Every year at Thanksgiving, we’re subjected to stories about how to cope with your drunk uncle, your bratty cousin, your grandma with an ax to grind. And every year, at least for those who come from your typical, slightly dysfunctional but lovably kooky family, the idea that we’d need an entire coping strategy to get through one meal seems a bit histrionic.
This year is different.
Hoooboy, do some of us need advice on how to get along with our families after a year like this one. Could we postpone Thanksgiving for another month or so, until we’ve all cooled down? No? Okay then, let’s take a deep breath, set out the decorative gourds, and dive in:
“Every single patient I have seen has been talking about different aspects of the election and how it’s affected them, even young kids,” said Cynthia Mathis, a licensed marriage and family therapist with McLean Psychotherapy Practices. “Some of them are concerned about Thanksgiving and what that will be like, being together with relatives. Should they talk about it, or would it be better to keep the peace?”
The answer depends on a person’s tolerance for conflict and their family’s communication style. For families of mixed political beliefs, there are five ways this could turn out.
1. Everyone gets in a “Real Housewives”-style table-flipping, screaming match.
Rob Rains, 32, who lives in the District, voted for Clinton. His mother voted for Trump. He thinks his Thanksgiving visit to Cleveland, his home town, could be rough.
“We just are at loggerheads,” he said. “I’m sure at some point there will be some shouting match about it.”
John W., a 40-year-old state police officer who lives in Cherokee County, Ga., and who is one of the few Trump voters in his family, anticipates some “loud exchanges.” “I like seeing liberals’ heads explode about it. It warms my heart,” he said, half-joking. One of those liberals: his cousin, a Bernie Sanders fan who “has a master’s degree in feminist dance therapy or something like that,” said John, who asked that his last name not be used.
“I had to tell him, ‘I’m not going to gloat, I’m not going to parade myself around during Thanksgiving dinner,'” said John. But he added that his wife doesn’t trust him to keep that promise and will be kicking him under the table all night. The cousin, he thinks, may come armed with some arguments from DailyKos.
Some liberals in particular say they feel obliged to bring up politics, because ignoring it for the sake of a polite turkey dinner would be implicitly condoning a vote against disenfranchised groups’ rights.
“It’s never not the time to start a fight about this,” said Louis Virtel, a television writer in Los Angeles who fears that members of his extended family in the Midwest voted for Trump. “I can’t pretend . . . that my entire lifestyle is not compromised by them voting against what I am.” Virtel is gay.
Sarah Briggs, a licensed professional counselor and co-owner of Creative Therapy in Fairfax, says those discussions can be valuable even if they get heated.
Some liberal voters think it is “incongruent that somebody might vote for Donald Trump but might still maintain a core value system that is not racist or not sexist,” she said. “People are trying to understand that, and to understand that, there has to be some kind of conversation.”
2. Everyone drinks heavily to cope with all of these feelings (and then gets in a huge fight).
“The number one tip is to have copious amounts of alcohol,” joked Kelly Magyarics, 43, a Clinton supporter from Oak Hill, Va. She would know: Magyarics works as a freelance wine and spirits writer. But when her conservative in-laws visit from Pennsylvania, she acknowledged, “There’s no good that can come of talking about it, especially after we have a few glasses of wine.”
But maybe Jack Daniel makes a good mediator. John, the policeman, says he told his family he would bring a bottle of good whiskey to take the edge off their political conversation. His most liberal cousin “seemed agreeable to that,” he said.
3. A few people decide to uninvite dissenters, or boycott the holiday.
Despite his tweet about naming the racists in his family, Virtel might stay in Los Angeles with friends. “You get a feeling that people you’ve known your whole life aren’t as on your side as you think,” he said. “I’m somewhat reluctant to be around that.”
But shutting one another out, some say, is the way this election became so corrosive in the first place.
“To hell with Facebook. What we need now is face time. That and maybe an endless series of community potlucks to bring everyone back to the idea that Americans are far more than their worst, most reactive online selves. That they’re living, breathing people with a lot more in common than they think,” wrote Ty Burr of the Boston Globe.
(What we also need now: Probably several more drinks; see above.)
4. Everyone tries to keep focused on anything, please, anything but politics.
“I just want to say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it,'” said Magyarics. If her family won’t let it rest, she plans to go to the other room to cook or do dishes.
That’s a good strategy for de-escalation, Mathis says.
“You can only control yourself and be in charge of what you do. If other people are doing upsetting things, hopefully there are other people to talk to,” she said.
And if not, you can just play some Adele.
5. Everyone has a respectful conversation over some turkey and pumpkin pie and comes away with a better understanding of one another.
Is it even possible? Do such families exist?
“If you have a family that is very good at communication and can be respectful of others’ views, it might be okay to discuss it,” Mathis said.
That’s the case for Ian BrowningSmith, 26, of Palatine, Ill. His mother is a Clinton supporter — so much of one that she had pre-booked a hotel room in Washington, anticipating attending the inauguration of the country’s first female president. Her son voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson, turned off by Clinton’s establishment status.
His mom is okay with it. They’re not going to fight. And that’s what he’s thankful for this Thanksgiving: “To have a family that’s very understanding, that doesn’t fight over what’s more or less petty politics,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re still going to be a family, we’re still going to love each other. I’m thankful because a lot of people aren’t going to have that.”