Updated 18 December 2013

Family feuds and the festive season

What are the odds of a family fight at the Christmas lunch table? High, very high. Here's why.


It's 3am and there you are, tossing and turning about the possibility of a family fight at the Christmas lunch table. Or that your two brothers, who have not spoken in two years, might haul up the sensitive issue of who should be running the family business.

And what's more, you don't know if you have energy for your sister's spoilt brats and your mom's blind spots where your younger brother is concerned.

So why does this time of year make family feuds flare up?

"Many people who have little to do with their extended families during the year, tend to spend Christmas or New Year together. And while we can choose our friends, our families we can't," says Cape Town psychologist, Ilse Terblanche. "With everyone being thrown together, old dynamics flare up again and old wounds are often reopened."

"You may not have spent much time and energy during the year on the fact that your parents gave your brother a car and didn't give you anything, but seeing him in it, may just open those old wounds."

"Family feuds, while they manifest in many different ways, can usually be ascribed to two things: The first is that someone in the family feels that they have not received their fair share of time, money and attention, while others in the family got too much. The second is that someone feels that they are not treated with the kind of respect and recognition they deserve, while other family members are getting more than they should.

"Old wounds are reopened and middle-aged people often remember resentments they felt as children. Contact with the family also raises issues surrounding in-laws, sibling rivalry, divorces, new partners and child rearing issues. Unequal treatment of grandchildren has also led to many a Christmas lunch ending on a very sour note."

So what can people do to minimise the effect of family feuds in their lives, especially over the festive season? Terblanche advises the following:

Beware the bottomless pit. Family feuds, when you obsess about them, could drain all your energy and leave you nothing for your own life, work and other relationships. It might be that while you agonise endlessly about perceived or real slights, the object of your hatred doesn't give you a second thought. Don't give this issue more energy than it deserves.

This too shall pass. The dreaded Christmas lunch or family birthday will not last forever. It may take three hours, but there will be a point where you can get in your car and hit the road.

Take control of your feelings. Other people can say or do what they want to, but you can choose your reaction to these things. You can only be upset if you allow yourself to be.

Accept that life is not always fair. Parents are people too and so are children. Sometimes you parents may not be fair to you, but by the same token maybe you are not always that fair to them. That's life. It gives with the one hand and takes with the other. Your parents may give more money to you sister, but you have a nice job and husband. Take a deep breath and accept it, difficult as it may be.

Invite friends to join in. This is always a good idea as it dilutes the possible dramas. Most people are averse to airing their dirty linen in public.

Don't be afraid to set boundaries. Inviting someone that has a bone to pick or an axe to grind, is risky, but sometimes you have no choice. You could be very honest and say something like, "We really would like to have you with us on Christmas Day, but Hilda will also be there and I am asking both of you not to mention grandfather's will."

The festive season is emotionally charged. It is a time of reflection on both the good and the bad things that happened during the year. People also tend to get things a bit out of perspective. Keep this in mind before you confront your cousin about the R500 she owes you, or your mother, because she didn't want you to do ballet when you were seven.

Bearing grudges only gets at you. Even if you have a reason to feel begrudged, simmering over this year after year will eventually interfere in your life and happiness and might not affect the other person at all.

Don't hit the campaign trail. Spending hours canvassing other family members, trying to get them on your side, will only make people irritated with you and therefore less sympathetic to you and your story. Let it go - if you behave maturely, you will only show up those who have behaved unfairly towards you. Behave like a screeching banshee, and everyone might think grandfather had a point in leaving you out of his will. - (Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated November 2008)




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