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How to avoid Fighting with your Family this Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has long been a time of coming together as a family, community,and country in the United States.  Steeped in tradition found only in the US we come together to share food, celebrate friendship and family, and cheer on the Cowboys (in Dallas anyway).  This year, we have a unique opportunity to begin to heal some of those wounds that may have been brought on by this year’s election process.  For 18 months, we have been at odds in this great nation.  We have campaigned for our candidate, persuaded strangers to see our side, and unfortunately alienated some people in the process.  On both sides of the isle, supporters have hurled disparaging remarks, and now we are left to wipe the slate and start anew.  This begins now.

We have a choice ahead of us.  Do we continue to condemn our friends, family, and neighbors for their personal political choice, or do we prioritize our relationships ahead of our political views?  We are all going to have to make that choice.  For many, it’s an easy thing to do.  For some though it is more difficult and feels disingenuous.  The question then becomes, “how can we stay true to ourselves, while also respecting those who have different opinions?”  How can we cultivate loving and supportive relationships with those who disagree with us?  Let me also point out that this goes beyond the election.  Families often disagree on any number of issues, and it can be a struggle to come together in peace and feel the connection that only family can provide.  Here are a few ways to make clasping that hand at the Thanksgiving table a little easier.

  • Set Boundaries: I say this so frequently, but it is so important.  We often fear that setting boundaries and enforcing them will cause conflict, but that is only true in the very short term (if at all).  It feels uncomfortable to set a boundary with those you care for, but doing so prevents hurt and increases the likelihood that you will want to continue in that relationship.  Having healthy boundaries helps us feel cared for and respected, while preventing further hurt that can damage our relationships.  Think of what you are okay with and what you’re not okay with.  Is it topics, language, unwelcome hugs?  What works for you and what doesn’t?  Then, enforce that boundary.
  • Maintain Boundaries: Okay, so saying what works for you and what doesn’t in your head is probably pretty easy.  It’s maintaining these boundaries that make the whole thing tricky.  First off, think of why these are important to you.  Let your family members know what the boundary is and why it is important to you.  Then let them know what will happen if they cross that boundary.  For example:  “John, that word is offensive.  I feel disrespected when you talk about people using that term.  The kids and I don’t want to leave, but we will need to if you continue using that word.”  It’s hard to maintain boundaries, especially with people we care for.  However, long term it helps us maintain healthy relationships with our most important friends and family members.  It may take a few times of enforcing such a boundary, (aka, you may have to follow through and leave) but eventually most people understand that you are serious and will respect that boundary.  If they don’t, then perhaps the relationship was not as important to them as it was to you.


  • Do Not Fight Fire with Fire: In an argument or even a minor disagreement, it can be so very tempting to try and convince your opponent you are right and they are wrong by way of fighting fire with fire.  Attempting to force your family member into hurting the same way you are hurting is not conducive with an enjoyable family holiday.  Likewise, raging at another person in an effort make them understand your point is unlikely to be effective.  These tactics only serve the creation of a greater divide.  When you notice a conversation going in this direction you have the right to stop, repeat your previously stated boundaries, and follow through with maintaining those.  You do not have the right to emotionally wound people, nor are you required to allow others to wound you.  


  • Set Your Intention: It is important to understand why you are gathering with family and friends for Thanksgiving or any occasion.  Are you there to connect with loved ones?  Enjoy the day?  Obligation?  Fear of negative consequences for not attending?  Are you there because you truly want to be?  If the answer is, “Yes, I truly want to be at this function, and my goal is to connect with my loved ones and enjoy the day.”  Then your actions must follow through, and your goal must be to enjoy those around you.  This goal outweighs being right, making them understand, and proving them wrong in their convictions.  Trying to draw metaphors or force empathy, “Imagine if XYZ happened to you…,” is not always a bad way to make your point.  However, is making your point at the Thanksgiving table necessary or even likely?  Setting a goal of an enjoyable gathering does not mean allowing people to walk all over your own stated boundaries or harm you.  Rather, this goal is what you fall back on when that urge to fight fire with fire appears because you then have a choice to make.  Do I get into a heated conversation that may damage my relationship or cause me pain?  Or do I hold firm on my boundaries and try to move on to a less complicated topic?  The latter is more difficult to do if you feel that you are only there out of obligation and trying to avoid Aunt Margaret being angry that you chose not to attend.Remember that you can choose to do what is best for you, even if that means ordering takeout, watching Netflix, and skipping the family functions.
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