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Ask Dave

Holidays and family

Dave called in from Chicago to ask for advice on handling stressful relationships with his mom and sister over the holidays. Our Dave offered insight and advice on navigating this sticky situation.

QUESTION: Dave calls in from Chicago, IL, seeking advice on handling sour family relationships during the holidays. He hasn’t spoken to his mom and sister for about six months. There’s definitely a clash of values here, and it has become a little like the Hatfields and McCoys, but now he’s tired of avoiding them and would like to be able to navigate things better. Our Dave offers some insight, and he advises the other Dave to set some boundaries and try to be a model of sanity and reason in a difficult family dynamic.

ANSWER: Well, the good news is it doesn’t sound like you’ve spent a lot of time with them. So their influence over you and your household is very minimal. I’m not worried so much about you and your family; it’s more about the influence they have over each other and just standing back and watching crazy family be crazy with each other. It’s painful and it hurts, because it’s people you love even though they’re nuts.

This is just one guy to another guy. I’m not a family counselor, but don’t try to change them. Don’t take discussions real deep. Just keep things on the surface like, “What’s for dinner?” Let’s just go in, and have it like that. To the extent they try to invade your family, that’s where you have to put up a good solid boundary. But you’re not going to fix them—ever. The best thing you can do is model sanity in front of them, and hope it’ll make that attractive since it’s so rare in your place.

If you can go in there and have them be kind and you be kind, and not have some big intervention, because the problem is you’re dealing with Swiss cheese. It’s leaking out of many holes. The chances of you having one conversation and plugging up one hole might work. But the problem is you’ve got 63 other holes it’s leaking out of. So this is a bigger problem than one holiday intervention conversation.

I would keep it on the surface, be kind and smile. A friend of mine who has some crazy in-laws says he just adopts the bobblehead deal. He just sits there like a bobblehead and smiles and nods, all the while thinking those people are nuts. The chances of you changing a lifetime of toxic behaviors in one brief interaction are very small. Just pray for them. Then, if they ask, maybe you could insert some gentle wisdom. Don’t tell them what they’re doing wrong. Just tell them things you and your family have done and how you lead your lives. But until they bring it up, I wouldn’t go there.

The good thing about the holidays is you get to see your family, and the bad part about the holidays is you get to see your family.