The Family Way

The Family Way

There’s bound to be tension when distant family members gather for the holidays 

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 11/20/2013

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Dear Patti,
I’m 53, married and live alone with my husband as our two grown daughters no longer live with us. My husband’s family visits each other frequently but mine has drifted apart since our mother died. I have two sisters and a brother and we all live in California but haven’t gotten together in four years. We have a very large home so I invited my whole family for Thanksgiving. I was so excited because everybody accepted, agreeing that it’s been way too long since we’ve all been together.   

Now I remember why I’ve kept my distance, problems have already started. My brother’s wife communicated that there needs to be gluten-free dishes on the menu since their grandson is autistic. My older sister, Laura, wants vegan food served since her husband had a heart attack, doesn’t want a lot of unhealthy foods available and pointed out that we all need to change how we eat or we might have more heart attacks in the family. I was willing to provide such a meal but my other sister and my girls complained that they’d be very upset if we didn’t have a traditional meal with the dishes our mother, the girls’ beloved grandmother, served every year. 

I called Laura, thinking she’d understand, but she’d been talking to my brother who agrees with her that it’s backward thinking to eat turkey, that he gave up such archaic customs long ago and the two of them are now wondering if maybe their families should go out for Thanksgiving dinner, then all be together for the rest of the visit. I forgot how argumentative, judgmental and chaotic it gets when the whole family gets together. I want to enjoy close, loving ties with my family, but I’m not sure how. 

— Joanna

Dear Joanna,
Certain negative family dynamics escalate during emotional or stressful times like family holidays and unfortunately these off-putting actions can be difficult to alter. Sometimes when people are different than they are, they tend to label them. Your older sister and brother might describe other family members as unenlightened and unhealthy while your other sister and daughters might pigeon hole them as fanatics or new-age weirdos.  

Rather than categorize your relatives, look for the values underneath their beliefs. Your older sister almost lost her husband and now more than anything else values her husband’s health; even if rigid about this issue, it’s a good value. Your brother’s desire to protect his grandson against further problems as well as wanting people to respect animals are also good values. Your youngest sister and your daughters place high value on honoring your mother as well as traditions and family roots; these too are extremely important.

It may not seem like it right now, but you’re doing a good deed by getting everybody back together as the longer the family stays and grows apart the more difficult it will be to reunite. It may seem challenging, but try to be a conduit between the two family factions. Clearly explain to each group how you understand the principles underlying their view and then point out the other side’s reasons behind their focus. Discourage each side from labeling the other but rather to look deeper with understanding. Maybe if the family had been in closer contact your relatives would know firsthand how devastating experiencing autism and heart disease can be and have a better understanding of  how deeply some are still grieving for your mother and how difficult it can be to individuate, leave home and how suddenly family customs become very important.  

If your family insists on different dinner gatherings, make the best of the rest of the time together. If possible, be together at Thanksgiving dinner merging with tolerance. Isn’t that what the Europeans and American Indians did? Share food dishes and customs and learn from each other?

As the hostess welcoming everyone to your home for Thanksgiving, share how thankful you are to celebrate with all of them. At the end of the day, what really matters — and what everyone will remember — isn’t the food but the close moments among all of you, even if few and far between.  

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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