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Do You Know How to Navigate Thanksgiving Family Dysfunction?

Steven Losardo, AMFT

Suppose you are a part of your family’s annual Thanksgiving Day argument. In the past several years, there was effort, and hope was that things would be different. Unfortunately, despite your efforts, you still find yourself caught in the drama. Even knowing the annual Thanksgiving Day dispute was in existence a good twenty years before you were on the scene does not seem to change this. In the end, your family ends up colluding to continue the time-honored tradition despite some of the moments getting a bit too ugly for anyone’s liking.

The impasse typically unfolds once the entire family convenes at the dinner table. This year, it will be no different. That said, your hope remains. When the conversation’s pace picks up, and all the signs say, “it’s on,” you will have a strategy for managing the ensuing argument. While you realize the same goals as last year, it seems simple enough. In your head, it sounds like, “Do not let the emotion has taken over, and avoid [your] all too familiar defensive stance.” How do you make it happen this time around? This blog will review options for you to explore.

  1.     Step One: Prepare “The Turkey”

Turkey- that’s you. While knowing that if you assess the cost of getting engaged in this scenario again this year, it is not worth one can of cranberry sauce, you will proceed. In this case, be mindful as to how you desire to respond ahead of time. Choosing to react differently is not easy, as you already know. This time have a supportive partner by your side that knows what you will need when argument 2020 arrives. In this way, the partner can give you the appropriate support and not mind-read or decipher body language.

  1.     Essential Tool That Helps: Drop the Defensiveness And Choose Love

Cloud, 2020 notes that defensiveness is so hurtful. It tells the other people around us that we are in the “What the hell is this?” mode and not “taking in” their information and energy adversely impacting the cultivation of intimacy (Gottman, 2017). Cloud, 2020 further notes, we are defensive because we are “under some kind of psychic danger at that moment that our character structure is in danger.” We may feel, in some way, fear of abandonment or rejection, so we become defensive. Other times, we are “defensive because something is making [us] feel bad or guilty.” Our families need something else from us. They need us to own our part and unglue from the ordeal to live out love in our relationships.

Cloud, 2020 notes owning your part helps make a path to get over the hurt. It is not easy to care enough “to own what is not pretty in us.” When you drop your defenses, you are sending others at the table, your love by letting go of “self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victim-hood” (Gottman, 2017). Not because they deserve love, but because you choose to love them. This moment shows up, saying, “you love the person and teach them the most important thing we can learn. We are not perfect, and love does not go away, and thus there’s no need to be defensive if we’re loved in our worst moments, we’re loved in our imperfection.” This act can create family change.  Be the one that gives your family members better than they deserve and help them get better as you open the door so love can do its work.

  1.     Let It Sync In: Hold The Hope

The use of love, care, and respect can be a one-way path to healing not only for that particular Thursday in November once a year but in other moments as well.  That said, it may take months, years, and generations to see the impact. While patience is a requirement, a respectful process, along with modeling conflict management skills, can allow your family to deepen its bond (Wetchler & Hecker, 2015). Further, intergenerational growth and overall family congruence can occur when there is a change in one family member (Wetchler & Hecker, 2015). Facilitating the positive change in communication skills using mutual respect has been shown to translate into deep, lasting family bonds. The goodness of people, warmth, compassion, and genuineness most often wins (Wetchler & Hecker, 2015). While it may take generations, your family has plenty of time, and may you have this as well.  


Cloud, Henry (2020). Changing negative thought patterns around defensiveness – Episode 92.

Retrieved from

Gottman, J.  (2017). Level 1 Clinical training manual: Gottman method couple

therapy. Seattle, WA: The Gottman Institute Inc.

Wetchler, J. L. & Hecker, L. L. (2015). An introduction to marriage and family therapy. (2nd

Edition). New York: Routlege.

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