This is the time of year many of us look forward to the holidays and make plans to reunite with loved ones. For many, our long-established rituals are characterized by a sense of love, happiness, and compassion. They are a strong source of warmth and security we yearn for within our daily lives. Ceremonial observances include activities, such as reviewing the past year and making plans for the future, engaging in nostalgic conversation over a home-cooked meal, decorating a shrine or ornamental object in the spirit of the holiday, or rejoicing in song and dance. Times like this are bonding opportunities with those we relate with and care dearly for. Our shared beliefs rejoin us at these special times of the year, however, as many have experienced, sometimes this familial togetherness harkins old tensions we hoped time and space would have healed.

One of the most common causes of tension is our difference of opinion with loved ones. Opinions are shaped by our own individual experiences and values, and whether they are discussed or not, can enter into our encounters wielding direct and indirect effects on our behavior. We may not be completely aware of it, but non-verbal communication expresses what we think and how we feel along the same lines as verbal communication. Whether opinions are verbally expressed or not, it can be difficult to get through the holiday without our opinions having a direct or indirect effect over our behavior.

There are also power dynamics within a family. Power dynamics are influenced by things like the ratio of children to adults, their individual relationships, personalities of family members, and other attributes. Every family has patterns which help us relate with one another. The dynamics within groups of people create the role we play. We create these roles, like traditions over time, and they establish a pattern of interactions among family members form roles.

The roles of family members during a holiday get-together can be supportive, reaffirming and comfortable, but they can also be divisive and polarizing. When negative attributes persist, the celebration can become a stressful time for some members of a family. Resentment, hostility, and passive aggressive behavior can manifest and damage a relationship, as it is difficult to yank yourself out of a ritualistic role. A holiday riddled with interpersonal conflict can take an emotional toil.

Competitiveness among siblings is commonplace. In the U.S., we live in a society that desires instant gratification and concentrates much time on the concept of winning. But what does this one-up behavior really achieve? For a few it may be a dandy inward-feeling of delight but how does such behavior affect others? It often results in feeling less than or determined to outdo high achiever. If this line of thinking is creating tension in you as you read it, perhaps this a good time to consider what you can to do to promote togetherness and acceptance in your relations with family. And further, do I have to participate in unhealthy interactions or can I choose to take care of myself and let others be responsible for their actions and decisions?

As we pass down traditions we create during our family get-togethers, it is also important to pass down healthy, constructive methods of communication. How is this accomplished? Consider the situation ahead of time. Don’t fall into the same divisive communication patterns. Traditional conversations can become regular, and we often forget the options we do have. If your usual response to a verbal attack is to fight back, ask a question instead that encourages the other person to consider other perspectives. Or perhaps your response could be “perhaps if I was in your shoes, I may feel the same way.”. It may throw someone for a loop!

A final thought, is to consider what you bring to the table. Are you feeling positive about the family get-together. Are you dreading it? Is it possible that someone’s remarks are not about you at all, but you perceive them that way? We cannot control anyone but ourselves. We can work to enhance our own communication skills, the ways we deal with conflict, and our own ability to listen to what others mean when they speak to us. If you’d like to learn more about who you are in conflict, join us for MCRC’s Conflict Awareness Presentation at the North Laurel Community Center on Friday, September 28th from 10:30 – 11:30 am. Registration is limited so please call the Center @ (410) 313-0390 to check for availability.