Why Families Fight During Holidays

A time for good food, comfort, joy, and ... “you could be so pretty if you only lost a little weight.”
Paramount Pictures

You can’t have a canonical holiday movie without intra-family belligerence. Kevin McAllister and his older brother, Buzz, take turns sneering at each other in Home Alone. Robert Downey Jr.’s character flings a turkey at his sister in Home for the Holidays. Christmas Vacation's Clark Griswold perfectly captured the dual frustrations of obligatory cheer and obnoxious relatives when he yelled, “We're gonna press on, and we're gonna have the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap danced with Danny f--king Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white a-- down that chimney tonight, he's gonna find the jolliest bunch of a--holes this side of the nuthouse.”

In this case art seems to imitate life, and this time of year the Internet is ripe with lists on how to avoid or mitigate family conflicts.

At big gatherings, familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it sure can breed festering emotional wounds. Leonard Felder, a Los Angeles psychologist, has found that about three-quarters of us have at least one family member who annoys us.

But why is it that the same minor jabs and annoying tics that are harmless coming from friends prompt epic screaming matches when uttered by relatives? Is there something about our kin—or something about the holidays—that’s especially irritating?

Here are four theories as to why our families drive us nuts, and it would be nice of you to pay attention for once in your life:

The Narcissism of Small Differences

Sigmund Freud noted that people who lived near each other and were ethnically similar—“Spaniards and Portuguese, the North Germans and South Germans, the English and Scotch”—were often the ones who fought most bitterly.

The explanation for this, to him, was "the narcissism of the small difference.” In other words: "It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them." This might be because we tend to remember and value the differences between ourselves and others more than we do the similarities. To this day, Freud’s theory is used to explain the factors behind certain civil wars.

It also applies to families: Let’s say you and your mom look and act alike, so much so that people sometimes mistake you for sisters. But she voted for Romney, and you’re always attending minimum-wage rallies, so no one inflames your righteous indignation like she can. You might like all the same rom-coms, but whenever she starts up about welfare queens, she might as well be a 90s-era Serb, and you, a Croat.

Chris Logan, a senior lecturer in psychology at Dallas’ Southern Methodist University, explains that if we and our family members have, “a lot of overlap in characteristics and a high desire for uniqueness, we will focus on those points that make us different. When we are all sitting around the same table, eating the same food, celebrating the same event, wearing the same terrible sweater, trying to justify our life choices to our parents, we might naturally focus our attention on those things that differentiate us from the others.”

Felder has written that when our relatives are different in a bad way, we might even see it as a reflection on ourselves. And the fact that you’re blood related to an incorrigible homophobe might be too much to bear.

Social Allergens

Then again, it might not be a relative’s worldview that’s so bothersome, but a particular habit—one that’s innocuous at first but becomes grating long before dessert is served. For instance, why does Grandpa Fred always have to tell the same Reader’s Digest joke about the hollandaise sauce?

In his book Annoying: the Science of What Bugs Us, Joe Palca describes these tendencies as “social allergens": “Small things that don't elicit much of a reaction at first but can lead to emotional explosions with repeated exposure.”

“Cumulative annoyances are one of the major triggers of relationships conflicts,” Logan said. “Conflicts are often triggered by repetition of certain small behaviors.”

As University of Louisville psychologist Michael Cunningham told Palca, these can range from uncouth habits, such as knuckle cracking, to inconsiderate acts, like checking your phone mid-conversation. The allergens that seem likeliest to surface during the holidays, though, are “intrusive behaviors,” like when Aunt Edna reminds you repeatedly that she knows multiple single Jewish doctors.

But unlike with friends, there’s no ignoring Aunt Edna—at least not until her flight back to Cleveland.

“When we have the increased interdependence of out-of-town family staying with us,” Logan said, “those little quirks can feel much bigger and more annoying then when the same characteristics are present in our friends and family but not under our roof.”

Passive Aggression

Near the end of World War II, a colonel in the United States War Department described certain troops as having, "a neurotic type reaction... manifested by helplessness, or inadequate responses, passiveness, obstructionism, or aggressive outbursts."

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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