How to Have Tough Conversations With Family This Holiday Season
While a joyous time to join with beloved friends and family, the are also ripe with stress. Andrea Dindinger, a licensed marriage and family therapist, puts it best when she describes this season as a beautiful yet complex time of year. In addition to shopping for everyone on your list and attending gatherings, you may also have to wade your way through tricky, difficult conversations.
"People may feel irritable, tired, revved up and even mildly depressed," she says. "Under these conditions, conversations become more difficult and more polarized, and these polarized and divisive issues make the holidays a potential hotbed for challenging conversations."
If you and your partner are toasting with loved ones who are known to ask prying questions, take time to connect before you show up at their door. You want to be a unified, supportive front and turn to one another when you feel uncomfortable.
We spoke with relationship experts about how to handle the five most common inquiries you may experience this holiday season—from marriage and babies to vaccines and more.
1. Why aren't you married yet?
It's the inevitable question that bubbles up when you've been with your partner for a long time without getting engaged, and it's frustrating since it implies that there's something wrong with being unmarried. Dindinger encourages duos to bring curiosity and non-defensive responses to rude questions like this.
An example might be saying, "Wow, you seem to really care about whether I'm married, thank you for taking such a strong interest" or, "What part of me getting married matters most to you? How do you imagine me getting married will impact you?"
"These kinds of questions force people to examine what they've asked and to hopefully take some accountability for their motivation behind the question," Dindinger says. "Additionally, when you can be more of an observer of the conversation, it'll keep you from having to explain your choices or defend against their expectations."
2. Why haven't you had kids yet?
Though it may be second nature to ask a couple about having children, it's one of the most delicate discussions. After all, many people dream of having kids but struggle with infertility. Others hope to grow their family but want to resolve their financial issues first. Whatever the reason may be, it can be a troubling question to ask over mashed potatoes and gravy, says psychologist Yvonne Thomas.
The best reaction here is to listen to your gut and only say what feels comfortable to you and your partner. If you're battling infertility, don't worry about revealing very little and maintaining your privacy. "You can merely say that the topic of having children or not is personal," Thomas says.
If you're simply not ready to go from a party of two to a party of three, you can also use humor to shorten the discussion.
3. Why did you elope?
After rescheduling a wedding once, twice or even three times during the pandemic, you and your partner may have decided to elope instead. Or, perhaps eloping was always your preferred wedding style. The decision to get married in the first place is a personal one, and choosing to elope is also a personal matter. However, Dindinger says it can also leave loved ones feeling left out.
"Remember, you're not responsible for other people's feelings," she says. "But you can listen compassionately to how your choice brought up different feelings in them. It's essential that you don't explain or defend your decision to elope, only to reflect back to the other person how hard it sounds like it was on them that you eloped."
Keep in mind that all they want is for you to hear their feelings and not reject them or defend against them. "Your only job is to listen to their experience," Dindinger says. "Then, sneak off to the kitchen with your new spouse and give them a kiss and tell them how grateful you are that you guys eloped."
4. Why did you get vaccinated?
The debate around getting the COVID-19 vaccination and whether or not it should be mandated continues to be supercharged. If someone asks you or your partner why you decided to get vaccinated, be honest and keep in mind that the vaccine has been a heated topic from Day One.
Dindinger says the best approach is to say, "Oh, thank you for asking! It's such a personal decision, and I made the best medically informed decision I could for myself."
5. Why aren't you coming over?
If you've been invited to a family gathering where you know most of your relatives haven't been vaccinated and don't practice safety measures to protect themselves and others, you may feel uneasy attending. If so, you'll likely need to decline an invite. This can inevitably bring up the question of "why," particularly if the host themself isn't vaccinated. Thomas says in this situation, you should think about the individual you're dealing with and how they're likely to react.
If the couple knows the host will take offense to hearing their true reason, it may be more healthy for them to answer in a less specific way, Thomas says. "You could say you have a general rule not to gather where there are unvaccinated people and that you are following this rule in this circumstance, too," she says.