Surviving family parties

Sunday, November 23, 2003

NEW YORK

f you're dreading the next dinner that brings you face to face with your critical uncle, nagging grandmother or self-absorbed sibling, you're not alone.

According to Leonard Felder, a Los Angeles-based psychologist who specializes in family situations, 70 percent of the people he's talked to have a relative who "drives them crazy."

The targets of the complaints range from relatives who are racist, sexist or homophobic to those who whisper about your expanding waistline. Other families fight about differences in religion or what constitutes a healthy meal for children.

No matter who or what the source of discord, the result is the same: hours of unpleasantness that can lead to screaming, tears, or both.

To keep yourself sane, Felder advises making a specific plan on how to deal with and, in fact, improve the next family gathering long before that sinking feeling settles in on the way to Aunt Mary's house.

"Ask yourself, 'What could make this year better?"' says Felder, interviewed by phone. "Decide to spend more time with the two relatives that you do love, or come up with great exit lines to give the relatives you don't want to be cornered by."

In his new book "When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People: Surviving Your Family and Keeping Your Sanity" (Rodale), Felder says the two most important things to keep a smile on your face throughout the whole party (or worse, an entire weekend reunion) is to be proactive and to have reasonable expectations.

It's up to you to make changes in both attitude and approach because often difficult relatives are narcissists who don't care about the chaos they may be causing, and they actually might relish the attention, he adds.

But if you focus on catching up with the cousin with whom you were so close as a child or you spend time getting to know the newest, littlest members of the family, you now have a new reason to go to the gathering and enjoy yourself, Felder explains.

Set boundaries

Felder suggests setting boundaries, such as letting the first three pieces of unsolicited advice go unanswered, but then preparing a comeback for the fourth.

When it's a single difficult relative that is making things unpleasant for you, Felder urges taking him in as a confidante, even if you have to acknowledge a sometimes adversarial relationship.

Discuss how together you can improve things.

"When they (difficult relatives) are part of the improvement committee, it makes it less likely that they'll be part of the destruction committee," Felder says.

Felder also encourages choosing another relative to be a buddy -- someone to make eye contact with at the table when you find yourself reaching your limit.

"It will help to have someone else acknowledge how you are feeling; it will help you feel validated," Felder says.

Make a trade with a spouse or sibling

If the last gathering was your breaking point, it might be time for a change of venue or at least a change of the ground rules, such as holding a potluck holiday brunch instead of a single-cook dinner -- especially if that cook tends to be one who endlessly reminds everyone else how long the meal took to cook.

Sometimes tensions with one relative will cause problems between common allies like husbands and wives, or brothers and sisters.

"Agree to disagree on someone that one spouse likes and the other doesn't. Then say, 'Let's make some trades: I'll do three nice things for you if you go to my aunt's house for dinner and try to have a good time,"' Felder says.

Often, people who openly criticize their own relatives are sensitive when harsh words about their family come out of someone else's mouth, Felder observes.

"Usually, couples get into the argument of whose family is worse," he says. "It's an argument that can't be won."

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