Even before the Covid pandemic, Thanksgiving could be an emotional minefield for many families.
Tensions over the 2016 presidential election led some families to shorten Thanksgiving dinner that year to avoid conflict; others cut ties altogether with relatives whose politics differed. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll from 2016 found that one-third of respondents said they had gotten into a “heated” argument with family or friends in the wake of the presidential election.
The pandemic has created only more divides. Now that most American adults have been vaccinated against Covid, many families are having their first winter holiday gatherings in two years. It should be a joyous occasion. But some people are not inviting unvaccinated family members to Thanksgiving; others are scoffing at relatives who insist on masks.
“Now it’s no longer whether you just disagree about the long-term effects of climate change,” said Jill Suitor, a sociologist at Purdue University, where she leads a project investigating family conflict in 550 multigenerational families, “but whether you believe that having certain family members present poses a serious danger to other family members.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Americans believe the country has become more polarized since the pandemic — which is saying something, given that before the pandemic, 40 percent of people on both sides of the political aisle considered the other side “downright evil.”
The good news is that it’s possible to navigate this year’s unique holiday conflicts gracefully. Doing so requires understanding what’s really driving family tension this year, both political and personal. In many cases, according to psychologists, those classic fights about politics or where to spend Christmas are really about something much deeper, especially in 2021: a yearning for love, connection and, above all, belonging.
Psychologists have been studying belonging for decades. In a seminal paper published in 1995, the social psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary argued that human beings have a powerful need to belong that largely stems from our evolutionary origins.
People feel a sense of belonging, according to Dr. Baumeister and Dr. Leary, when they have frequent positive interactions with others that are based on mutual care. With true belonging, you are valued for who you are intrinsically, and you value the other person in turn.
During the holidays, the yearning for belonging is supercharged. Jeanne Safer, a psychoanalyst in New York who specializes in family conflict, told me that many of her patients romanticize the holidays. They have a fantasy about what family life should be at this time of year — loving, happy, accepting and warm. When loved ones gather, they desperately want the fantasy to play out, hoping that old childhood wounds and unresolved issues will be healed. “Maybe this time, my parents will understand me. Maybe this time, my in-laws will accept me.” That fantasy is especially potent this year after so much time apart.
But such high hopes and expectations are usually dashed. There are so many opportunities to feel rejected during the holidays — and every encounter can become a referendum on how loved you are (or aren’t).
This year, those personal tensions have a pandemic twist. Maybe someone comments on your decision to send your children back to school or on how your body has changed after so much time at home. “After two years apart due to the pandemic,” wrote the reporter Kimmy Yan on Twitter, “my family is reuniting tonight. Now taking bets on whether my parents are gonna say I’m too fat or too skinny.”
Beneath these comments lies the sting of feeling rejected at the very moment you’re craving love most. Rejection is the opposite of belonging — and psychologists have found that experiences of rejection, no matter how small, are extremely painful. Research has shown that feeling rejected activates the physical pain centers in the brain. Whether it’s being snubbed by our in-laws or criticized by our parents, rejection literally hurts.
The pain of rejection is also why political discussions can become so hostile. Fights over issues like masking and vaccine mandates are not just expressions of tribal allegiance, as is often claimed, but also ways that family members seek to be understood and accepted, especially by loved ones who hold different beliefs.
In her book “I Love You, but I Hate Your Politics,” Dr. Safer writes that children fight with parents about politics because they want to be “seen, heard and appreciated” for who they are; parents fight because they feel “betrayed by differences and interpret them as repudiations.” Because political values are increasingly a central part of people’s sense of identity, rejecting a loved one’s politics has become a personal slight. It means rejecting them.
The vaccine dispute has become a way to communicate acceptance and rejection.
“For the vaccinated,” Dr. Suitor explained, “the unvaxxed family member’s commitment may seem like a blatant disregard for their life and health” — an uncaring stance. “And the unvaxxed family member,” she continued, “can be made to feel like a pariah or social outcast.”
Dr. Safer tells her patients to avoid political discussions during the holidays. “It’s a dead end. If you’re looking for complete acceptance and total understanding, if you’re hoping to change people’s mind,” she said, “don’t go.”
That advice, though, might be difficult to follow this year as people adjust their guest lists based on vaccine status. The vaccine discussion may be inevitable in the lead-up to the gathering, Dr. Safer said, but after you have it, banish politics from the conversation at the table.
Even more effective than avoiding politics, perhaps, is extending grace to one another. This means assuming good faith, despite how annoying or passive-aggressive family members are acting, according to John and Julie Gottman, psychologists specializing in marriage and relationships who run the Gottman Institute. The Gottmans told me that a family member’s critical barb or resentful behavior is not always an expression of contempt and rejection. Quite the opposite: It’s often a bid for connection.
Usually, bids for connection are more positive — one person inviting another to go for a walk or to watch a football game. But some people lash out when they want attention.
“People carry around a lot of hurts,” Julie Gottman said, “and hurts are like smoke: They leak under the door and come out even when you’re trying to be positive.”
Someone might want to spend time with you, John Gottman explained, but instead of saying, “Let’s catch up” or “How are you really doing?” the person will say, “You’re so ungrateful” or “You never call me.”
They recommend that the recipient of such a bid recognize it as a plea for connection and respond with kindness. Doing so will not be not easy, especially after all the challenges of the past two years.
“But,” Julie Gottman said, “we have to make an extra effort to practice our best compassion during the holidays.”
Our loved ones are imperfect; so are we. That means that feelings are going to be hurt this year and that efforts to express love are going to be clumsy, awkward or marred by pride and stubbornness. Though the pandemic has increased tensions within families, it has also created an opening. Now more than ever, people are recognizing the importance of being together — and how precious and fleeting life can be. Keeping these blessings in mind might inspire us to lead with love this holiday season.
Emily Esfahani Smith is a doctoral student in clinical psychology and the author of “The Power of Meaning.”
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