Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Dreading the Family Thanksgiving Dinner

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I am dreading the annual Thanksgiving dinner with my husband’s family. My father-in-law (FIL) and his brother have strong and differing political opinions and they will inevitably end up having one of their shouting matches. It is so upsetting to me, and I envision our three-year-old son, James, being aware of it this year and also getting upset. James gets anxious when my husband and I raise our voices with each other.

When my father-in-law and his brother start going at it, the other members of the family (there are 15 of us, including 4 cousins) roll their eyes at each other in a kind of here-we-go-again way, but no one tries to stop it. It just keeps escalating until one of them stomps off in anger. Then everyone pretends it never happened.

Aside from this, I really do look forward to being with everyone, especially for James’ sake. His cousins are older and they make a big fuss over him. I want James to have these family connections, so dropping out of the Thanksgiving dinner isn’t something I really want to do. Other than this exchange with his brother, my father-in-law is a real sweetheart, as is my mother-in-law (MIL). My husband finds the yelling match upsetting, too, but doesn’t think it’s worth trying to stop it, as he says they’ve always done this. I am not sure I have any other options than to just put up with it.
I think your first sentence would be more accurate if it read: “I enjoy having Thanksgiving dinner with my husband’s family, with the exception of my father-in-law and his brother’s annual ritual of having arguments about politics.” It is the anticipation of and the actual shouting match that stresses you out, so it might be helpful to hone in on that and consider some options.

First, what are some things you might do before the Thanksgiving dinner? Appealing to the “sweetheart” aspects of your father-in-law’s personality could prove fruitful. For example, you and your husband might get on the phone with both your in-laws and explain that you need their help because of late you’ve noticed James gets agitated and upset when he’s around raised, angry voices.

Knowing that Gramps and Uncle Joe typically have a passionate and emotional exchange about politics with raised voices, you are hoping they will help you out and take the discussion outside, away from everyone, and not have it at the dinner table. Further, you can explain that you’d appreciate Gramps calling Uncle Joe before Thanksgiving Day and getting his agreement to take it outside.

I think it’s important to have your MIL part of this conversation because her knowing about your request makes it more difficult for your FIL to ignore or downplay your request. It’s possible she’s been on your FIL in private about this disruptive exchange he has with his brother; she may feel she’s been fighting a lonely battle and is glad you’re bringing it up.

You may notice that I’m suggesting you ask your FIL and his brother to take the unpleasant exchange outside, that is, you’re not asking them to stop the exchange all together, even though that would be the more mature and ideal thing to do. Your request is merely asking them to change their venue, not their behavior, as asking them to change their behavior could make them just dig in more. You just need them to do their thing out of earshot. If they agree, problem solved.

However, if you don’t get the cooperation you’re looking for, you need to have a backup plan. Here is one that is simple and straightforward: if the exchange begins at the dinner table, you, your husband and James will excuse yourselves and ask someone to call you when Gramps and Uncle Joe have finished their argument. Your explanation is that you find the raised voices and the arguing stressful and you’d rather not be around it, especially for James’ sake. You can go to another part of the house, take a walk, go for a ride — you may even find other family members joining you! Gramps, Uncle Joe and your MIL won’t be surprised at your leaving because you would have told them in the pre-Thanksgiving dinner phone call that this is your plan.

Based on your description of the situation, my advice is predicated on the assumption that Gramps’ and Uncle Joe’s arguments are loud and heated, but do not include profanity and/or racial, gender or ethnic disparagements of any kind. If any of these have been part of the previous arguments, I think you are completely justified in having a different pre-Thanksgiving phone call, one in which you’re not asking them to merely take the exchange outside, but one in which you inform them that you need their commitment not to talk about anything that riles one or both of them, because you do not want your son to witness such offensive, unacceptable and embarrassing behavior from his grandfather. This would definitely be a situation calling for unequivocal tough love from the parents to a grandparent.

Your initiating some pre-event communication to try to get some behavioral commitments in advance may prove helpful. Further, because you are clear on what you intend to do if these commitments are not given or not honored, this will hopefully motivate your FIL and his brother to behave appropriately so everyone at the Thanksgiving dinner table can relax and enjoy being together.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every Wednesday.

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I wish all my readers a wonderful Thanksgiving Day holiday. My next column will be posted November 30, 2011.


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