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Dealing with Family Drama During the Holidays

December 8, 2010 · 113 comments

in Commentary, Life

This is a guest post written by Sandy, who authors one of my favorite blogs, First Gen American.  (If you haven’t already been to her site, get over there soon and check it out.  It is full of fantastic posts, with topics ranging from personal finance to ‘Babci‘.)

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone, and I am curious as to how many people have a grouchy old relative that just can’t be pleased, or a black sheep that always saunters in late?  For me, that person  is my cousin.  She will always be invited to our house because she was a great comfort to me growing up.  She was always the one who would buy me a cake on my birthday, give me presents at Christmas, or take me to the beach during the summer.  These are things my parents didn’t consider a priority, so these small gestures made a huge difference in my childhood, and for that, she will always be welcome in my home.

Here’s a little background:  My cousin’s parents supported her and her brother financially their whole lives.  Now my cousin is almost 50, and within the last 2 years, both her parents passed away after long illnesses.  She has few friends except for her 10 birds, 4 cats and multiple fish tanks.  She stopped working about 10 years ago to care for her parents and keep them out of nursing homes.  Even though it’s been over a year, she still is no where near ready to re-enter the workforce.  The estate is not settled and her house looks like something out of hoarders.  Despite having no income, her favorite hobby is shopping on ebay.  To make matters worse, her brother emptied many of the bank accounts while my uncle (their father) was on his death bed.  This was devastating to the family.  Although my uncle was bedridden because of cancer, he was still aware of the betrayal and it broke his heart.  (That guy will never be welcome in my house again).  She has a lot to feel sorry about, and is constantly saying how she has no family left and is all alone.

Yet, here we are, just 2 hours away and always with the doors open.  Whenever she comes out, we roll out the red carpet and make all her favorite things.  I constantly remind her that she still has family and she is not alone.  I desperately want her to be happy, but it’s almost as if she chooses to find reasons to continue to be miserable.

It was actually a miracle that she showed up in time for Thanksgiving this year.   One time, we moved the date so she could attend (to get coverage for her mom), and she didn’t even show up.  Anyway, this year, she made a point to criticize all kinds of things throughout the day.  Not to toot my own horn, but my mother and I are AWESOME cooks and there was not a thing on the table that wasn’t made from fresh ingredients and from complete scratch.  We also made sure to have all of her favorite things to eat and drink.  Most people would be hard pressed to find anything wrong with the day, but as you’ll see, she found about a dozen.

Here’s a list:

  • I didn’t have the right type of milk for her tea. (I had skim and ½ and ½, but she wanted whole milk. How about just mix the two?)
  • My home made authentic Italian bread was too crusty
  • My mom’s made-from-scratch puff pastries weren’t as flaky as her mom’s used to be (that’s totally not true btw, my mom’s are way better)
  • My home made whip cream was not to her liking (I put orange extract in it per my son’s request. He loves orange Julius flavored whip cream)
  • We had apple crumble and gooseberry pie, but then she said they were just okay and her favorite pie is pecan and would have preferred that (we never had pecan growing up. I have no idea where that came from).  Plus, she proceeded to eat a slice of each while complaining about them.
  • I had 10 side dishes for 5 adults and she noted that I forgot the peas and carrots.
  • We finished with a birthday party for my 2 year old and although she brought not a thing for him, not even a card.  She had 3 helpings of cake and then blamed me for her expanding waistline.
  • She also likes to point out how many helpings Babci (my mother) put on her plate because somehow, it makes her feel better that my mom eats more than she does.
  • When she stayed over my house, she complained that the bed was too hard, then when she stayed at my mom’s, she complained the bed was too soft.  She’s like the princess and the pea.  (From Kris- you needed to have a bed shipped immediately that was ‘just right’.)
  • She also complained that the room started off too cold and then when she turned on the radiator, it got too hot.
  • Oh and the ride was long and the traffic was bad and about a million other things I tuned out.

After several hours of this, every time she said “No offense BUT….” It got pretty annoying.

So what do you do with a person like this?

Unfortunately, she has had to deal with a lot of negative stuff in her life,  and instead of valuing the things she does have, she seeks out the things that are missing in her life.  I suppose this is where some of the shopping addiction comes from, to try and fill that void.
(She is seeing a therapist in case you’re wondering).

I’ve tried a variety of techniques over the years and I haven’t figured it out completely yet.  Here are a few options I’ve tried:

  1. Confront the person – I did do this last week, in a nice way.  I kept saying “oh you found yet another thing to complain about I see”.   On some unconscious level, I do feel like the only time she feels truly alive is when she is angry, so she looks to pick fights.  On the one hand, you want your feelings to be known, but on the other hand, you don’t want to allow her to get everyone upset and cause tension during the holidays, so it’s a delicate balance.
  2. Do Nothing – this sometimes works but you have to understand a person’s motivation.  Babci complains a lot too but I realize it’s just her way of trying to give me advice, not to pick a fight.
  3. Get into a Fight – this is almost never the right answer but sometimes, it’s hard to avoid when the person has done something really rude or inconsiderate.
  4. Ask the Person to Leave or say No – I actually have had to do this on occasion.  My cousin is notoriously late and sometimes shows up a day or two after our planned meetings.  Many times I have other plans scheduled and tell her that if she can’t come by a certain time then we must reschedule.  This leads her to feel bad for herself that she is not welcome in my home.

So how does this relate to your situation?  Well, most families have at least some drama during the holidays, so here are a few suggestions on how to make them go a little smoother:

  • You are in control of your own emotions- Just because someone is trying to get a rise out of you doesn’t mean you have to allow them in.   Try to understand the person’s point of view and realize that the reason they are acting a certain way is because of their own issues, not yours.  Sometimes it’s hard, but a little empathy goes a long way.
  • Make your own house rules and stick to them – if someone is notoriously late to a holiday dinner, don’t reward the behavior by delaying things for them.  It’s their choice.  They can either show up on time or eat cold leftovers off a picked over carcass.  The times I’ve been accommodating only led to more letdowns.
  • Be Treated Respectfully – don’t let someone treat you with disrespect. You have a choice of who to invite to your house or whose events you go to.  Communicate your expectations and follow through if you’re not treated in a way that is respectful to you and your family.  There is no law saying you have to go to someone’s house you hate just because they are family.
  • Respect Others – If you’re not hosting, thank the host.  Bring a gift or a side.  Offer to clean up afterwards.  Even if the offer is staunchly refused, it’s the thought that counts.
  • Try to Understand the Topics that are Taboo – and leave them alone.  Don’t bring up Uncle Bob’s nasty divorce.  What purpose does that really bring?  And if someone else does, try to change the subject.
  • Be Thankful for the Things you Do Have – many of the family drama that occurs during the holidays is so trivial compared to the loss and suffering that is going on all around the world.  Make sure you take the time to see all that is good in your life instead of being frustrated by what’s not perfect.

Does anyone have any other time honored tricks on dealing with family drama during the holidays??

From Kris:  It is while reading stories like this that I am glad that I have an incredibly small family.  (I don’t even have a cousin to invite to the holidays.)  I personally have no patience for people like the cousin mentioned in this story, and I would have an incredibly hard time inviting her to the holidays.  However, I know you do have to live with yourself, and I am sure I would end up opening my door for her too.  I think I would just have to take about 1,000 deep breaths and just remember the person has issues beyond their control, and treat their ridiculous comments like they were coming from a toddler who has no filter.  Then I would drink… 🙂

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{ 111 comments… read them below or add one }

First Gen American December 8, 2010 at 6:10 am

Kris, you are so hilarious. Yes, drinking was a big part of the day as well. I ended up buying 2 cases of wine the week before (perhaps my subconscious bracing itself).


Kris December 8, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Thank you Sandy. I really enjoyed your post, and appreciating you submitting it to my site!

Relatives can be difficult because you can’t choose them. Things at my house are pretty laid back for the holidays, so I am fortunate.

I agree with Biz down below. Can you possibly work in a visit to her house instead? Although I know you would probably sit and worry that she was home alone. There really is no good answer unless you can turn off the ‘guilt gene’.

Thanks again!


dianne December 26, 2010 at 7:57 pm

Loved that about ‘turning off the ‘guilt gene’. Great!


Money Reasons December 8, 2010 at 7:11 am

We have a herd of black sheep in our family 🙂

Bot most of those sheep are busy doing thing that they think are cool, so we don’t have to deal this them much… Most are single doing the same things that they did back when they were 16, sad they don’t see what my sister and I see.

So mostly our events are small with a predictable group 🙂


First Gen American December 8, 2010 at 9:25 am

It’s nice that you don’t have someone guilting you into spending time together when you clearly don’t have much in common.


Andrew @ 101 Centavos December 8, 2010 at 7:44 am

I’m with Kris, drinking heavily seems a good way to cope 🙂
We’ve had our share of feuds and disagreements. This Christmas, it will be the first time we’re all re-united after a seven-year hiatus (we’re good at holding grudges, it seems). With the common understanding that we all want this to go well, we’ve set some ground rules that will hopefully be followed.


First Gen American December 8, 2010 at 9:29 am

Good Luck on the reunion. I hope it goes well. My family is full of grudges. I’m holding one right now against the guy who emptied his dad’s bank accounts. I don’t care how much he kisses my butt and I don’t care that he didn’t steal from me personally. I don’t want my kids around him and I’m sure if given a chance, he’d take my money too. My uncle survived 5 years in a nazi slave labor camp, but what killed him is his son breaking his heart. See..plenty of grudgery in that response.


101 Centavos December 8, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Hmmm, I’ve that happen to me as well, bank accounts hoovered (only once, shame on me). I think you’re doing the right thing. Trust takes a long time to build, and only a moment to sweep away.


Moneycone December 8, 2010 at 8:36 am

Oh boy! Just reading about your cousin makes me cringe! Now did I put that bottle of wine…


Nicole December 8, 2010 at 8:56 am

Is she older? There are a lot of different kinds of diseases of aging that will change personality in the way you’re describing. (Went to a talk by Robert Levenson at Berkeley on that topic, so I can’t be more specific.)


First Gen American December 8, 2010 at 9:30 am

The best way I can describe it is a clinical form of narcissism.


The Grouch December 8, 2010 at 9:05 am

It wouldn’t be a family unless there was drama and dysfunction. Getting tipsy is one way to cope, but I probably won’t invite that person back into my house again. I’d control the visit by going to her house so that you can leave when you’ve had enough. You’re still fulfilling a family obligation, but on your terms.


First Gen American December 8, 2010 at 9:34 am

Funny you mention that because I was just thinking about that for Christmas. Despite the venty post, I really do want her to have nice holidays. I care about her and want her to have fun. Perhaps that’s why I vented, because no amount of work or preparation is good enough.


Jacq @ Single Mom Rich Mom December 8, 2010 at 9:49 am

First Gen, I hear you on the clinical narcissism. 🙂
A couple of years ago, I invited my dad for Christmas, he bitched about his uncle (who I’ve never met and has been dead for 50 years) non-stop. I finally had enough and told him he was being too negative and Christmas is not about bitching about old dead people. I wasn’t going to sacrifice my and my kids Christmas to humor someone else. So I just limit when I see him to a couple of hours at a time since that’s all I can handle.

Sometimes people do this because everyone around them humors them and doesn’t tell them the truth about how they bring everyone down. I think if you love someone, you have to tell them the truth about how they are affecting you. In a nice way. I’ve read stuff about how to do it (I think John Gottman had a book on how to do this with married people), make it all “I feel when you say…” blah blah blah. If I was drinking though, hooboy, I don’t have a good filter on my inside voice.


First Gen American December 8, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Good idea. Are you sure we’re not related somehow? I try to be the glass half full person when she’s spouting out glass half empty comments. I often get the Yeah yeah, I should be thankful BUT…


DoNotWait December 8, 2010 at 11:07 am

My Gosh! I love this post… so true! We all have one of this kind. Mine is, well different, but as much demanding. One of my strategies (I also use the ones you mention from time to time) is to be a bit cynical as he is. For example, he says “Everybody thinks I am an idiot”, I reply “Yes, that’s it, everybody does think that of course” or he says “You must not love me you don’t call often” and I reply “Yes, it must be that, I must not love you”. Sometimes it makes him realize how ridiculous his comments can be. Sometimes it does not work. I think the best we can do is knowing that we can’t change them… The only thing we have to do is either accept it and put ourselves some boundaries or simply not see this person anymore (which is a lot harder to do).


First Gen American December 8, 2010 at 2:09 pm

We use sarcasm a lot in our family. Some people don’t always know when we’re being serious, so I’ve tried to tone it down over the years.


Squirrelers December 8, 2010 at 2:02 pm

My first thought here is sympathy for many involved, based on the details provided.

Sympathy for the female cousin, first and foremost, because her life seems to be not as great as many others. Not many friends, lost parents, not living so maturely…I feel bad for her after reading this.

Sympathy for you (First Gen) and your husband for having to be so patient and endure such incredibly annyoing behavior on her part, along with exposing your own family to this stuff.

NO Sympathy for the male cousin who emptied his dying Dad’s bank accounts. I’m right there with you, that guy wouldn’t be welcome in my house either. I remember that story from a prior post of yours and it practically turned my stomach to read of such shameless behavior.

Family can be complicated and tough to handle. Those with easy situations, be thankful! In this case, I like how you have seemingly empathized with her. Good for you. Sometimes, when our own lives are more prosperous and happy than that of someone in our family, it’s important to care and sacrifice some of our time and convenience for the other family member’s welfare. I am of the belief that good, generous actions will come back to help the giver anyway. That said, boundaries are important, and you can’t let the other person completely disregard your own feelings, emotionally blackmail you, etc. It seems like you have a good handle on these things, based on the details given.


First Gen American December 8, 2010 at 2:27 pm

This is a very thoughtful response. I’m just glad my husband is tolerant of my family’s weirdness. You are right, there is a fine line between being there for someone and having them be a black hole sucking all your time, money and emotions out of you. Plus, sometimes family members feel a sense of entitlement that you do certain things for them unconditionally.

What I fear most besides her someday finding this article is that she wants and needs someone to replace the role of her parents and I’m a prime candidate. It’s going to be tough when the money runs out and she starts getting desperate but I cannot support her for many reasons. Luckily she’s inheriting an apartment building so she could survive on the rental income if she can manage to remove her animals and clutter from them (yes, 2 cats are currently living in a nice 1000 sq ft, 3 bedroom apartment because they have a taste for birds).


retirebyforty December 8, 2010 at 4:25 pm

We are not going to have any drama this Christmas. My parents are in another country and my bros are in another state. The Mrs’ family are all in another state. We can’t travel this year so we’re just going to enjoy a nice quiet Christmas.


dianne December 26, 2010 at 8:06 pm

I am jealous of that. Enjoy!


Crystal @ BFS December 8, 2010 at 4:40 pm

I dislike “Debbie-downers” so much that I currently don’t have any in my life. I even walk away from my mom or quickly get off the phone when she gets on one of her streaks. Life is just too short and I just don’t have any patience for someone who constantly tries to bring people down. I vent and need a shoulder to cry on often enough that I understand that need for everybody and will gladly oblige for anybody who needs it, but a general whiny personality is just too annoying to deal with…

Sandy, I already knew it, but you are truly a better person than me. You are so nice.


First Gen American December 8, 2010 at 4:55 pm

I don’t let her bring me down, but when she starts effecting my family, then the gloves come off. For a while there, she would try to discipline my kids in front of me (instead of letting me do it). That was when a line was crossed and we had a good ol fight about that. She bites her tongue now.


First Gen American December 9, 2010 at 5:44 am

Oh, when someone criticizes your children or husband it’s 1000x more annoying than if they say your bread is too crusty. Luckily they’ve been pretty good lately. My older one went through a tough time right before the baby was born and it was tough trying to deal with that while she was trying to meddle but has no clue about kids. What are you going to tell me to spray them with a water bottle so they’ll start behaving? It doesn’t work that way, neither does yelling at them, at least not with my kids.


Crystal @ BFS December 9, 2010 at 1:20 pm

My husband has a “Family Guy” sense of humor sometimes and it hurts when people don’t like him because of it. I know when he’s being funny and when he’s actually being a butthead, so it makes me uncomfortable when other people just assume he’s mean. It’s only happened a few times, but it’s pretty bad to somebody as people-persony as me, lol.


Kevin@InvestItWisely December 8, 2010 at 8:04 pm

I’m sorry to hear about the bad brother. I’m not sure about the cousin cause it’s tough. You have good memories but she is a downer lately. You don’t want to enable that behavior, but how do you get them to change? She is probably hoping for a bit of tension and a fight.

I am used to this, myself! There is tons of drama in my family; in fact, I don’t really have a family, I just have uncles, aunts, and cousins. It’s sad; people can be so stupid and selfish, sometimes.


First Gen American December 9, 2010 at 5:47 am

I think it helps if you can put yourselves in their shoes. You’re right about the tension. I’d ideally like to have her re-learn how to have fun instead of searching for reasons to validate that her life sucks.


Mike December 8, 2010 at 10:30 pm

Wow, bizarre relative.

I wouldn’t know what to do with someone like that, other than to just try to limit the time we spend together. 🙂


Deidre December 10, 2010 at 11:03 pm

Great post! I read the whole post and by the end, my jaw was hanging wide open. The first thing that popped into my head was that your cousin is lucky to have you as a close relative.

Maybe I’m off the mark here but not only does it appear that you have been her emotional rock during the time when she was caring for her parents (very difficult any way you look at that) but you offer support each year at every holiday when it is possible that others may not. It’s sad that she is not opening herself to the care that you and others may be willing to give her. It also seems apparent that for some reason she feels she does not deserve to be included in the family circle emotionally and picks fights to push everyone away. You are a blessing to your cousin for supporting her through the years!

I admire that you have been able to balance being firm with your cousin (tough love sometimes works wonders!) and mainting the good memories while including her in your own immediate family. I will be visiting your blog to check out more postings thats for sure!


First Gen American December 11, 2010 at 4:41 am

Deidre I hope you enjoy my site. It’s a keen observation about pushing people away. The relationship is constantly evolving. My biggest learning was when she would complain about something, I would always try to run in and help her fix her problems. She didn’t always appreciate my methods, nor did it foster independence, so it was wrong on many levels. It’s much better to just be there and listen.


Anna@plan hot August 15, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Outstanding story there. What occurred after? Thanks!


First Gen American August 16, 2013 at 1:29 pm

The following year, I had Thanksgiving at in-laws and she was not invited. That Christmas, she never showed up. I drove 2 hours the next day to deliver her presents (because they were time sensitive electronics). She was home, had the door locked but didn’t answer and claimed she was sleeping and didn’t hear the door. I got fuming mad, told her that was the last straw and returned the presents. Last year, I mailed her a gift that she thanked me for and wanted but she was not invited to the holidays.

In the end, the holidays are a sad time for her so I think it stresses her out and that’s part of the reason she’s super late or doesn’t show or tries to justify her feelings by pointing out all that’s wrong with the holidays.

My children are small and it’s a magical time for them. In the end, I decided that I wanted their childhood holidays to be joyful times, not miserable ones. I was with a wise colleague of mine the other day and over dinner, we were talking about Happiness. She says “I believe in my heart that happiness is a choice.” Ditto. Lfe is way too short to spend so much time and energy on someone who seeks out misery and spends all their time pointing out all that’s wrong in the world instead of being joyful about the things that are right and we should be grateful for.


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