The Secret to Extended Family Harmony
Would you do this to your relatives during the holidays?
Talking behind people’s backs gets a bad rap. In fact, the rabbi at my childhood synagogue tells the same allegory every year about how gossip is as impossible to take back as feathers from a pillow scattered in the wind, so you just shouldn’t do it.
That’s usually sound advice. If one of the moms at a night out gets a little tipsy and talkative, it’s probably not a good idea to blab about it to your other mom friends. After all, you wouldn’t want her doing that to you. That would just be nasty gossip.
But there’s one instance when talking behind one’s back is just what the doctor ordered, and that is when relatives are involved and it’s the holiday season.
Case in point: I have a friend whose family is in turmoil because one sister-in-law won’t go to the other’s house. SIL 1 felt that whenever she tried to help in preparations—say, organize the cheese tray—SIL 2, the hostess, would politely thank her, then rearrange whatever SIL 1 had done, as if the job hadn’t been done right the first time. The final straw was when SIL 1 offered her sister-in-law a bag of hand-me-down clothes for her kids, and SIL 2 refused it. Later, SIL 1 told her husband that she doesn’t want to go to “that house” anymore because she feels that the hostess thinks she’s “too good” for them. So this year, they’re having separate Thanksgivings.
“That’s ridiculous!” I replied. “Why doesn’t she just go, be nice, then talk about her to her friends, like the rest of us do with relatives we can’t stand?”
It sounded like I was being facetious, but in fact, I was serious. Sometimes there’s a clash in personalities that’s never going to change. That’s the way it is with family: As the saying goes, you don’t get to choose your neighbors or your relatives. Neither of the above sisters-in-law is evil, but their differences sometimes leave them feeling defensive or inadequate. Are those feelings worth ruining Thanksgiving dinner or causing a rift in the family? I’d argue they don’t. But can they cause a girl to need to vent to a trusted friend? Absolutely! In fact, knowing you have a sympathetic ear waiting can even make you feel better in the moment: Instead of fuming about an offhand comment, you can change the voice in your head to say, “I can’t wait to tell Heather about this!” And then it becomes, well, kind of fun.
How would I feel if one of my relatives did that to me? I would feel just fine. In fact, I have a relative I see about once a year who has a knack for making everyone uncomfortable. As one of many examples, she nearly burst into tears when my son accidentally spilled his juice (even though he was quick to help clean it up) and then told me how fastidious her own kids were at his age (a not-so-subtle comparison!). I would much prefer that she keep her opinions to herself when we see her, then tell her friends the next day, “Her son is such a slob! I love them, but I feel like I have to cover my furniture in plastic wrap when they come!”
There are, of course, exceptions to this talk-behind-their-backs rule. If you and the offending relative know the same people, talking about her to mutual friends is probably not a good idea. Really malicious comments about things that have nothing to do with you (“You should have seen how many helpings of stuffing my fat cousin took!”) are just, well, malicious. And if the source of conflict is not just a personality difference, but rather something you truly think needs to change (e.g., Uncle Bob gets drunk and inappropriate in front of the children), venting to friends won’t solve the problem.
But if it really is just a clash of personalities that leaves you feeling slightly inadequate/defensive/like you momentarily want to throttle somebody, don’t let it ruin your or your family’s holiday. Focus instead on the relatives you do love to see. Be thankful for good food to eat, and the good times that unfold.
And don’t feel too guilty if you’re also grateful for good friends to whom you spill all on Monday.
More by NJ Family's Real Moms of NJ Blogger, Renée Sagiv Riebling: