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So You Fought With Your Family on Thanksgiving—Now What?

All that leftover animosity will go bad faster than the uneaten turkey if you don’t address it right away

Could there ever be a Thanksgiving more ripe for animosity? Even The New York Times offered a guide on how to get through dinner as part of a very fractured, very split nation. Tip number one: Make extra gravy. “Thanksgiving this year is going to be tough enough without skimping on the gravy.”

Even without coming on the heels of a very divisive election, the holiday season is always fraught with familial tension, and Thanksgiving (a seasonal excuse for gratuitous day drinking if ever there were one) is its opening ceremony. Lingering resentments about perceived unfair alliances formed around a Monopoly board decades ago can derail an otherwise festive afternoon and sour the entire holiday season. So we asked some experts in family therapy and etiquette how best to resolve any leftover animosity that may crop up — or at least on how to punt till round two (Christmas).

What We Usually Do

Talia Wagner, marriage and family therapist: Most people tend to ignore animosities until they go away, which is the worst thing that can happen because they fester until the next family get together, when it only gets worse because the original issue hasn’t been dealt with.

Jean Piacenza, family therapist and licensed clinical social worker: These things are self-fulfilling. Everyone watches something unfold but chooses not to say anything about it, which is why there are reenactments every year. Families go to holiday gatherings expecting these fights. So they may roll their eyes or poke each other in the ribs, but they tell themselves that’s just the way things go at Thanksgiving. The same way grandma’s mashed potatoes are familiar, so too is your cousin being an asshole. So when you get there, it’s like settling into an old armchair rather than being on alert.

We don’t change our behavior because we don’t think the occasion is optional. If we just grit our teeth hard enough, we believe we can get through it. And then, when somebody later asks, “How was your Thanksgiving?,” you say, “Great!,” even if it wasn’t because that’s also obligatory.

What We Should Do

Daniel Post Senning, Emily Post’s Great-Great-Grandson and the host of Awesome Etiquette podcast: Never underestimate the power of magic words, particularly in an apology. When you’ve made a mistake, how you handle it says as much, if not more, about you as how you handle success. Make that apology in person and look the person in the eyes so they can see the genuine contrition and emotions you’re feeling. The sooner the better. But if it takes a week, still give them a call or meet up with them in person. I would advise against texting an apology. It doesn’t feel serious and often makes people angrier.

Wagner: If you said something or did something, own it. Pick up the phone and call the person the next day and apologize. You should say, “I’m sorry, things got a little wild last night. I said or did something I shouldn’t have, and I apologize.” Do NOT do it over text or email. It’s very easy to take the written word and read things into it that you don’t have any context for. Nor do you know the tone in which it was written.

Piacenza: I work with a lot of families who do most of their meaningful dialogue via texting, which renders it in my mind almost immediately unmeaningful. Because you can’t read for tone. It’s destructive. What’s supposed to be the outcome of a text that says, “I was appalled by your behavior at Thanksgiving”? And if you’re doing it electronically, the other person doesn’t have to respond, which also can be misinterpreted.

You Could Also Just Say Something in the Moment

Piacenza: If I had my druthers, I would do something in the moment: “Sorry, Uncle Mitch, you’re cut off because you’re acting like an asshole.” Though you can only say something like that if there’s a relationship to support and tolerate it. If there’s not, figure out a way to ask Uncle Mitch to help you in the kitchen or something. It’s kind of a sitcom trope, but it’s effective.

It seems counterintuitive, but most of the time bluntness doesn’t backfire if communicated correctly — that is, not out of anger but a clear exchange of information: “I need to tell you right now that this conversation about politics is making me upset.” That’s blunt. It’s clear. It redirects everything and doesn’t blow everything up. If you’re going to say something direct, it needs to be a piece of information that you’re giving as opposed to a piece of judgement.

A Preemptive Strike Can Work, Too

Wagner: If you know your family is prone to these types of blow-ups, do something about it. When everyone comes into town the night before Thanksgiving say, “Listen, you know how we get. Let’s make some agreements now before things get out of hand tomorrow. Let’s say a big collective apology to each other right now.”

Also, in families, there tends to always be one person who takes pride in “telling it like it is” and proudly declaring, “You shouldn’t have gotten with her. I saw this coming a mile away.” So maybe you have the family talk to that person beforehand, not when he or she is upset, but when things are calm. “We noticed you tend to say some things that make people upset and the family becomes less connected because of it. Could we try to avoid doing that this year?” See how that goes.

Piacenza: Acknowledge the elephant in the room and say beforehand, “What can we do to make you more comfortable? What do you like about coming over to my house, and what do you struggle with?” Everyone brings their own baggage, their own sibling rivalries, their own histories with other family members — mother issues, father issues, grandparent issues, issues about food and issues about alcohol. Some preemptive healing of those wounds would be an interesting conversation.

It almost never happens, though, because it’s totally awkward! But to my way of thinking, you have two choices. You can have an awkward conversation that preemptively clears the air and makes everyone feel more comfortable. Or everyone just feels as uncomfortable as ever and allows the situation to reenact itself over and over again.

The Balm

The fact is, you’re not likely going to do any of the uncomfortable things you need to do to break the cycle of familial holiday anguish. Because that’s what we all do — avoid confrontation, especially in this season of supposed love and joy. We kick the can down the road and hope for the best. But for those ready to take that painful, awkward step toward reconciliation, there are some things to keep in mind.

Piacenza: You can’t actually apologize if you don’t mean it. But if you do, apologies are very disarming, because people aren’t used to receiving them. So practice it in advance and just do it. Also, tell them what made you do the thing you’re now apologizing for — and not in a way that’s personal to the person you’re apologizing to. “I drank too much and lost my focus. I’m sorry. Here’s how I plan to not have this happen again.” The response is usually, “That’s the information I needed. I’m appreciative of your apology. And just so you know, we’ll go another round if you don’t mean it.”

On the flip side, “I’m sorry you feel that way” isn’t a good apology. And never say “but.” The purpose of the word “but” is to negate whatever came before and implies it’s somehow the other person’s fault.

Of course, the nuclear option is to agree not to have that person over anymore, which is uncomfortable, because that’s not what you’re “supposed” to do. But if we don’t enjoy each other’s company, why should we continue to be miserable? To me, that’s more gracious. So be prepared to say, “I simply won’t be coming over next year.”