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.
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.”
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."
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!