It starts with the Fourth of July and culminates at the New Year—that flurry of holiday gatherings, birthday parties, potlucks, weddings and family feuds.
Now that many of us are growing up and into our own families, I get calls from friends all the time who both share excitement about going to their sister’s house for Christmas or dread dealing with their in-laws for Thanksgiving.
Complaints have ranged from a mother-in-law refusing to allow her married son to sleep in the same bedroom with his wife to a riveting (and worthwhile, I’m sure) dispute over Tupperware.
In between the extremes are the most common complaints from my girlfriends: women aren‘t very nice to each other. They refer to a game of one-upmanship, competition and snide remarks.
Family drama among women is far more common than family drama among men. Women are often the planners, cooks, organizers and hosts in the family, and they want to be the best at those things. Guys (at least the ones I know) never care about that. They just want to be told where to show up, if they can watch the game there and if beer will be made available to them.
Unfortunately, some women aren’t fulfilled by having a healthy, loving family. They need to also be matriarchs, the center of attention and the favorite. They are competitive, controlling and lose sight of what really matters.
“I get that it’s a game, but how do you play it? What’s the score? What’s the prize? Do I have to say something nasty every time she does?” my recently-engaged friend wrote in an email.
My answer was “No. No. No. No.”
I grew up in the kind of family where such a dynamic didn’t exist. Family arguments were common, but they were never passive-aggressive. They were aggressive-aggressive. We’d vent and yell at each other, and then we’d pass the cabbage rolls. Irish-Hunky families may mince meat, but they don’t mince words.
I’m a fan of being direct. People know when I do or do not like them. If I didn’t love my family, I wouldn’t be spending the Fourth of July weekend with them. If I’ve ever had a problem with something, I’ve voiced my concerns.
But the latter is a questionable approach. Not all families are like mine, where concerns and criticism easily fit at the dinner table among carbs and barley.
My advice to my emailing friend was this: Don’t be the one who keeps the tension alive. Be the one who ends it. In a game of one-upmanship, the best way to succeed is to stop playing. Because there are no winners in family rifts. Only casualties.
There’s something to be said for accepting a thing for what it is. We will all come across people who will push our buttons, but if we recognize when it happens we can refuse to let it affect us.
Some personalities clash, and we can’t change people. We just have to learn to live with them. Don’t hang on to something someone said five years ago. Maybe it was hurtful, but it’s probably not worth the energy it takes to stay angry about it.
There’s no point worth debating, no level of pride impressive, no stubbornness ever rewarded that justifies dividing a family. It’s rarely the women who bicker who have the hardest time during the holidays, it’s everyone else. It’s the grandmas, husbands and children who are forced to take sides.
Because families aren’t owned by one person. In fact, they‘re not owned at all. They‘re built by and belong to everyone in them. We’re all pieces of a whole, and without any of us, we’re incomplete. It’s more than blood and last names.
It’s about love.