Striking a conversation with Ernie, a retired ENT doctor from Long Island, on our recent trip to New Zealand, I learned that his lawyer daughter works for the government in litigation. “Oh, tough place to be right now,” I said. “How does she feel about how things are being handled?”
“We don’t talk about it,” he said, hesitating. Then he added, “I’m sure she doesn’t like it. Her father is a big Democrat.” He didn’t have to say his and his wife’s sympathies were on the other side of the aisle. The sad look on his face revealed the pain of this divide. I decided it best not to follow that line of conversation and moved on to less tension-creating subjects.
And politics is often not the only hot-button topic in families. Some family members may have long-term, deep-seated issues among themselves that make it difficult to get along. There’s the opinionated aunt who gets into everybody’s business and tries to run their lives. Then there can be a Granddad who doesn’t approve of his grandson’s lifestyle, whether it’s as frivolous as his haircut and clothes, or as serious as his sexual orientation. Or there’s Cousin Dan’s sensitivity about not being able to find a job after graduating college and being pressured to talk about it.
So when the family is gathered for Thanksgiving, what can they do to keep the peace?
Many, if not most, families find “not talking about” many topics the best solution given today’s contentious times. Peter Moore puts it this way in the October/November edition of AARP The Magazine: “We’ve been given permission to hate, so now it’s about getting people to hate with us.” So, given the atmosphere we’re living in, and with Thanksgiving following the midterm elections, some of which are still being decided, avoidance is certainly one way to keep the peace, not only at the dinner table, but during the full length of get-togethers.
Redirecting the conversation to less volatile arenas is another strategy that can work. If Aunt Jan goes on the offensive, asking about her latest quilting project might save the day.
Every family has them. The funny stories they tell over and over as everybody rolls with laughter. The time Uncle Reg watched his mother-in-law fail to get her key to work in the front door and dived head first through the open window instead. Then, unscathed waved to him from the opened door. The time three-year-old Carole presented herself to the entire family buck naked. The time Grandmother reached in the cabinet and picked up the bug spray instead of the Aqua Net and realized it only after she’d coated her hair. As is said, laughter is the best medicine.
Getting out the family albums and reminiscing about good times eases tension and reminds family members of the shared memories they have in common, says Laurie Endicott, author of Don’t Feed the Narcissists. Talk revolving around these pleasant experiences is talk that unites rather than divides.
What if one person revels in conflict and makes provocative statements? Life coach, Debra Smouse, advises repeating to yourself “It’s not about me” and not taking the bait. Plan what you are going to do if drama arises. Leave the room and do the dishes, say.
If the air is getting poisonous, more direct action may be necessary. If you’re the host, politely ask the guest to desist or leave. If you’re the guest and you know from experience that level of toxicity is a possibility, plan your own exit strategy.
Sandra W. Reed is an attorney with Katten & Benson, an Elder Law firm in Fort Worth. She lives in beautiful Somervell County, near Chalk Mountain. She may be contacted by phone at 254.797.0211 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.