By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2007

Every Thanksgiving, Washington businessman Douglas Burton would fly to Texas for turkey, cornbread stuffing, green bean casserole and canned cranberry sauce with his parents and seven siblings. Then, just as surely as dessert would be sweet potato pecan pie, would come the moment everyone expected.

"You all are such a disappointment to me," his mother would say, gazing around the table at her assembled children. "You do not go to church. Now pass the pie."

Tension of another sort took hold inside the Falls Church home where Pentagon auditor Michael Davitt grew up. Each year he and his parents grew increasingly resentful about preparing an elaborate Southern feast not just for his brother and sister-in-law but, over time, the sister-in-law's widowed mother, divorced brother and young nephew.

"In normal circumstances this would be okay, but these people come over, never bring a dish, eat everything in sight, never help clean up or say thank you," Davitt laments. "But we never asked them to do anything, because my mom didn't want to start any fusses."

Somehow this holiday that is all about loved ones and gratitude has become notorious for dysfunction and stress. Children of divorced couples race from turkey with Mom to more turkey with Dad. Young marrieds spar over which family to visit. Warring adult siblings refuse to attend the same meal and force parents to choose sides. Gays and lesbians who are out to friends but not families slip back into the closet.

"Everyone is under a lot of stress, crowded into a too-small space," says Amy Dickinson, who writes the syndicated advice column Ask Amy. "All the usual, ancient problems and rivalries surface and there are usually new people to add to the mix. This can be combustible. Like the deep-fried turkey, it can end in a fireball."

For suggestions about dousing -- or, in a perfect world, averting -- conflagration, we turned to Dickinson and other keen students of human behavior. They acknowledge their own holiday angst, share lessons learned and offer the rest of us a few survival techniques.

For 17 Thanksgivings, Dickinson has been without her daughter because she and her ex "decided we didn't want to split the child in half. It has enabled her to get to know her dad's family in a special way." And it enabled Dickinson to have her daughter, now 19, at Christmas.

In her view, the burden of peacekeeping should be, but often isn't, shared by all: "People who have unfinished or un-dealt-with business, unfortunately, bring it to the family table, where it should not be brought."

It helps if hosts and hostesses "adjust their expectations," she says. "It's never going to be perfect." They should also assert control, whether it's isolating a "jerk guest by asking them to help you bring stuff to the table" or making a seating chart to separate people who don't get along. "Put the intolerant next to the very tolerant."

Deborah Tannen is an author and linguistics professor at Georgetown University who specializes in how language affects relationships. She says different conversational styles among families and friends can create problems.

"In one family you ask a lot of questions to show interest, and in another you don't ask questions because that's nosy," Tannen says. The trick, she adds, is finding a balance between that perceived indifference and prying.

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