8 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Relatives During the Holiday Season.

Holidays can be tough. Some people love them; some people dread them.

I thought a lot about the holidays as I was writing Happier at Home, because the holiday season tends to be a time when we focus on home. Maybe you’re going “home” the way I go home to Kansas City for Christmas–which may be fun for you, or not. Maybe you’re deciding how to decorate your home. Maybe you’re making an effort to arrange the holidays the way you experienced them as a child–or the opposite. Maybe you’re feeling sad, or happy, about whom you will or won’t be seeing.

From talking to people, it seems that one of the biggest happiness challenges of the holidays is dealing with difficult relatives. You want to have a nice dinner, but Uncle Bobby makes you crazy. What to do?

1. Ahead of time, spend a few minutes thinking about how you want to behave. 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. Get more sleep. Give yourself more travel time. Pick a seat far away from Uncle Bobby. 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 girlfriend 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. Dodge strife. Some families enjoy arguing passionately amongst themselves; however, most don’t handle arguments very well. If you know Uncle Bobby’s view of the election is 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.

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. And if other people seem to be trying to avoid or curb their drinking (or their eating, for that matter), don’t make a big deal of it or urge them to indulge.

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 your suggestion to eat dinner an hour earlier. 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. Even if the day isn’t exactly the way you hoped it would be, try to enjoy what it is. My mother once told me, “The things that go wrong often make the best memories,” and it’s really true. And too much fussing to make an experience “perfect” can sometime ruin it altogether.

7. Find some fun. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is Just because something is fun for someone else doesn’t mean it’s fun for you, and vice versa. If the time with your relatives is meant to be fun, make sure you’re spending at least some time doing something that’s fun for you. Working in the kitchen, playing touch football, sitting around talking, running errands, watching the parade on TV — these things may or may not be fun for you, no matter how the rest of the family feels.

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. Be grateful for electricity and running water. Find something. Studies show that gratitude is a major happiness booster. Also, feeling grateful toward someone crowds out emotions like resentment and annoyance.

Wait, you might be thinking, these strategies don’t tell me how to deal with my difficult relatives — they tell me how to behave myself. Well, guess what! You can’t change what your difficult relatives are going to do; you can only change yourself. But when you change, a relationship changes.

Have you found any helpful strategies for dealing with a difficult relatives? What would you add?

  • Annie

    Limit your time. Have an exit strategy.. Remember that you are choosing to be there, and know exactly why you’re making that choice. Lower your own expectations – this is not going to be a Hollywood movie version. Be prepared to be bored and annoyed. Plan a do-over feast later over the weekend with just the people and all the dishes you want.

    • peninith1

      Don’t know about that ‘do over’ meal suggestion. My mother in law used to make a full Thanksgiving meal on Wednesday so that she could do it FIRST at her house and then we would all go over to my husband’s aunt’s house the next day and have virtually the same dinner again. It was all about control. Make sure, if you do something like this, that you are doing it for the satisfaction of ALL.
      That said, sometimes the Friday after take out pizza night can be more fun and festive than the big day!
      If I’m visiting, I always try to have a small piece of hand work or a book so that I can find a quiet corner if the family circus gets too busy. As for what happens at the dinner table, I can manage to mind my tongue and keep my opinions under control for that hour or so. It’s do-able and worth doing.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great points.

  • Jeannie

    Pretend you’re an archeologist studying a bizarre tribe of people. That way, you won’t be surprised by some of the outrageous antics of your relatives. Instead, you’ll be intrigued, as a scientist would be upon making a discovery — “Wow, THAT was a crazy thing to say!” or “Hey, I thought I’d heard everything, but that line takes the cake!” As Gretchen’s mother would see it, the more wacked things you observe, the better stories to tell your friends when y’all compare notes later. Don’t ever think that the person is attempting to irritate you personally. They’re not. Just enjoy the absurdity of it all and keep your emotional distance. On the flip side: be fully present with the guests and relatives you DO love. They will be gone before you know it. The only “good” thing about the past 2 Thanksgivings with my terminally ill parents was that each year, I knew it would be the last Thanksgiving with each of them. Puts a lot of petty annoyances into sharp relief, that’s for sure. This isn’t a Hallmark card, everybody. It’s real life — messy and amazing.

  • Mrs. Dubose

    I tend to be on the opposite spectrum of my brother’s and their wives political views and they love to throw stuff out there to see if I will react. I just decided years ago that I wasn’t going to engage in these discussions anymore. All of our kids are older now, so I tend to hang out with them– we play charades, I catch up on all their lives, and I enjoy it so much. It makes me closer to all of them and I have found what is fun for me. I love your books and your writings so much. Happy Thanksgiving!

  • Anne

    I developed a coping mechanism in my later years, and not just during holiday season… I tend to see people who drive me crazy or who I find annoying as caricatures (an exaggeration of reality no matter how real they really are). It defuses the seriousness of whatever they are trying to be so serious about. I am so much more patient now and can be kinder by giving them my attention. I smile a lot more, too. Have you ever noticed that the Dalai Lama smiles all the time… I wonder if he copes in the same way 🙂

  • ruthdemitroff

    A lovely thing that my family has started doing since I became a widow is to say, “We need mom to look after the babies and the rest of us will get dinner on the table.” The turkey gets heavier and the logistics of getting everything on the table at the same time gradually becomes more complicated. My kids visit often for the weekends as there is distance involved. I give them money to do the shopping and they come back with what they truly like to eat. At night, I put the babies to sleep near me and give them a precious night of uninterrupted sleep. With a little thought, it is possible to create win-win togetherness time. My grandchildren are 2, 1, 1, 11 months with 2 more babies on the way so grandma watching the babies is a good thing. Kitchen time/additional time with the grandchildren – give me the babies.

    • Jamie SC

      this was really sweet ruth. I’m glad you have such a loving family and that you work together in this way.

  • Antonio Catalfamo

    If possible: enjoy your difficult relatives. They might become less difficult.

  • what if you need to spend x-mas time with the daughter and/or son of your new lover? you find the son a dud, the daughter frigid. their relationship with their father is valid to the extent that he picks up the bill, but he never receives a gift, nor frequent phone calls. however, the divorced father seeks their love and wants me to feel warmly toward his adult kids. i can only tolerate them when they show up at his home, but i refuse to spend christmas in their presence. no, i’m not difficult, but i like fun, affectionate behaviour towards loved ones, and interesting conversation. my lover does not like my attitude, and he is sulking.

  • peninith1

    What if I start by entertaining the fancy that I myself might be viewed by another or others as ‘the difficult one’? What might I do differently?

    • peninith1

      Yep — I learned yesterday that the family had decided to share casual remarks about gratitude throughout the afternoon and evening rather than have a formal moment at dinner . . . because my son didn’t want to see me cry (I’m an awful weeper). So there you have it . . . I WAS ‘the difficult one.’ Another female relative and I chuckled over this in the kitchen and that was the only tense moment I observed in a day full of about 18 family members from 94 to 7 years old. What a lovely Thanksgiving for us all!

  • LizH

    I know you’re familiar with Oliver Burkeman already, but did you see/hear the podcast he did with Slate? Really great point of view on how to be happy from an Eeyore perspective. I’m guessing a lot of Thanksgivings were filled with Tigger/Eeyore disagreements.


  • mj

    Ummm, just stay home and live the life you want to live…works for us. Drama free thanksgiving.

  • holley gerth

    Thanks for this timely post as we think back on Thanksgiving and start getting ready for Christmas!

    I just finished reading Happier at Home. I just wanted to say I’m grateful that you’ve written another insightful, helpful book for all of us. In it, you shared how you have always loved miniatures and I have a little theory about another reason why. 🙂 Your books are like miniatures–you take these big concepts and put them into words that we can hold in our hands, fit into our lives, and be delighted by because we see them from a while new perspective. Keep it up, girl. You’re doing fabulous work and we all benefit.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much for the kind words! You put your finger right on the kind of project that I love to do – something huge, with lots of different sources, that all need to be brought together in a manageable way. Exactly!

  • Katie

    My other tip is kill them with kindness. I have had an off and on relationship with my MIL but once I started being unfailingly nice no matter how she acted, she started doing the same and we have been great!

  • Veronique

    I have a glass of wine perhaps three times a year. I don’t believe in relieving tension with drugs or alcohol and for me the only way to deal with a problem is by defining it and finding a way to deal with it… however the one exception I have made to this rule is dealing with my incredibly high maintenance, high strung mother-in-law when she visits on holidays. I have defined the problem. Her nervousness saturates the house and puts everyone on edge. So I tried mentally preparing myself before her arrival, being positive, finding things to occupy her, making sure I am rested, accepting we are different and really being nice but by day 2 of her visit I am gritting my teeth. Her nervous energy permeates the house and drops on anyone near her. My husband gets tense, my son gets tense and well yep I get tense. I really can only change myself but by the end of her visit my husband and son are crawling the walls compounding the issue thus problem and making it difficult to fix. Now some may say the problem is her and don’t invite her anymore but she’s my husband’s mother and that is not going to happen nor should it. I have found the best solution for me is to have a glass of wine in the early afternoon when she is visiting. It really takes the edge off her visit. She is not going to change if anything she is more nervous and high strung now than she was fifteen years ago so this is my solution as faulted as it is.

  • Linda Davidson

    Love your helpful hints to navigate family holiday gatherings. Being grateful does help us view the world more positively. I also believe you can find something to be thankful for in every person. What makes life interesting is that we are all different, and we can celebrate these differences.

    Linda Davidson

  • afanofgretchenrubin

    For number 6 if all goes too perfectly, that doesn’t leave room for funny stories to tell later on hence mom is right…it does make for good memories!

  • Joyce Oxfeld

    I would like to be more comfortable with other’s , while internally not being an ‘approval seeker’. That gets me in trouble. When I feel confident enough in my own inner sense, of being ‘OK’ with my own decisions, ethics etc, this would I hope be more effective in being upset by other’s behavior or personalizing what I shouldn’t be. Being more of an observer, I think is an advantage, in many ways than an active participant in the ‘limelight’. I studied and tried to make a career in the performing arts. I am noticing, while don’t want to lose skills as a musician. Being around performing personalities, does not often bring out the best in me. I am subject to awful performance anxiety anyway. I really need the preparation time to handle difficult situations , whether generated by me or others.

  • Donna Deal

    I’ve learned that as hostess (the old fashioned word) I can create a specific mood by setting the structure. Before dinner, during apps and drinks, state to the room:”Today our theme for starters is Christmas memories. Turn to the one closest to you, and share your memory, and listen too!” Then at the table, after sharing grace, offer up another suggestion for conversation: favorite Christmas meal? Of course conversation will take it’s own course, but you can start everyone off in a pleasant direction, which will affect tone, and perspective. If something unpleasant arises, listen out of concern, don’t overreact, and again steer the topic if possible. Graciousness above all things.

    • Kim

      Wow, Donna
      What a great contribution to the discussion. I really appreciate you writing your thoughts on the situation and how to deal with it as a hostess.
      Even though this original post is four years old, this is an excellent addition to the way of dealing with difficult relatives (and. sometimes, friends!)
      Merry Christmas and happiness throughout 2017.