Guess who may or may not be coming to dinner; managing holidays during the Pandemic

It should not be surprising that couples/families have different opinions about whether or not they should get together in person over the holidays. We have witnessed conflicts about whether to have dinner with relatives erupt in the middle of sessions. Not surprisingly, these conflicts are fueled by long simmering tensions.  In one family, an elderly father reprimanded his daughter’s partner for their refusal to have an in-person dinner and informed the partner that he has felt slighted by his daughter for many years.  In a second family, a wife’s intense resentment of her mother-in-law became quickly apparent, as part of why the idea of a family dinner was being so vehemently rejected.  

As soon as it becomes apparent that other issues are exacerbating a couple’s struggle to decide how to manage the holidays, we strongly recommend clearly labeling/identifying how two issues are present: differences about the appropriate way to manage the pandemic and unresolved conflicts about relationships with extended family members. Once agreement is reached on this point, we strongly recommend separating these issues and treating/addressing them separately, as completely different concerns. While this sounds simple, it is often challenging as recriminations and accusations about pandemic management will surface, i.e., you had your mother over while I was out of town, you go to the gym which is more dangerous than having my cousins for dinner, and the like. These exchanges need to be blocked. Nothing is likely to be gained from reviewing these disputes. Litigating past disputes is only going to heighten tensions. The focus needs to be on addressing the more pressing issue: what is the couple/family going to do for the holiday. We strongly recommend adopting the stance that there is no solution that is “the right one,” and that the optimal solution is one that both partners can agree on and support.  

Therapists may find the idea of adopting a position of neutrality in helping families reach agreement about the Covid-19 pandemic questionable. There is clear scientific evidence and guidance promulgated by multiple respected sources, i.e, the CDC, about what we should not do.  However, it is our view that it will not be helpful to try to impose solutions. It is extremely unlikely that lack of knowledge is the central problem in these instances. In fact, some couples will argue and debate scientific evidence and expert opinions with great facility, while these debates bring them no closer to a solution. Moreover, adopting a stance of certainty has risks if we are working to help others determine how to resolve conflicts and manage tensions. We would draw a clear distinction between how we practice and what we recommend. It is perfectly reasonable for clinicians to have a clear position on how they are dealing with the pandemic and to support, defend, and advocate for their position in running their practice. The Centers for Family Change views in office work as needlessly risky and ill advised at this time. While we advocate this stance we do not believe it is our place to lecture or denigrate choices that are different from our own. 

Unresolved family tensions (particularly relationships with in-laws and parents) are all too common. Conflicts about managing the pandemic offer an opportunity to identify and label these issues as concerns that need to be addressed. However, pragmatics clearly call for a resolution on how to manage the pandemic. When these issues surface we strongly recommend that people: try and separate unresolved family tensions from pandemic management; then clarify their own positions (individually, before engaging with their partner in discussing these issues); agree that the goal is to reach a consensus on how to manage upcoming situations; take a forward focus, avoid referencing past actions (e.g., it is really unhelpful to begin by saying, “well you had your mother over so what is the issue with having my parents for dinner”); and stay focused on trying to reach an agreement about how upcoming events will be handled.  These conversations can be heated and we remind families that they need to “hit pause,” or take a time-out if things become heated, accusatory, or begin to include discussions of past conflicts. These strategies can be quite effective, but couples may need help in staying on track and remembering to separate out past conflicts from current decision making. 

A final note: it may also be helpful for all of us to remember that it can be a struggle to keep the longview in mind. Human beings can all too easily lose perspective and have difficulty recognizing that what may feel like a big deal, may not actually be as big a deal. Hopefully, holding this in mind can help us all better resolve disagreements.