When we try to explain what it means to love our partners and foster intimacy

David Olsen, Ph.D., LCSW and Erin Belanger, LMHC

It’s the end of November of 2016 – just past what may have been the most contentious election in quite some time, and just before the Thanksgiving holiday. This election season was characterized by an obscene number of accusations, almost no focus on issues, ugly debates, little focus on facts or fact-checking, sleazy scandals, and the list goes on. All of this may have been great material for Saturday Night Live, but for our country’s morale and unity, not to mention our inner peace, it was devastating!

Now, to add to the fun is Thanksgiving, where we will most likely get to hang out with relatives who voted differently than we did, and who may feel the need to talk about and debate those differences. Some may even look forward to gloating! Others are enraged and some are even feeling deeply alienated, realizing they are related to people who think very differently. If you are dreading this holiday more than any other year, you are not alone. We are hearing this from many clients at this time. The indigestion is palpable even now as we can picture certain relatives pushing all of our buttons. So much for a relaxing Thanksgiving dinner with family!

Given all of the above, how can anyone survive this Thanksgiving and keep important relationships intact? Here are some simple guidelines to help us all navigate the holiday season:

  1. Put away the guns! Hopefully, you have no need to take this literally. But like weapons, intense arguments can leave people gravely injured. We all have our favorite barbs, digs and attacks, and if we are really hooked and reactive, we can lash out harshly, causing lasting relational wounds. The more intense the debate becomes, the more likely these barbs will emerge. So, watch your reactivity and monitor your agitation levels. No throwing food! When your agitation meter is moving toward the “red zone”, stop talking! Go for a walk. Or using all the discipline possible, calmly state “that’s an interesting perspective,” rather than the expletive-loaded sentence you want to use.
  2. Give up the fantasy of conversion! Remember, no one ever converts at the end of these debates. Your relative will never say: “Wow! Your argument has changed my mind. I realize your candidate was right and mine was wrong.” Rather, the opposite happens – people become more entrenched in their views and the family gathering becomes more strained. In fact, research shows that deeply entrenched racial biases and other prejudices are often only changed by having known and befriended someone of a different background. How can this happen when we are alienated from each other? The best course of action is to just put the argument away and try to have a decent time together.
  3. Remember: nothing is black or white. As difficult as it is to keep in mind, no candidate was perfect or had perfect solutions to complicated problems. No one is all good or all bad. It’s a lot more complicated than that! Intense debates always miss that point. By remembering that no one has a corner on truth, you may be better able to listen.
  4. Finally: focus on relationship. Reactive discussions hurt relationships in ways that are hard to recover from. In the end, the most important goal of holiday gatherings is to build relationships not debate views. Debates are a way to avoid intimacy and connection – it is far easier to debate politics (or religion, etc.) than is is to begin to share more of yourself, or listen and get to know family.

Have a happy Thanksgiving by attempting to practice these principles. If all else fails, find an excuse to take that trip you’ve been needing to a faraway beach!