Why Families Fight During Holidays

In other words, the scene at Christmas morning breakfast.

Passive aggression is a common culprit behind petty quarrels, but it's usually developed as an adaptive behavior. The passivity is a way to avoid breaking what the person feels are arbitrary social rules, like having to make the mashed potatoes just so, or being compelled to listen to unwanted parenting advice from an elder.

"Some of the people being demeaned as passive-aggressive are in fact being extremely careful not to commit mistakes, a strategy that has been successful for them," Dr. E. Tory Higgins, director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University, told the New York Times. But the effort to avoid confrontation can boil over into sniping and yelling when the person tires of trying to please everyone. Passive-aggressive people become difficult, Higgins said, "when their cautious instincts are overwhelmed by demands that they perceive as unreasonable."

Here’s how The Times suggests you should deal with a passive-aggressive person:

“To manage garden variety passive-aggressive behavior, psychiatrists often advise a kind of protective engagement: don't attack the person; that only reinforces your position as an authority making demands. Take into account the probable cause of the person's unexpressed anger and acknowledge it, if possible, when being stonewalled during a discussion.”

Sibling rivalries don’t stop at childhood:

In a study of 65 randomly-selected families of 10th graders, the teens reported just as many fights with their brothers and sisters as with their parents, and conflicts were particularly likely to flare up among same-sex siblings. The authors wrote that the arguments arose from “close living conditions, competition for limited resources, and personal eccentricities.”

The most common conflict-resolution type was withdrawal: walking away from fights without talking about them.

Other studies have found that adult siblings also experience conflict and rivalry, even if they no longer reside with each other or their parents. These tensions were especially pronounced between siblings who were close in age and of the same sex.

Priming ourselves about past sibling wrongdoings can make us more likely to spar over the dinner table as grown-ups.

“If we tell our spouse in the car on the way to mom and dad’s house ‘watch, Smedley won’t wait to jump on me about X,’ and two hours later Smedley asks us about something tangential to that issue, we will likely overreact and have the same disagreement we haven’t resolved for the last 15 years,” Logan said.

Add to that the fact that people are drinking more, eating sugary foods, deprived of sleep, and not exercising as much, and no one is at his or her best, so relationships' old patterns can return, explained Bethann Bierer, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Colorado in Denver.

"When people who don’t usually spend time together are expected to engage with one another, magic doesn’t always happen," Bierer said.

What's more, even if you’re all pudgy gingers, you and your siblings likely all have dramatically different personalities. As Felder has written, a single family can contain an extreme narcissist and a total pushover, both of whom happen to find the other’s temperament totally intolerable.

As a coping mechanism, Felder recommends that rather than feel shocked that our relatives are so unlike us, we should instead simply try to marvel at the vibrant genetic diversity that we’re having the opportunity to witness.

“Take a deep, relaxing breath,” he writes in his book, When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People, and think to yourself, “Wow, we’ve got an empathetic caregiver and a self-absorbed bully in the same family gene pool!”

How wondrous! Now will somebody please pass the bourbon!


Logan told me that the mindset we bring to holiday celebrations can also determine how well we get along.

“A few weeks ago I drove by the house I lived in from [ages] 2 to 22. Just pulling into the neighborhood brought back memories from different times in my life,” he said. “I could either focus on my brother putting me in a bird cage when I was tiny or all the great memories shared with the family. Often with conflict, we focus on the differences or past hurts rather than remembering to feel gratitude for him helping coach my little league baseball and football teams. If we walk in the front door thinking about past problems, we will likely be a contributor to conflicts. If we walk in thinking about the good times, we can create a self-fulfilling prophecy of happy remembrances and close bonds.”

It’s also important to remember that irritation is shaped by culture, including our expectations of others, internal biases, and even the language we speak.

In fact, in Annoying, Palca describes several cultures where the concept of annoyance, for whatever reason, simply does not exist. Which is why next year, my family will be spending next Christmas either among the Utkuhikhalingmiut Eskimos of northern Canada, or on the Ifaluk coral atoll in the Federated States of Micronesia. So Kuvianak Inovia to all, and to all a good night!

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

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