Dear Patti,

I love Thanksgiving and have always enjoyed hosting Thanksgiving dinner for my friends and family. Much as I enjoy spending time with people I’m close to and grateful for, however, Thanksgiving the past two years has been nothing but a chore. 

My husband’s parents are no longer alive and his older sister (the present matriarch of his family) has agreed that I host Thanksgiving and she hosts Christmas. Every December she complains endlessly about how much work it is. When she comes to my house for Thanksgiving, she always brings extra food and says — behind my back — it’s because I can’t cook. I’m a wonderful cook. Last year she brought her own turkey to ensure her family had organic meat only.

She’s always making rude comments. Last year she told my niece, Demi, she was turning into an attractive girl and that made her personally so relieved because she thought Demi had been an unattractive little girl for years. I sharply confronted her but she just laughed it off. She said it’s too bad if the truth hurts and that, as usual, I was being overly sensitive.

I try to be nice, but these people — especially my sister-in-law — don’t feel like family to me. We rarely see them during the year. To me, family members are the ones you want to be close with throughout the year. In my heart, I don’t understand why we have to spend our special holidays with them but I’m doing it for my husband. I don’t want to deal with mean people anymore. What do I do? I’m now dreading my favorite holiday.

  — Chelsea

Dear Chelsea,

There’s a good chance some of your sister-in-law’s negative personality traits evolved early in her childhood as a way for her to cope with unacceptable feelings, such as anger and helplessness. Accordingly, these habitual coping mechanisms are automatically triggered whenever she’s under stress and/or angry. You’ve probably noticed these behaviors other times, but they often escalate during emotional or stressful times such as family holidays. Unfortunately, such problems are difficult to alter, even if the individuals are aware of their negative traits and are highly motivated to change. It doesn’t sound like that’s the case in this situation. Although it’s probable these off-putting actions of hers will never go away, there are ways to practice damage control during your annual get-togethers.

The first is to establish firm boundaries. Give your sister-in-law a completed menu and tell her exactly what you’d like her to bring. Make it very clear that any other food brought won’t be served because it will conflict with the holiday ambience you’re creating. She may initially resist with acting-out behavior, but if you remain firm it will get easier each year until a new precedent is set. Remind her she can have Christmas dinner any way she wants but that you’re the hostess in control during Thanksgiving.

Nonverbal communication makes a big difference in getting desired results. Make sure that while your boundaries on acceptable behaviors are firm and unyielding, they’re still delivered with warmth and kindness. Let her know you want your dinner a certain way because it would make you happy, not because you want to punish her. If she’s been allowed to engage in destructive behavior in the past, it’s going to be hard for her to accept the changes you’re imposing. It’s important to encourage and reward her with positive responses and compliments when she does alter her behavior for the better. If she becomes aware that working companionably with you affords her a special closeness between the two of you, it may very well be all she needs to change.

Get support from family members who are closest to you and whom you trust, like your husband. Explain what you’re trying to do so they can also be clear on the rules and positively reward your sister-in-law when appropriate.

Be good to yourself and focus on the aspects of your gathering that make you happy. Which of your favorite family members or guests are coming? Make sure to spend quality time with them without getting too wrapped up in the tension and pressure between you and your sister-in-law. While you should be respectful and have empathy for her emotional struggles, don’t give her issues precedence over your joyfulness during Thanksgiving.  


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 website, patticarmalt-vener.com.