- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 2004

Family members who sit down today for Christmas dinner should try to ensure things stay merry by not bringing up the Nov. 2 presidential election.

That’s the advice of some specialists in family relations, who say family conflicts can be worsened under the stress of the holiday season, particularly after an election as divisive as the one last month.

“There are still a lot of raw nerves after the election,” says University of Florida psychologist Garrett Evans.

Karl Pillemer, a sociologist at Cornell University, agrees.

“This election was unusually divisive, since lifestyle issues overlapped with family issues. I haven’t seen issues of political morality so intense since the late 1960s,” Mr. Pillemer says.

To keep relations cordial during the holidays, Mr. Evans recommends that those tempted to crow about the victory of President Bush or bemoan the defeat of Democratic Sen. John Kerry keep their mouths shut if family members have differing political views.

“I know families that have declared a public truce to not speak about politics,” says Mr. Evans, an associate professor in the clinical and health psychology department in UF’s College of Public Health and Health Professions.

Turning off the television during the evening news also helps to keep the subject of politics from coming up, Mr. Evans says.

For most families, “during the holidays, it’s wise to establish a demilitarized zone,” Mr. Pillemer says. “It’s not the time to try to change your adult son’s view of the recent election or a cousin’s view on abortion. Instead, you might want to focus on points of similarity.”

Even without discussions about politics the holiday rituals, such as traveling, buying and wrapping gifts and decorating the house, can make family get-togethers stressful, Mr. Evans says.

Mr. Pillemer says family stress is heightened during the holidays.

“This may be the only time of the year that we are thrown together with our parents and siblings. It’s helpful for everyone to acknowledge that being together again can re-activate family conflicts,” he says. “Feelings of ambivalence are often common, as family members feel both strong feelings of attachment but also irritation as the time together continues.”

While contending that most families “should not make the holidays a time for serious emotional charges,” Mr. Pillemer acknowledges families that regularly talk about politics and know each other’s opinions might find a discussion of the election “relaxing” and a “way to avoid more difficult conversations.”

Kenneth R. Greenberg, a psychologist in Washington, questions the feasibility of trying to curtail some subjects of discussion at family get-togethers in this “very diverse society.”

“Should we also curtail discussion about war or violence, negative news or the commercialization of Christmas?” he asks.

Religion also can be a sticky issue for family members during the holidays, Mr. Evans notes.

“I encourage flexibility. You haven’t been to church in three years and your mother wants you to go. Why not give it a shot? You love her, it will make her happy, the music is pretty good and it will give you the chance to break out that old turtleneck sweater Aunt Heloise gave you four years ago,” he says.

To give everyone in the family space during extended visits, Mr. Evans suggests that couples plan activities outside the house for themselves and their children.

“Getting through family events requires a lot of flexibility and the ability to remember that, although you don’t pick your family, they didn’t pick you, either,” he says.

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