Don’t Let Strained Family Relations Dampen Holiday Cheer

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Ill feelings between family members are the surest way to put a damper on holiday cheer. Sadly, it’s often pride that keeps one or both of the parties involved from taking that all important first step toward reconciliation.

Just the other day I heard the news about the legendary actress Joan Fontaine, who had passed away at age 96. Upon reading several articles about her life and career, I was disheartened to learn how acrimonious her relationship with her equally legendary older (by little more than a year) sister, Olivia de Havilland, had been for most of their lives. The two had been at odds with each other since their early childhood, competing intensely with one another and picking fights with each other about almost everything under the sun. Over the years, they only grew further apart, failing miserably at the few feeble attempts each made at reconciling. It seemed to me such a pity that two remarkable talents who managed to garner the love and respect of total strangers could have so much trouble finding finding space in their hearts for a blood sister.

In my years of professional practice, I’ve unfortunately encountered many cases of estrangement among family members. None of these situations were very pretty. In fact, at times they were downright ugly. The situations ranged from unresolved sibling rivalry to complete ostracizing of a particular member simply because that member didn’t fit within the family’s “mold” or ideal. Sometimes, the estrangement was somewhat understandable, possibly even necessary, like in cases where severe abuse and/or neglect by a parent or sibling had occurred. But other times, the distance seemed to have occurred as a result of the most trivial of circumstances. Almost without exception, the estrangements were a source of great pain for the individuals affected. While that pain was with the affected parties almost all the time, it always seemed to intensify at holiday time.

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Generally speaking, holidays are an occasion not only to reflect upon and celebrate one’s blessings but also to enjoy the company of family and friends. They’re a time, as the famous lines in the popular carol Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas suggest, for “faithful friends who are dear to us” to “gather near to us once more.” That’s what it’s mostly about, especially for the festive holiday. It’s not just a time for exchanging gifts but a time to relish in the joy on the faces of friends and family when they lay eyes on the the token we’ve offered them as a sign of our love and affection. It’s a time for catching up and sharing stories. As we share the love we have, we also pray that “through the years we all will be together.” When healthy bonds are present, we naturally want to keep them strong. That’s why when someone is experiencing strained relations with another family member or a once close friend, especially during the holidays, it can be very painful indeed. Sadly, it’s often pride that keeps one or both of the parties from taking that all important first step toward reconciliation, even though each might secretly desire it quite earnestly.

Holidays naturally bring with them their own special set of stresses and anxieties. Getting all the cleaning, cooking, shopping, etc. done is inherently stressful, as is all the typical traveling, planning, and arranging. But just being with the larger group of family members for extended periods of time can bring on additional stress, even when folks are on relatively good terms with one another. Sometimes, even healthy family members can fall into the trap of re-enacting old family dynamics and interaction patterns, giving rise to old anxieties and re-igniting old conflicts. Parents might even succumb to showing old patterns of favoritism, re-kindling sibling rivalries and jealousies. In the end, the stress level can get pretty high during holiday get-togethers, even in the healthiest of families. Stress can easily reach toxic levels when there is severe estrangement or discord between some of the family’s members. That’s why it’s so important to keep the spirit of the season so carefully in mind.

Fontaine and de Havilland weren’t even speaking to one another in the years immediately preceding Joan’s passing. It’s uncertain whether de Havilland (now age 97) will even attend her sister’s memorial service. As tragic as the whole circumstance is, it seems particularly sad given the time of year at which it’s come and the sentiments most us try to embrace as the year comes to a close. It really makes me appreciate the gift I know I have in my family and friends — a gift I will do my best to savor and celebrate this Christmas. When you have your family and friends, and when the love and sharing is freely flowing between them all, the holidays couldn’t possibly be brighter. So I’ll light a candle or perhaps say a prayer for a ray of hope to enter the homes of those families where discord, bitterness, and estrangement still reign to some degree. Ill feelings between family members are the surest way to put a damper on holiday cheer.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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