During the six or so weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, many people will push the pause button on their busy lives for a few days and travel far distances to spend some quality time with the people they love the most. According to the Pew Research Forum, 86 percent of Americans visit family and loved ones during this time of the year, and reconnecting with loved ones is the holiday activity people look forward to the most. Not the gifts. Not the fun cocktails at holiday parties. Not the days off work. Certainly not the fruit cake. But family.
This isn't surprising. We love our families, after all — they can make the holidays more joyful and special. But those family members that we love so dearly are the same ones that can make us white with rage. Research shows that the people who most annoy us are our loved ones and that, at the same time, we tend to be cruelest to the ones that we love the best.
The question is: why? Why do the people we love cause us to feel so angry and irritated even when they do not mean to? Why is it so easy to throw emotional spears at our loved ones? What can we do about these facts of family life to ensure that the holidays are joyous, that feelings aren't hurt, and that visiting loved ones remains the activity people look forward to the most at this time of year?
The main reason family members clash is the same reason they love each other so much: comfort
Here is a scene that might ring a bell: you've been living on your own for about a decade. You have established daily routines and rituals that give structure to your day and make you happy. Then, suddenly, you find yourself back at your parents' place for the holidays. It's morning and you are about to knock one of your daily rituals off your to-do list — working out, reading the paper, doing some work over coffee — when your mom announces from the kitchen that breakfast will be ready soon, after which everyone is heading to Aunt Jane's house for lunch. Then, she follows up with, "So what's the latest on the boyfriend front?"
How do you react? You might let out a moan and roll your eyes. You might ignore the question and go for a run. You might even snap back, "Mom, when are you going to stop nagging me about my life?" Whatever you do, one thing is for sure: this scene will probably annoy you. You are an independent adult, after all. Why is your mom being so nosy? Treating you like a child? Why is she trying to control your time? On further reflection, maybe you realize that your mom was just trying to be kind by making you breakfast and taking an interest in your personal life — but you got irritated, hurt her feelings, and now feel guilty. Merry Christmas?
The main reason why family members clash in this way is the same reason why they love each other so much: comfort. Family members know each other so well — too well — and that means they feel comfortable around each other. There are obviously great benefits to being in relationships where people feel accepted and secure. But comfort is a double-edged sword. It means that individuals feel safe showing every side of themselves to others — the good and, unfortunately, the bad and the ugly.
"The fact that you can be meanest to the ones you love is not a sign that you feel the most negative to loved ones," said Margaret Clark, a social psychologist at Yale University whose research focuses on relationships. "But that you feel the most comfortable to express your negative emotions to them."
The ability of one family member — like the daughter in the example above — to express his or her irritation may actually be a sign of the relationship's strength. The better the relationship, the freer we feel to gripe about being annoyed; this means we feel safe in the relationship, without the fear of abandonment or the revoking of love.
"We parents are always the whetstone to our children's blade," said John Gottman, another psychologist and relationship expert. "They sharpen themselves by abrading against us, because they know we will always love and accept them as they are. So especially with us, they can experiment with different ways of being themselves."
But if being yourself means being grouchy and mean most of the time, that is a problem, according to Clark. It indicates egotistical self-focus on the part of the griper, and self-focus can sound the death knell of relationships. Clark told me about a study in which participants played a word game with a close friend. The researchers manipulated one half of the participants to focus on themselves by telling them that the word game was a reflection of their intelligence. They told the other half that the exercise was just a silly game that did not reflect on their abilities in any way.
The findings were surprising. Participants who were focused on themselves were, when given the opportunity to help their close friend, much more likely to give their friend harder clues to solve the word game than they gave strangers. Just as no one cares if a stranger gets them a meaningless gift, no one cares if a stranger makes them look bad by outperforming them on an intelligence test.
But they do care if a close friend makes them look bad. Rather than helping their friends, which is the sort of behavior one would expect in a close relationship, the participants who were thinking about themselves in the study put their own need of looking smarter ahead of their friends' need of doing well in the game. So they hindered their friends' success.
Research consistently finds that individuals are kinder to strangers than to their family members
Most irritation and anger in relationships, Clark explained, is the result of a similar process. When an individual is focused on himself and a loved one does or says something to diminish his sense of self, like a father pointing out that to his son that he has put on weight, it stings especially badly because it's coming from his father, a loved one who knows him well. So the son becomes insecure. This causes him to become defensive, put his own need for self-affirmation ahead of his father's needs, and lash out to hurt his father and bolster his own self by saying something like, "Well at least I work out, unlike some people I know."
"Most negative reactions in close relationships," said Clark, "are accompanied by people focusing on themselves. And the less secure we are feeling, the more irritable we become." If the son had been less focused on himself, he would have been less likely to take his father's comment as an insult.
Though he may have felt comfortable enough to express his anger to his father, and though that may have been a sign of comfort in his relationship with his dad, expressing negative emotions becomes dysfunctional, Clark pointed out, when one loved one overlooks the needs of the other loved one. Healthy relationships are based on each participant responding to the other person's needs and often putting the other person's needs ahead of their own. Being true to and expressing one's emotions, as tempting as that might be in safe, secure, and comfortable relationships, should come second to treating loved ones well if the relationship is to remain healthy.
When we feel comfortable with family members, we also start taking advantage of them, which also contributes to conflict. It's very difficult to maintain an emotionally positive relationship over a long period of time. Positive emotions and experiences in a relationship require constant effort to be sustained. Problems arise when loved ones feel more comfortable around each other and therefore put less work into their relationships, diminishing the opportunities for good, happy, and healthy encounters.
One of the most interesting and consistent findings of relationships research in psychology is that individuals are kinder to strangers than to their family members. When individuals interact with people they do not know well, whether they are strangers on the street or someone they want to date, they engage in what psychologists call "self-presentation."
That is, they are very conscious of the impression they are making on the stranger, and are monitoring everything that they do and say so as to be liked by this new person. People like others who are kind, pleasant, and cheerful, so when people interact with a stranger, they do everything they can to ingratiate themselves to the unfamiliar person. They put their best foot forward.
In one study published in 2007, Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia and her collaborators brought romantic couples into the lab and compared how partners in a relationship interacted with each other versus how they interacted with strangers. The partners were far more positive and cheerful to the stranger than they were to each other. They tried harder to be pleasant and likable with their new acquaintance. They also enjoyed the interaction with the stranger more that they expected, while at the same time feeling worse than they expected after interacting with their own partner. When they put their best foot forward, they actually felt better than they thought they would than when they let their guard down in the comfortable presence of their loved one.
In a separate study, Dunn and her research associates wanted to know what would happen when partners treated each other as strangers. They invited romantic partners who had been dating for at least three months into the lab and instructed them to have a conversation with each other in which they would self-present. "Try to make a good impression on him or her," the couples were told, "the way you would with a person you just met or had just started dating."
Afterward, the researchers measured the couples' well-being and compared those scores to the well-being of a control group of couples who were told to just have a regular conversation with each other. When partners talked to each other like they were strangers, Dunn found, they were significantly happier in their interactions than when they talked to each other like they were long-time partners.
"Get yourself out of the room with your aunt who you can take only 15 minutes of"
"I know that my husband or my mother will love me if I'm the worst version of me, and that's freeing," Dunn said. "But ultimately, acting like the worst version of Liz isn't going to make me feel great about myself." She added, "In our research, we found that there are hidden emotional benefits to being your best self, even around people that do not demand that you be your best self all of the time."
The defining feature of a good encounter between loved ones is shared positive emotions and experiences — shared joy, serenity, awe, happiness, and/or love. Positive emotions are the glue that holds couples together. But positive emotions are incredibly fragile and fleeting. As relationships develop, the opportunities to experience them get crowded out by the demands of daily life, like work and kids. These demands kick into high gear during the holidays, augmented by shopping for gifts, cooking the big holiday meals, cleaning up the house, or hosting many family members with competing personalities.
Stress tends to suppress positive emotions and makes it harder for individuals to control negative emotions like irritability, anger, and hostility. So as positive emotions fall into the background of a relationship, negative emotions — which research shows are much more powerful than positive emotions — emerge to center stage. "Positive emotions," said Gottman, "don't have as much power to make life wonderful as negative emotions have to make life miserable. Without positive emotions, you are left with rudeness and irritability."
But hope should not be lost. There are ways for families to combat such destructive tendencies. "We don't choose our families," the University of Minnesota psychologist William Doherty told me, but we can choose how we spend our time with them, which will affect the quality of the holiday gathering.
Families are very predictable. If grandma got irritable after dinner last year and the year before, she probably will again this year. If Aunt Suzie always gives you an attitude about your clothing, she probably will again this year, too. If Cousin Tommy always does shots in the bathroom when no one is looking, then gets into a fight with his dad about politics, he probably will again this Christmas, too.
"You can anticipate when breakdowns will occur," Doherty told me, "So plan accordingly. Have people play card games in different rooms or go for walks. Get yourself out of the room with your aunt who you can take only 15 minutes of. Don't go somewhere alone because that will draw attention, but go and play with the kids or help in the kitchen."
Those are conflict-avoidance strategies. Beyond those, Doherty also advises families to create rituals and traditions that will bring family members together. In his book The Intentional Family, he points out that if families are intentional about what they do and how they treat each other during the holidays, they will be more likely to grow closer together rather than be torn apart.
"There are hidden emotional benefits to being your best self, even around people that do not demand that you be your best self all of the time"
For example, instead of sitting around the dinner table all night, which opens the door to orneriness and/or drunken unpleasantness, families can play games, like charades or cards. They can flip through old family photo albums. The older members could tell family stories. Or they could do an activity that focuses on the children, like arts and crafts.
These rituals help kindle positive emotions. Because positive emotions are so delicate, being intentional and mindful about cultivating them is important. So families, Doherty argues, should ensure that their rituals, whatever they may be, become like habits year after year, as routine as eating turkey on Thanksgiving. The more rituals families have that foster moments of positive bonding, the more positive experiences and emotions are automatically programmed into the holidays.
Another solution is for people to be more intentional about how they treat their family members. Rather than letting their guard down around loved ones, individuals could engage in self-presentation. But instead of self-presenting to get a stranger to like them, people could self-present to their loved ones out of care and love. The more an individual monitors his own behavior in a relationship, the more focused he will be on his family member, and the more likely he will be to act in a pleasant, agreeable way.
Families are messy and complicated. But that doesn't mean that family conflict will inevitably ruin the holidays. When the competing personalities of family members all come together under one roof for the first and perhaps only time all year, it can lead to a perfect storm of angst and unhappiness — or it can lead to upward spirals of love and joy, depending on the mindset people adopt going into the gathering. The more people cultivate positive emotions in rituals of connection — and through monitoring their own behavior — the happier everyone will be, not just during the holidays, but during family encounters on any given day.