to. And you could also be right about her being focused on your hair because she has lost hers. Good luck with this one.

  • Tracy

    I love this Gretchen. Thank you – and Happy Thanksgiving!

  • That’s funny Gretchen that you are actually telling us how WE should behave, lol!
    Hope everyone has a great holiday! No fussing!

  • These are nice. I don’t really have difficult family members (and we live far from family, anyway), but we all have to interact with people we find difficult sometimes and these are good tips. I try to remember that in my everyday life I pretty much get to choose who I associate with, so if I need to be at a meeting, party or event with someone I don’t really enjoy, it’s just a small snippet of my overall life and hence, no big deal. (It’s also a good excuse to practice the Buddhist principle of Loving Kindness– trying to have compassion and some understanding for everyone, even those who we struggle with).

  • Mpahope

    Here’s another way to deal with difficult relatives. Limit the time of your visit. When you’re invited for dinner, you don’t have to stay until bedtime. Put a time limit on your happy family reunion, sufficient to satisfy your mother or whoever is hostess. Four hours might be good, considering all the trouble and expense the hostess has exerted. You would stay longer if your family is small. But find out when you are expected to arrive, eat, and then calculate how late your children can stay up. Decide before you go and don’t be late–that’s not a strategy for avoiding difficult relatives.

    Surprising to read, Gretchen had to give up drinking because it made her belligerent. The strategy of leaving at a predetermined time might have solved that problem. In other words, if your limit is two glasses of wine, don’t start drinking too early. Although some hosts will offer wine before they take your coat! You can say no early in the day but, to be sociable when everyone else is drinking, including grandma, it is a shame to give up drinking, especially when you are eating delicious foods.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a great idea. Even just knowing that you will be there for a
      particular amount of time might make it more fun (or endurable). The inertia
      of leaving often means that people over-stay their limits — adults as well
      as kids.

  • I think that holiday gatherings are a great place to get to know relatives that you only see a couple times a year. Seeking out your uncle’s new wife, or a cousin who doesn’t make it home often will make them feel included and might start a new relationship.

    And I love Cam’s advice from the comments – don’t have any conversations you don’t want to have. You don’t have to answer any questions you don’t want to or respond to comments that make you uncomfortable. Just be pleasant, change the subject and move on.


  • jenny_o

    I try to talk to each person even if it’s a brief conversation. It makes me feel “in touch” with everyone and it’s surprising to me that even those few minutes of talking make me feel like I “know” people better and am less likely to internally criticize them. I am introverted by nature so this is not easy for me to do, but I always feel better by doing it and closer to all my inlaws and outlaws 🙂

  • LivewithFlair

    We keep busy playing games. And we write poems about being thankful for even stuffed olives! Here’s mine: http://livewithflair.blogspot.com/2010/11/even-olives.html

  • @elizabethcraft

    Gotta say it. I’m thankful that I have no difficult relatives! Let’s hope it stays that way.

    • Grace

      Gotta say it – isn’t Elizabeth Craft Gretchen’s sister? Tell us Elizabeth, does Gretchen really get belligerent when she drinks? Tell all…

  • Heidi

    Thank you, as always, Gretchen. This was the perfect blog for me today. My husband’s family is a group of big drinkers. I find I always need to join in and last night was no exception. Without going into details I can tell you that it was not a happy ending. I was so disappointed with myself and my husband who is a sweetheart told me to use this as a learning experience instead of beating myself up. And then I read your blog and the blog you wrote on giving up drinking. It is time that I find other avenues to deal with stress at work etc. This is why I chose to read your book in the first place. I just need to commit to following through and this is my start. It will be difficult during the holidays to pass on the wine but I need to take better care of me and be a responsible model for my son. Thanks again Gretchen!!!

    • gretchenrubin

      Good luck! I hope it makes the holidays easier and happier.

  • Nice list, but I’m completely against number 4 during the holidays!

  • These are all such great tips, Gretchen. No matter how many times you tell yourself that the holidays are going to be drama-free… things come up. Thanks for this – it ‘s such a good reminder, too, that you can only control *yourself*… Hope you and your family are having a great holiday weekend! – Stacey

  • Brendabomgardner

    Love your suggestions.

  • ametrine

    I love that last paragraph –

    ” Wait, you might be thinking, these strategies don’t tell you how to deal with your difficult relatives — they tell you how to behave yourself. Well, guess what! You can’t do anything to change what your difficult relatives are going to do; you can only change yourself. ”

    So true, yet so easily forgotten.

  • One quick trick I do when I know there will be an unpleasant individual in my midst is to remember everyone loves to talk about themselves or give advice…so I start asking questions. Where are you from? What is your favorite holiday? Tell me about your kids or grandkids. I love your shirt, where do you shop? Do you think I should buy my kids the Wii or the XBox?

    These are usually benign questions, avoid the religious or political arenas or your unpleasant individual could turn into a troll! Anyway, you might actually learn there is a positive side of this person…and if you are lucky you will make a friend or heal a stressed relationship. Happy Holidays everyone.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a very good suggestion — take control of the conversation and keep
      it in a place that’s interesting and constructive.

  • Mary

    I bake pies for Thanksgiving, and never eat more than my one plateful of food, because I’m saving room for dessert! I’ve never had more than 2 glasses of wine — after that I switch to water, and of course a cup of coffee with the pie 🙂

    Re: the difficult relatives — I’ve stopped traveling to visit family for the major holidays and we visit at less fraught times of year. We’ve made our close neighbors our ‘family’ at the holidays and they are much more enjoyable. I do better with shorter weekend visits — my mom and I have about a 3-day limit and then it gets more strained. For 3 days though, we can be happy together.

  • Xuelangzhe

    Good post. I am also going to write a blog post about this…I enjoyed reading your

    post and I like your take on the issue.

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  • Nata

    I think another one is come with open mind and heart and something to do. I always found it nice to bring some dected out dessert, or a board game, or something that everyone can be included in and can enjoy. A friend of mine who is bar tender brought stuff and taught everyone to mix their favorite drinks. 🙂 It draws attention away from difficult situation but also can get everyon invovled with something other than themsleves and enjoy each other. I remember one year at Thanksgiving I suggested we rake leaves before THanksgiving dinner and then we go for walk afterwards to start working off those pounds. It works great and everyone was enjoying themselves.