Are you excited about holiday gatherings with your family? Or are you dreading the prospect? How were your Thanksgiving or Hannukah family visits? During the holiday season we see lots of advertisements showing smiling family togetherness, but for many people, obligatory family time is a source of added stress. Further straining families this year are the political conflicts that have exacerbated fractures in American society. More and more people are clashing with family members who hold opposing opinions, and some have even cut off contact with relatives they disagree with.
Relationship expert Dr. John Gottman has identified what he calls “the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” describing characteristics of troubled marriages and families: stonewalling (shutting down/avoiding discussion), defensiveness (deflecting feedback), criticism (harshness and blaming) and contempt (demeaning superiority—the strongest predictor of divorce). Many of my clients and friends describe current family turbulence in these terms. Plus, local and national news programs frequently highlight distressing examples of American leaders and citizens treating each other with hostility and disdain.
Fortunately, Dr. Gottman also offers four antidotes to improve relationships and help resolve family conflict:
- First, and most important, soothe your body using breathing and sensory strategies. By slowing down your exhalation, your threat response is deactivated, decreasing stonewalling and defensiveness to help you constructively approach a challenging conversation with a loved one or fellow citizen.
- Second, orient to what you appreciate about the other person. By calming your body first, you will be better able to find what you like about this person and soften your criticism of them.
- Third, take responsibility for any role you’ve played in the conflict.
- Fourth, in addressing the conflict issue, start the conversation gently with a warm tone and open body language, using a self-focused statement suggesting a positive resolution.
For example, taking a deep breath, you might offer, “I’m sorry I jumped so fiercely into the political argument at Thanksgiving dinner. I’m glad our family is getting together again for Christmas. I appreciate what a caring grandparent you are, and I look forward to hearing lots of fun stories about the kids. I hope we can steer clear of politics for this visit, but maybe we can make time soon to listen to each other more thoughtfully about our concerns about what’s happening in our world.”
The most important gift we can offer to our loved ones—as well as to our fraught national family—is to intentionally administer these antidotes to our own behavior, so we address our conflicts constructively and contribute to peace for this season and beyond.
Photo Credit: Darelle