8 Steps for Dealing with a Relationally Tense Thanksgiving

A family arguing over Thanksgiving

8 Steps for Dealing with a Relationally Tense Thanksgiving

One fall, a friend shared her holiday plans with me. She and her husband had been invited to his family, all of whom, it appeared, disliked her and made no effort to hide this. I asked her if she found her visits challenging. Without hesitation, she smiled and said, “No. I just focus on how I can love them.”

For many, Thanksgiving can trigger equal parts nostalgia and relational drama. We long to connect with loved ones we, perhaps, haven’t seen in years. But there are others we’d prefer to avoid, or at least interact with sparingly.

If anticipation of the holidays is negatively impacting your mental health and stealing your sleep, I hope you’ll find encouragement in this: You don’t have to let anyone dominate your emotions. You can experience the peace of Christ, no matter who or what you encounter or which topics relatives discuss at the dinner table. 

Here are 8 steps to maintaining inner calm this Thanksgiving.

1. Invite Jesus’ presence and perspective into your situation.

Years ago, my husband and I periodically spent time with an extended family member I was certain disliked me. Whenever she visited, it seemed like everything I did or said upset her. As a relatively new wife and mom, I was pretty insecure, which made her words hurt all the more. One morning, dreading a weekend encounter, I shared my inner angst with God in prayer. Then I simply sat in His presence, letting His Spirit soothe my anxiety, before opening my Bible.That day, I happened to be in Psalm 91, and through it, God reminded me of His tender and protective love. 

Verse one states: “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty” (NIV). As I read those words, I paused and envisioned myself sheltered in and surrounded by God. I remember and reflected on that visual throughout the day. The image reminded me that my Father would remain with me, and regardless of who rejected me, His love would remain. 

2. Keep truth tucked into your pocket.

Prayerfully consider why the anticipated interaction bothers you to the extent it does. Have certain statements or behaviors made you feel insufficient or unwanted? Are you reacting from unresolved hurts or perhaps from fear that the person might hurt you, as perhaps they already have? 

We all have inner lies that fuel our fears and cause us to display defensive behaviors. Ask God to reveal yours, how they’re affecting you and impacting your interactions with others, to remove them, and to replace them with truth. Then use a Google search to find a verse that counters your lie. 

For example, if you feel like a failure, write a verse that speaks to your particular fear, struggle, or insecurity. For example, if you fear rejection, find verses that remind you that you are chosen and loved by God. Write one verse on a 3X5 card and tuck it in your pocket or in your phone’s notes app. Pull it out and mentally recite it whenever you begin to feel insecure. 

3. Remind yourself of who you are in Christ.

The more we anchor ourselves in our true, God-given identity, the less we’ll be effected by other people’s opinions or poor behavior. While hurtful words will probably still sting, they won’t sink into our souls. We’re able to love freely, without expecting anything in return, when we know that we are God’s beloved. 

The apostle Paul provided a perfect example of the strength one experiences when they live anchored in Christ. He had a past that would have been hard to shake and experienced plenty of rejection, within and outside the church. But he never lost sight of who he was--a called, commissioned, and empowered child of God.

Notice how he began his letter to the Roman Christians: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1, NIV). He began his letter to the Corinthians in a similar manner, writing, Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (1 Cor. 1:1, NIV). To the Galatians, he referred to himself as, “Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (Gal. 1:1, NIV). 

Called. 

An apostle, meaning one who is sent on the authority of another. 

Set apart for God’s special purpose.

By the will of the Creator of all that exists. 

If we’ve trusted in Christ for salvation, we could say the same about ourselves. In fact, we must, not just about ourselves, but to ourselves. This holiday season, may you enter every situation and discussion knowing you are not discarded, insufficient, unseen, or disregarded. You are a called ambassador chosen by God for His eternal purposes. 

4. Decide to prioritize connecting over being right.

Sometimes the tension we experience stems from the hurtful actions of others. Many times, however, our relational conflict arises from the pride within us. Convinced of our perspective, we behave as if it’s our role to change others. This tends to result in all sorts of ugly behaviors and, ultimately, demonstrates a desire to elevate ourselves above God. When we remember that He alone is God and we are not, we’re more apt to recognize that He alone is able to change a heart and mind. 

Once again, we can turn to Paul for an example as to how this might look. After discussing the importance of living like Jesus, maintaining an eternal perspective, and the intimacy with Christ that human suffering can bring, he wrote, “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you” (Phil. 3:15, NIV). 

He didn’t argue with them. Instead, he presented his position then trusted God to lead his readers to truth. In this, Paul demonstrated how we can protect our relationships even when we disagree with one another. 

5. Determine your parameters beforehand. 

Before entering a situation that, based on past circumstances, is likely to cause discomfort, take time to process through potential stressors and responses. For example, if your father or uncle becomes verbally abusive when he drinks, you might decide ahead of time to leave once he opens his second beer. Or, if certain topics are known to become heated, you can excuse yourself to the bathroom or practice ways to divert the conversation. 

You might want to express your boundaries to the offending person ahead of time. For instance, if your brother frequently responds to your comments with biting sarcasm, you could explain that you will leave should he exhibit such behavior. 

Doing so isn’t rude or unkind; it’s wisdom. We have no control over how others act but we do choose how you will allow yourself to be treated. Meaning, others will often treat us how we allow. (Incidentally, if your brother, sister, mother, or father treats your spouse poorly, it is your responsibility to protect him/her. This is, in part, what Scripture means when it tells us to leave our parents’ home and “cling” to our husband or wife [Gen. 2:24].)

You might also consider keeping your visit short. Doing so allows you to maintain relationships without overstaying your self-control. If communicated well, this also sends the clear message that you desire healthy, not toxic, relationships.   

6. Give yourself permission to excuse yourself.

One Christmas, we hosted dinner at our home and invited family members we hadn’t seen in some time. One individual was the type who seemed to enjoy conflict and chaos and somehow managed to stir everyone up. My muscles tensed as I watched our peaceful evening begin to sour. And for a while, I just sat there, stewing in my frustration. 

But then I sensed God’s gentle voice, like a soft whisper in my soul: “Go for a walk.”

And so, although I felt slightly inhospitable for doing so, I politely excused myself, shrugged on my coat, and headed outside. The fresh air immediately soothed me as did the quiet time I was able to spend with God in prayer. As I vented my emotions to God, He reminded me that He saw me, loved me, and was with me. Those truths, along with the relatively short reprieve, allowed me to return calmer and with increased inner strength. 

7. Use the situation as a learning experience.

When I begin to feel anxious about a situation, I’m often tempted to avoid it entirely. And while in some circumstances and with some individuals that might be best, we won’t grow if we isolate ourselves from every potentially uncomfortable or challenging interaction. This also means we won’t be ready, spiritual or emotionally, for whatever God might want to call us to tomorrow. 

You and I will respond poorly on occasion. We’ll have times when our fear triggers defense mechanisms that push others away and our pride creates barriers between us. When this happens, we simply confess our sin to God and the other person, ask God to cleanse our hearts, and determine to rely on Christ’s strength more fully the next time. 

Over time, as we heal, learn to lean more fully on Christ, and practice living empowered by His Spirit, we’ll find our anxiety lessens as our proficiency increases. Our relationships will improve as well, resulting in less overt and underlying tension weighing down our souls. 

Viewing each encounter as a learning opportunity provides short term benefits as well. As we consider the situation logically, we simultaneously begin to deactivate our brain’s emotional centers while activating areas responsible for rational thought. 

8. Focus on displaying the love and grace of Christ.

One fall, a friend shared her holiday plans with me. She and her husband had been invited to his family, all of whom, it appeared, disliked her and made no effort to hide this. I asked her if she found her visits challenging. Without hesitation, she smiled and said, “No. I just focus on how I can love them.”

In other words, she remained so occupied with showing the love and grace of Christ, she didn’t have brain-space to become offended. 

Isn’t this how Christ responded? When His disciples betrayed and abandoned Him, He “loved them to the end" (John 13:1). When Jewish leaders falsely accused Him, He “loved them to the end.” When Roman soldiers crucified and mocked Him, He asked God to forgive them and “loved them to the end.” When you and I treat His grace with contempt by giving in to sin and pride, He gently convicts, purifies, then restores us and “loves us to the end.”

This season can be challenging for many people, and perhaps this year more than ever. Many of us are still feeling the effects and trying to regain our footing after the global lockdown and all that went with that. Some of us will be reuniting with those who have hurt us, who think differently than we do, and who perhaps enjoy sharing their ideologies firmly and loudly. But that doesn’t mean we must dread the holidays or hide out in our bedrooms until January 4th. With God’s help, we can guard our peace, rely on God’s wisdom and strength, and perhaps even experience moments of joy.  

Photo Credit: ©iStock/GettyImagesPlus/Deagreez

Jennifer Slattery is a writer and speaker who hosts the Faith Over Fear podcast. She’s addressed women’s groups, Bible studies, and writers across the nation. She’s the author of Building a Family and numerous other titles and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com.

As the founder of Wholly Loved Ministries, she’s passionate about helping women experience Christ’s freedom in all areas of their lives. Visit her online to learn more about her speaking or to book her for your next women’s event  and sign up for her free quarterly newsletter HERE  and make sure to connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.