Peace on Earth? How About Just at the Table?
By Dr. Mike Simpson
Bonnie hung up the phone and turned to her husband. “Matt, I’m going to cancel our family Christmas dinner.” Stunned, Matt put down the TV remote and looked up at his wife, her face ashen. “Cancel the annual supper? Why?”
“That was Uncle Vincent. You know how he and Aunt Millicent never really get along? Well he was gloating over how the congressional candidate she loves – and he hates – lost the election. He says he can’t wait until Christmas to rub it in.”
This isn’t a far-fetched scenario at all, is it? As 2018 comes to a close, the single thing all political pundits, social scientists and ordinary Americans can agree on is that we are a divided people. With the holidays approaching we recognize our relatives and friends – who don’t necessarily get along splendidly even in the best of times – are going to be bringing lots of anxiety, uncertainty and aggravation with them as they gather. Accordingly, here are a few suggestions meant to promote peace, at least at the supper table.
First, support the leader. Every family has a soul who’s “in charge” and everyone knows who it is (rememberthat saying, “When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”). Make sure you “have that person’s back” at gatherings. If you happen to be the leader, then tell others you expect them to support and strengthen you. Conflicted families are universally anxious and supporting the leader tends to diminish family anxiety.
Second, encourage everyone to remember who’s important, rather than what’s important. Uncle Vinnie and Aunt Minnie may express real distaste for one another, but if one of them was in crisis and the other could help, the emotional distance between them would vanish. If they start to fuss, remind them, “Vinnie, it doesn’t matter how right you are, Minnie is still your only sister.” Encourage and reward respectful treatment with words and embraces.
Third – and this may seem counterintuitive – don’t be afraid to move toward mentioning issues rather than trying not to mention them. Trying to avoid the one thing that’s on everyone’s mind increases the whole family’s anxiety, as all await the inevitable explosion. The “elephant in the room” loses its power when it is pointed out, along with its boundaries. “Okay, Vinnie, you may now gloat for thirty seconds and then we’re getting on with supper.”
Finally, fourth, cultivate a shared sense of playfulness. Seriousness breeds anxiety and anxiety opens the door for conflict. Playfulness, on the other hand, washes seriousness away and opens the door to joy. If your job is to greet family members as they arrive, you will be able to recognize immediately who is in a serious mood and therefore in need of a big fat kiss. Almost every family also has a mischievous soul who loves to be disruptive. Such a person, properly instructed, can be a great ally in preventing things from getting too serious. After all, the holidays are important. Let’s don’t get serious about them!
A “third generation” Family Systems practitioner, Dr. Mike Simpson is the founder of Fix Your Family and a Family Wellness Coach who has used Family Systems to work with individuals and groups for the past 25 years. The author of the book Fix Your Family, he can be contacted through his website, fixyourfamily.org, email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone 336-257-9276.