It’s already starting. The families are making demands, and it isn’t going well.
My friend’s mom asked her to “come home” for Thanksgiving. This is one of my friends who had a particularly rough time with COVID-19. My friend, sensibly, said she would make the drive if two conditions were met.
Everyone in the family said no.
Like many of the people in our extended friend group, they think these requests are insane. We’re being paranoid, controlling, and unfair. We’re the ones with the problem. Indulging us is simply a bad idea.
This year, my friend isn’t going home. Her parents, her sister, and her brother-in-law will be eating without her because the four of them aren’t willing to pod together for two weeks or get a test.
Ultimatums are usually a bad idea, unless there is a toxic situation involved and a permanent, thick line needs to be drawn. When both sides are tossing out ultimatums, it’s likely that the relationship will be different from that point on.
The family says, Come home and do it our way. The end.
You say, I don’t want any of us to wind up in the hospital. I’ll come home under these conditions. The end.
That is a showdown.
In family law - not the kind that involves the courthouse or actual legal code - the only rule is loyalty. Call on any other authority, and you’ve said, or they’ve heard, “I choose a greater authority than you.” Science? Fiscal responsibility? The needs of your own children? A temporary situation that puts your partner’s family first?
It tends to go downhill from there. Whoever had the first conversation where the line was drawn will then call others and repeat their version of what they heard. Then the other family members will text or call and tell you off.
This should be no surprise. There are very few things that humans enjoy more deeply and sincerely than telling someone off. Lecturing, chastising, rebuking. Oh, what fun.
What we’ve forgotten how to do in our society is to stand down. We’ve forgotten, if we ever knew, how to reach toward one another, how to compromise, how to admit we’ve been wrong, how to give an honest apology, how to forgive. We do not have light hearts. We are instinctively suspicious and easily wounded. We read into conversations opinions and words that were never there.
This scenario of the skipped Thanksgiving could easily turn into a point of You Always Do This. This Is Just Exactly Like You. There You Go Again.
What my friend did is what we call Yes, And. Yes, I will come and be with you, And I will do it under these conditions.
When people know how to play Yes, And, everything can be positive and fun.
For instance, one person can say, Let’s do Thanksgiving this year, and the other can say, Yes, and let’s all get tests and quarantine so we can actually do it with no masks on! Maybe that even turns into, Yes, and, I can work from home so maybe I’ll stay through the New Year.
The first refusal shuts down the options that might have followed.
When two people are able to collaborate and cooperate, everything from that point forward becomes easier. Trust is established. Tastes and preferences are put forth. Something new comes out of the interaction that maybe nobody thought of before.
When the third or fourth person joins the interaction, there is already a basis for that cooperation. The unstated rules of the game have been laid out. If each additional person gets it, and keeps the game of Yes, And going, there is then a positive upward spiral.
For instance, my ex-in-laws figured out their own Thanksgiving rules in this way. One of the five kids went vegetarian, and then another went vegan, and then the dad got put on a special diet by his heart doctor. The mom shrugged and said, “Potluck?” And everyone said, “Tacos!” Thereby the great Thanksgiving Taco Buffet was born. Everyone lined up and served themselves from a dozen bowls of ingredients, and everyone was satisfied, and nobody complained, and all the leftovers got eaten.
(If a turkey had climbed through the dog door and gotten in line, it might have gotten its own plate).
Negotiation sounds shifty to a lot of people. Crafty, devious. What it really means is that there are a hundred thousand opportunities for everyone in a situation to be satisfied and have fun. Everyone can walk away happy. The only situation where everyone loses is when at least one person stalls out and refuses to consider any other possibilities.
This is the COVID Thanksgiving scenario under which nobody can win: I demand that you come to my house and pretend there is not a pandemic.
There are a million variations of this, where everyone can feel loved and connected and well-fed. One involves everyone getting tested. Another involves everyone bundling up and sitting outside. Another involves everyone agreeing to meet in person “when all this is over.” My own family is going to get on Zoom and wave to each other and compare meals and play games. I live a thousand miles away, so it’ll be more or less like the 350 days of previous years when we just... live where we live.
Personally I think family relations work better when we treat each other more like professional colleagues. That means we respect each other’s time and budgets. It also means that we speak to each other with basic civility. The more we set policy with each other, the more time we can spend talking and laughing and enjoying each other’s company. The alternatives? Are not that many and not that interesting.
When we’re caught up in family power struggles, sometimes it’s all we can do to avoid making things worse. Focus on what is true: I love you, I want to be with you, I understand how you feel, I know everything is crazy right now. Another thing that is true is that I want us all to be here this time next year. I’ll be here when you’re ready to talk. I will always be here for you.
Just maybe not in person right now.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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