5 Ways You Can Avoid Family Conflict This Holiday Season 

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Some people look forward to joyful, warm family gatherings during the holidays. But for many of us, a cheerful and comforting holiday event with relatives is rarely in the cards. Instead, we may be dreading the warzone of an unfinished argument left over from last year, poorly disguised favoritism among family members, or differing political opinions that will inevitably surface after a mug of hot buttered rum. For an endless number of valid reasons, many of us find ourselves anxious for days (or even weeks) leading up to these holiday gatherings.

Unfortunately, our anxiety only adds fuel to the holiday fire. Anxiety is largely about the preparation for something uncertain, something unwanted, unpleasant, disruptive, and/or toxic coming at us from just over the horizon. When our anxiety is chronic or perpetual—as it might be if it relates to a holiday or event—it becomes part of a family custom. Everyone comes to the event expecting that anxiety and discomfort; and, because we tend to seek new evidence for our already existing beliefs, the stage is set. When this happens, the problems, conflicts, and issues that are associated with this anxiety are transmitted from season to season. Expecting bad behavior, ironically, invites it.

Our first priority in avoiding conflict is to be aware of our own part in its recreation, re-enactment and repetition. This is especially challenging if we feel like the conflict is originating from sources outside our control. However, being aware that it exists and that we actually can do something about it is the first step to resisting its pull.

If we can become aware of how our expectations, history, anxiety, and even our ways of protecting ourselves can contribute to conflict, we can then empower ourselves to avoid contributing to it. And if just one of us can resist the urge to join the battle, we can play a major role in creating a new dynamic for our family. This means that if we can resist the urge to repeat the conflict, we can break the cycle of discord. In this way, if we are mindful, we can avoid family conflict this holiday season by:

1. Being open to alternative outcomes.

Many times, without knowing it, we commit to the idea that repeating family conflicts is unavoidable. This becomes a powerful expectation that greatly influences the outcome and the likelihood that we will jump right in—and help recreate—the conflict. Instead, we can visualize other possibilities, catch ourselves when we think we know what’s going to happen, and pause before taking the usual or typical actions.

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2. Excusing ourselves from the conversation.

Sometimes, all we need to do is hit pause (as we began in the previous step). Pausing allows us to think—even if only for a moment—before we jump into battle. It stops us from making the same mistake over and over and from impulsively falling into old habits. Just this short break gives our minds the time to make more measured choices and opens the door to new relational possibilities. 

3. Refusing to take the bait.

After we've hit pause, we're a lot more likely and able to resist the knee-jerk compulsion to join the mess. We can respond instead of react. When we're able to do this, we don't necessarily have to excuse ourselves, because we are essentially committing boundaries that allow us to be more thoughtful about how, when, and why we choose to—or not to—engage in interaction with family members.

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4. Forming an alliance.

If there are other people in our families who we know do not want to engage in family conflict, we can pull them aside and pre-plan ways to disengage together from an inevitable argument or topic. Perhaps we make up a key word that we can use as a message to each other when either one of us feels like we're being pulled in. In this way, we can be life preservers for each other.

5. Reflecting on our role prior to the event itself.

It’s important for us to reflect on how we might have sustained or provoked the conflict in the past. Perhaps we commit to some soul-searching before the event, or maybe we discuss the matter with family members who have proven safe to discuss such things with. When we've explored how, why, and under what conditions we ourselves have participated in and contributed to the family conflict, we will be better able to understand it and resist its pull. This is not about self-blame or criticism. When we know and accept our part in the problem, we have the power to help solve it. 

If we take these steps, we can significantly reduce our own contribution to the seemingly inevitable family drama that often accompanies holiday gatherings. But why not go even further? Perhaps we can make use of our historical conflict to better understand and care for each other. We're likely to receive a better reception from a family member when we're willing to open the conversation with a discussion of our part in the problem and an invitation to look at historical and current problems together.

When we invite others in our family with whom we've had ongoing conflict to take these steps with us, we can go well beyond mere avoidance. It’s possible that, if we can join with others to form a cease-fire, we can forge ahead on what might wind up being a more conscious commitment to peace and harmony.

In the end, conflict isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it is often at the very root of the process of developing healthy relationships. Each conflict is a rupture and an opportunity for repair, and if we can break out of old cycles of destructive conflict, there is no reason that we cannot learn new ways of relating to, caring for, and loving each other this holiday season.

And while we may not be able to achieve a Hallmark-movie-style holiday gathering in one (or even several!) holiday seasons, our deliberate steps toward creating a more harmonious and loving event will make a significant impact on our own experience. 

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