Holidays are when we come together with those closest to us to celebrate and give thanks. But they’re also a perfect storm of high expectations, tight schedules, and complicated family dynamics. Many of these gatherings put us in close proximity with people we don’t see often and who may hold very different values. Communication often breaks down and emotions run high, which can lead to higher levels of conflict. We may find ourselves having conflicts ranging from mundane topics like who gets to host the big dinner to heated topics like that one relative who insists on using bigoted language.
Why do we get pulled into conflicts so easily when we gather together? Because in any group of close people, each person’s emotions and behavior have an impact on the emotions, thoughts, and behavior of everyone else, especially if we have a long history with those people. This is also why even small conflicts tend to hit us harder when it’s family (biological or chosen). But it also works in the opposite direction: if we set boundaries and use assertive communication, we can influence that system in positive ways.
So how do we do that?
Before We Get Started…
Regarding the strategies we discuss in this article, they are all based on a few assumptions:
- Assumption 1: It is safe for you to speak up about the conflict.
- Assumption 2: There is a compelling reason to attend and stay at the gathering.
- Assumption 3: You want a continued relationship with the person you’re in conflict with.
- Assumption 4: You believe they will be open to finding a solution.
Not all of these assumptions are true for everyone, and they’re all important foundations for the strategies in this article. When visiting family, many people have to code switch, mask, go back in the closet, or otherwise modify their behavior because it is unsafe to be their authentic selves. Some may be unable to decline a gathering or openly end a relationship with a specific person. Others could even be in danger if they push back on a family member’s behavior. Your safety is the most important factor in any decision. There is no shame in recognizing that it is unsafe to confront a loved one. If this is your situation, take a look at our article Coping With Unsupportive Family Members for ideas for how to cope.
Step 1: Identify Your Boundaries
By knowing our boundaries and communicating them to others ahead of time, we can often avoid conflicts before they arise.
Boundaries are more than just your desires or preferences; they’re things we need for an interaction or relationship to be healthy for us. When starting the conversation on boundaries, I often ask my clients to first think about what their needs are. Examples may include:
- I need to feel safe.
- I need to feel respected.
- I need a low-sensory space available to better regulate myself.
After identifying boundaries broadly, we then need to know what they specifically mean. For example, the boundary, “I need to feel safe,” may mean that people do not yell, use demeaning language, or threaten you. “I need to feel respected,” might mean that you expect people to use the correct pronouns to refer to you or your partner. A need for a low-sensory space could mean that you have your own, quiet room when staying with family.
After you’ve identified your boundaries, the next steps are typically to think about the positive and negative consequences related to those boundaries, and then clearly communicate everything. Positive consequences are the desirable things everyone involved gets when your boundary is observed. (e.g., “If you gender my partner correctly, they will feel welcome and we will stay longer.”) Negative consequences are the undesirable things that will happen if the boundary isn’t observed (e.g., “If I don’t have my own space, I’ll need to find somewhere else to stay during my trip so I can calm down when I get overloaded.). Notice how the negative consequence describes an action you will take to make sure your needs get met, as opposed to how you might punish another person for not doing what you ask.
It’s OK if you didn’t think of a necessary boundary before the event. Sometimes, we don’t notice one of our needs until it goes unmet. If this happens, take a break to think things through. You can communicate the boundary as part of our next step.
Step 2: Healthy Confrontation
Even with the most proactive communication, it’s still possible to find yourself in conflict with a loved one. It’s important we are consistent and clear in our expectations when this happens. Having a healthy confrontation is how we accomplish this.
Many people hear “confrontation” and imagine aggressive communication like yelling, threats, or unkind words. But when we use communication styles that respect the feelings and needs of both parties, confrontation becomes a useful tool for building stronger, healthier relationships with others. Research has even shown practicing this kind of assertive (but not aggressive) communication can have positive impacts on our mental health, including reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Assertive communication typically means being clear about how we are feeling, what our boundaries are, the consequences related to those boundaries, and what we’re seeking from the other person. This style also usually involves making space for the other person to express these same things to us so we can work together to find a solution. If you’d like to brush up on your assertive communication skills, check out our article on Assertive vs Aggressive Communication.
Step 3: Know When To Disengage & Recover
Even with the best communication skills, some people are unwilling to work with us to make changes and find a solution. When that happens, it’s important we recognize the conversation is no longer productive and disengage. If you notice any of the following things happening, it may be a good idea to take a break:
- People use aggressive communication such as shouting, threats, insults, or deliberately shut people out.
- Your emotions become “too big” to manage, especially if it has begun to make it difficult to communicate effectively.
- The other party refuses to change or discuss their behavior.
- You no longer feel safe.
Ways to take a break can include going to another room, stepping outside, or a short walk outside. Make sure to let someone know where you’re going and how long you’ll be gone. Give yourself some time to attend to your emotions and process the conflict before making any big decisions like choosing to go home for the day or asking guests to leave. Any coping skill that helps you restore a sense of safety is often good go-to in this situation: light exercise, talking the situation out with a supportive loved one, or listening to music.
While conflict can be scary, we can help ourselves navigate through it in healthy ways by setting boundaries, having healthy confrontations, and knowing when to take a break. If you’ve found yourself unsuccessful in conflict with a specific family member, take a look at another article in our series, Coping With Unsupportive Family Members, for ideas on how to cope.
This article is not a substitute for medical advice or professional counseling. While we at Take This want to provide you with resources, we do not recommend or endorse any particular site, treatment, therapy, or resource. We provide these links at our sole discretion but have not necessarily vetted or reviewed any particular resource. We assume no liability for the use of the information or resources on these sites and encourage you to use your own best judgment when reviewing these resources.
If you live in the US and you’re having suicidal thoughts, reach out to the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or call/text 988. If you’re outside the US, you can find local crisis lines at Suicide.org. If you’re even debating whether you should call them, you should call them. The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline handles all psychological crises, not just suicide.