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Deck the halls – not each other – at family gatherings this year

Three experts share timely tips for relatives who struggle to get along

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Sometimes, divorce coach Jen Lawrence’s clients say they want to have a fabulous, consciously-uncoupled Christmas together – as one big happy family – just like celebrity exes Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin.

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When they say things like this, Lawrence shares two helpful hints: Plan very carefully and keep your expectations in check. Your life is not a Hallmark card, and your divorced-family-together holiday won’t be, either, especially if there’s tension in the air.

But what do these careful plans and modest expectations look like? And how does a family that doesn’t play well together make it through the full-court press of a holiday gathering?

Start with structure and dive into the details, says Lawrence, who is based in Oakville, Ont. If you’re hosting a meal, it’s helpful to plan where guests will sit, and keep warring factions apart, obviously. Assign tasks to willing guests (light candles, stoke the fireplace) and structure free time with an activity.

“I would avoid competitive games,” says Lawrence. “Even a bit of tension can turn ugly. But there certainly can be value to maybe watching a movie, or arranging a tasting. Steer away from alcohol, but a chocolate tasting would be great, or, you know, a class on bonsai?”

Jen Lawrence, Steve Legler and Moira Somers
Jen Lawrence, Steve Legler and Moira Somers

Lawrence says discouraging alcohol consumption is a good idea – full stop. Avoid open wine bottles on tables and consider employing a server to keep things in check.

“You just defer to your schedule and say, ‘We’ll be having wine with dinner,’” says Lawrence. “That way you’re not the one policing things, especially if there’s alcoholism.”

Once you’ve got a guest list and a few things planned, Montreal-based family legacy guide Steve Legler recommends you share the details with your guests. Let people know exactly who is coming and who their “plus one” might be. Tell them what you’ve planned – yes to bonsai, no to boar-on-the-floor (any fans of Succession out there?) – what time dinner will be served and what time the party will end.

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Says Legler: “People don’t like surprises.”

Stick to neutral topics – sports, for instance

If you’re gathering for more than a meal or children will be present, be sure to have comfortable places for people to relax, play or step outside.
“Providing opportunities for people to get out of the house and get exercise together, or to have solitary time, can be really helpful,” says Winnipeg-based psychologist and executive coach Moira Somers. “If there are long stretches of time, you’ll need to plan for more than just a meal.”

Lawrence says having a few conversation topics at the ready can help, too.

“Sports tend to be fairly neutral … unless you own a sports team,” she says. “Entertainment is good. If you’ve managed to travel, talking about a trip works. Steer away from religion, politics. Certainly steer away from business.”

You have to realize that the only person you can control is yourself, so some preparation going into it is a good idea.

Steve Legler, family legacy guide

Can you really set ground rules and expect people to check their grievances at the door?

Yes, you can, says Somers. Agree ahead of time to a politics-free zone, and that family business will not be discussed, nor will matters of succession or estate planning. Communicate this by a friendly text, email or a quick phone call ahead of time.

“Ground rules often get established in advance of formal family meetings,” says Somers, so families will be familiar with the expectation and the intent.

‘Hold the reins lightly’

Hosting your Christmas party on any day but Dec. 25 can help keep tensions low, too. “Just because there’s always so much emotion around the holidays and, you know, childhood trauma that all of this holiday energy seems to reactivate,” says Lawrence.

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Traditions themselves can be a source of friction, especially as families grow and change. Somers knows of one family who split up over talk of changing their gift-giving traditions. One family member derived self-esteem and felt valued when she shared gifts, while others were overwhelmed by the financial obligation. Poor communication led to a breakdown.

Somers advises flexibility and open-heartedness in the face of change – and lots of communication.

“Hold the reins lightly,” says Somers. “And be able to recognize that the bigger the preparations are, the more people you are trying to accommodate, the more likely it is that you will have to let go of something that is meaningful, or it may have to morph in some way.”

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What else can you do to help and not hinder the party?

Somers says it’s important to bring your best self to the event. Take time to centre yourself and relax before the gathering. Don’t arrive frazzled.

Legler agrees: “You have to realize that the only person you can control is yourself, so some preparation going into it is a good idea. Decide that ‘I’m not going to make things worse. If this does go south, it won’t be because of me.’ It really has a lot to do with setting an intention for yourself before walking in.”

Breathing life into past trauma

If things do go off the rails, Legler says you shouldn’t pretend everything is fine.

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“That’s an opportunity to say, ‘Okay, yes, you’re right. You know, we do have to deal with that, but this is not the right forum. Let’s make sure we talk about it at our next business meeting when we have all the right people in the room to deal with it,’” says Legler.

If staying away is the best choice, Lawrence suggests meeting with smaller family groupings over the holiday season. On the big day, you might send a beautiful floral arrangement with a warm card, signalling your desire to remain in touch, despite current conflict.

Somers cautions families against breathing life into past trauma by falling into old habits and roles with family members. (The victim triangle is common, in which family members tend to play either the victim, the persecutor or the rescuer.)

But a little role playing may help get through a difficult dinner, Lawrence says.

“I’m all for living an authentic life,” she says. “And sometimes you choose to distance yourself from toxic family members. But you can probably get through a dinner. If you have to, you can cast yourself in the role of, you know, the peacemaking sister.”

She adds: “You can always dissect this in your therapy session later.”

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