8 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Relatives During the Holidays.

Back by popular demand: dealing with difficult relatives over the holidays.

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 views are going to drive you crazy, don’t bring up the subject! 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. In my study of habits for Better Than Before, it became clear to me that many people become very uneasy when they feel out of step with what others are doing, and that makes it tough for them to stick to a good habit. Don’t make someone feel conspicuous or strange in what they’re doing.

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?

  • Mimi Gregor

    Mind you, I didn’t have to try this at Thanksgiving dinner this year, because everyone had a delightful, fun-filled time, but there are holiday parties coming up where I will try this strategy: just abruptly changing the subject. I’ve been watching the series The Blacklist on Netflix recently, and the character played by James Spader does this all the time to my lasting merriment. If someone asks him a question that he’d prefer not to answer, he just ignores it and talks about something else. A complete non-sequiter. After all, only a real bore would continue harping on a topic when you have so obviously went off in another direction. An exchange along those lines might go like this:

    “So… Mimi… what do you do with yourself all day now that you retired early?”

    “Are those Ferragamos? Oh, I just love their shoes! Even the high heels are comfortable to walk in. So ergonomic! May I try them on?”


    “You never had children? Why not?”

    “Are those figs? I adore figs… but only when they are completely ripe and in season. I must try one, though. May I bring you one?”

    As I said, this is yet untested in “real life”, but I am so amused by it on the small screen, that I must try it.

    • Liz

      I love that idea! I may try it when my mother starts on….

  • PolarSamovar

    In a real pinch, play Difficult Relative Bingo. Decide ahead of time what’s on your bingo card, and spend the gathering mentally marking them off. That way when Grandma mentions that she didn’t put on weight after her babies, or asks when you’re going to get married, or criticizes your cousin’s outfit, or defends being rude by reminding you all that she’s going to die soon and you’ll be sorry then — you can think “hurrah, got another one!”

    Doing this with a group of people is unfair unless the difficult relative(s) is/are truly awful. It’s mean to make someone feel that everyone else is enjoying an inside joke about them. But sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.

  • Ellie James

    For anyone suffering from depression, I recommend the Destroy Depression system. Written by a former sufferer of depression, it teaches a simple 7-step process to eliminate depression from your life and it really helped me get my life back on track.

  • Dianne Ochiltree

    I dropped the idea of ‘perfect’ from Thanksgiving this year and had a peaceful, pleasant day. Finally figured out you can’t have perfect and happy in one experience. This year I’m choosing happy!

  • Salina Gomez

    Thank you for sharing – it is that time of the year where there is a lot of joy but can be conflict as well, so this was helpful. It really does all boil to Subconscious Mind Power. Being aware and choosing ones thoughts and actions. Here is some information you may enjoy on Subconscious Mind Power. Thanks again for sharing your suggestions in your article above. Happy Thanksgiving!

  • Great tips! Will definitely come in useful for dealing with family and friends over the holiday season!

  • Anna Catherine Cooper

    I have some difficult things that I worked through. One is I am a very religious person, and practice a faith that is very important to me that no other member of my family belongs to. So, a church service that the rest of my family won’t be going to is my most important thing. So, I decide on what church service I am going to, and plot my schedule around it. Fitting in time with family when I can, but building it around the church service, and rest needed around the trip. I am also traveling and choosing hotels close to the church where the service is held.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I can only say that I am deeply grateful to my dear brother and his wife for being here with us this Thanksgiving, for making the day itself wonderful, then helping me to make a final choice of an assisted living and break the news to Mom with love and firmness. It was a tough thing to do on a holiday, and she acted and reacted — as we all did — with more than just a sprinkling of the ‘difficult relative’ behaviors described above. The next couple of weeks will be a whirlwind, and my brother will be back to help with the actual move. How can I express my gratitude for dancing in the living room, whipping up a great dinner in the kitchen, enjoying dinner in the glow of candles and Christmas lights on a good holiday we won’t forget, and then doing the tough stuff with enough grace to make moving forward possible.

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s a big step, Penelope. Congratulations on making the decision and starting to put it into action. It must have been very tough…but sounds like it was a long time coming.

      • Penelope Schmitt

        Thanks . . . yes, I was writing in my ‘One Sentence Journal’ this morning, and noticed that 2 years ago today, Mom agreed to move in with me. Now she is angry that she didn’t go into assisted living in her home town. Then, she refused to consider it. I am in hopes that when she ‘gets there’ she will find the situation is more pleasant for her than she now supposes.
        I know that this is a change that is needed for her safety and for my sanity. I am glad that we’ve been able to delay it long enough so that her slim resources and her progressing frailty will be much more likely to match up for the amount of time she has left to enjoy a few things in life.

    • Gillian

      Congratulations, Penelope, on resolving this issue. And thank you for sharing your uplifting story. I take vicarious pleasure in your happy Thanksgiving tale. I wish you success in redesigning your life after you mother is safely settled in the care facility.

    • HEHink

      So happy for you that you had the support of your brother and his wife in making this decision. It’s always a difficult one, but much easier when most of the family is in agreement, and working together to act in their parent’s best interest. And I love how you made sure to create happy memories to counter the difficulty of your situation. That’s a strategy to remember!

  • Martha

    I like to knit, so I am definitely going to have my project at hand. When the annoying relative starts up, knitting gives me something to focus my eyes on AND my thoughts. And of course, I can join into any conversation at any time. But when it’s a hurtful or annoying conversation, I can “check out”. I call the yarn my emergency therapy yarn!

    • gretchenrubin

      Great strategy.

  • Diana

    Oh I love this! Thank you for sharing!!!

  • Kirby

    I like that you mention strategy #2. As the recipient of a lot of these questions, I hope a people reading this give it some genuine thought. I also like #7. As a grown up I feel much more conscious of how other people are experiencing the day, is my mother stressed out, is no one talking to my great aunt, etc. It’s nice to make a conscious effort to do something fun for myself.

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