The torture of the holidays: It's all relative

Dear Philip:

Though most people dread the shopping or the cooking or the mad dash to see everyone they know, the only thing about the holidays that fills me with terror is my husband’s uncle. Uncle Richard comes to our house and makes everyone miserable. He picks fights about politics, he tries to hurry up Christmas dinner so that he can get back on the road, he says very ugly things, and he speaks horribly to his wife, which makes all of us uncomfortable.

Though my husband has put up with him for a few decades, I’m worried that one of these years they’ll come to blows. Christmas is already stressful enough. How do we deal with horrible Uncle Richard without ruining the holiday?

Already Stressed

Dear Already,

If you really want to solve the problem of Uncle Richard, you’ll need four things: plastic sheeting, a shovel, a large bag of lye, and an alibi.

(On advice of counsel, I hereby state that the preceding sentence was a joke. Mostly.)

All of us have dealt — or are still dealing — with a toxic relative or two at the holidays. They can turn any family gathering into the Bataan Death March, making us count the hours until we can send them on their way, with most of our leftovers (and patience) in tow. Know above all else that you are not alone.

Know also that you are not completely helpless. Though there’s no single way to stave off the Monster Who Destroyed Christmas, there are ways to lessen the damage he does, and there are positives to be taken from the ordeal he presents. The trick here is to do some preparation. This involves anticipating the trouble spots – do they come at the table? after two (or five) beers? does he have a usual target? – and brainstorming ways of avoiding them. Preparing also involves communicating with your family well before Uncle Richard shows up.

Chiefly, I’m thinking about your poor husband. One of the reasons he wants to punch his uncle every year is that it’s HIS uncle: he’s embarrassed by his blood relation to the troublemaker. In some way, he feels responsible. So tell him he’s not. Also let him know that you feel for his aunt, the woman who gets to put up with his uncle’s nonsense not just at the holiday table, but all year long. After all, she’s the only reason that the jerk is still invited. That’s not a small point: when you let your husband know that you not only empathize, but you also see the good in inviting his aunt every year, it’ll take some of his anxiety away.

When you get closer to the big day, strategize with all family members old enough to be in danger of engaging with Uncle Dick. Come up with a plan for recognizing the start of potential conflict, and for either deflecting – the quick subject change works well, here — or literally walking away. (“Excuse me; I just remembered something I have to do,” is my go-to.) By talking this stuff through before you need it, you’re letting your family know that no one has to face the relative from Hell alone. Think of it as team building: you’re Team Rational.

Because we are all products of our childhood experiences, it’s important that there are a few fights you don’t avoid. I’m thinking specifically of the “ugly things” your husband’s uncle likes to say, and how you respond to them in front of your kids. If Uncle Richard is talking as if he’s about to don either a white sheet or a swastika, you need to speak up immediately. The magic word is “unacceptable.” As in, “Uncle Richard, that’s enough. That talk is unacceptable.” You’re not inviting him to discuss his bigotry further, you’re putting your foot down. If he persists, let him know he’s free to leave. If he takes you up on that…problem solved!

If all else fails, of course, I’ll be your alibi if you’ll be mine.

Happy holidays,


Philip Van Munching is a New York Times bestselling author of advice books, and was a finalist last year in the Good Morning America nationwide “advice guru” search. Email your questions to [email protected]

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