How to Get Along with Difficult Relatives During the Holidays

by | Dec 24, 2010 10:57 AM ET

Luckily, I get along very well with the majority of my relatives. And in the rare situations wherein that's not quite the case, I'm easygoing enough to be pretty good at bluffing it so they don't know I'm not much of a fan. Because it's just not worth it, especially around the holidays. But lots of families aren't that lucky. Just spend some time reading this online column and you'll stumble across myriad examples of dysfunctional relatives struggling to sort out hurtful estrangements and familial entanglements.

If you're one of those people whose holiday plans involve someone in the family you consider less-than-savory, here's a few tips for how you can handle it. First, prepare yourself ahead of time. Think back to past negative encounters, and really honestly analyze the events that unfolded. Because while it would be fantastic if we lived in a world with one set of rules where everyone was always on the same page, newsflash: Nothing could be further from the truth.

If your mother-in-law offended you by buying your children more Christmas presents than you considered appropriate, for example, or your sister snubbed your offer to have the traditional family get-together at your house for a change, it's not necessarily a matter of right or wrong behavior -- or a cause for hurt feelings and family crisis. People don't always see eye-to-eye with each other, and are often coming to the table with radically different perspectives on any given issue. Understand they probably aren't intentionally aiming to upset you, and even if they aren't being very considerate of your feelings or trying to see things from your point of view, realize you'll be better off taking the high road around the holidays.

So in other words, to help everything go smoothly, try to cut your family some slack. Pretty much everyone's been in a position that made them feel -- at least momentarily, if not longer -- stupid, offended or insulted during holiday get-togethers. Perhaps your cousins only smiled coolly at a funny anecdote you told, right before they fell over in tears when your uncle butted in and story-topped you. Maybe your mother nagged you throughout your struggle to cook your first Christmas dinner solo, while she basked in happiness as your aunt reminisced over highlights of hers from years past. Easy to have some bad feelings there, right?

But look at these scenarios from another perspective and the landscape changes considerably. Perhaps there were some aspects of the story your cousins considered offensive and they were attempting to remain polite, while your uncle was actually just trying to swoop in to the rescue by diverting them. And maybe your mom was simply struggling to relinquish her role at the helm of Christmas dinner preparations, and your aunt was only trying to soothe her ego so she'd leave you be as opposed to insinuating her sister's dinners were invariably superior. Point is, keep an open mind when dealing with loved ones. It's easy to unintentionally take things the wrong way.

On a related note, avoid topics you know might get people riled up (such as politics, specific causes or religious practices) and try not to ask questions that might be negatively construed. Your niece and nephew-in-law might be having trouble starting a family, so asking them about it could destroy their tenuously festive mood. Just ask lots of open-ended questions and let relatives share what they're comfortable with. Compliment, don't criticize, and everyone will have a much easier time getting along.

Finally, here's a few additional tips: Consider making the length of the visit shorter, keep an open mind when new traditions are suggested, try mixing in additional (or fewer) activities and seating scenarios, don't come with overly high expectations, bring (or call) a supportive friend during holiday events, and be willing to experiment. Who knows? A tolerable holiday setting could become a wonderful one with a little well-intentioned tweaking.

Every family dynamic is different, but here's to hoping all your family holiday festivities go smoothly. Don't forget to follow How-to Stuff on Facebook and Twitter. Plus, if Christmas shopping has left you low on funds, download the new HowStuffWorks iPhone app from iTunes -- it's free!

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