11/17/2010 03:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Drama at the Holiday Table

How did the holiday table become such a hotbed for drama?

It's so tempting to think the holidays are going to be all about decorating sugar cookies and betting on a friendly game of Dreidel, but let's face it: sometimes the holidays inspire fear in even the most courageous among us. Part of the problem is that we only get into conflict with people we care about. If we didn't care, we'd just walk away. And that's not a very convenient solution when you're in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner.

Peppered among the parties and fabulous meals are the stressful moments when relatives ask intrusive personal questions right after "pass the turkey," in front of everyone. All eyes turn toward you, the newly separated or single person, and a hush falls over the table.

So how do you get through this without killing anyone?

  • Remember that these folks love you, even if you could swear otherwise at the moment. Give them the benefit of the doubt. They really do mean well.
  • The perfect sarcastic comeback may feel good in the moment, but not in the long run. Insults and hurt feelings can build steam over time, and do you really want to be the center of the "Remember that time when Bob flew off the handle at Christmas dinner 2010? That was a humdinger!" story?
  • People who haven't been divorced probably don't understand what you're going through. Divorce is one of those things that you think you know about until it actually happens to you, so give them a break. They may also be old fashioned and still see divorce as something people are supposed to feel guilty about. That's their issue, not yours.
  • It isn't personal. Seriously. These friends and loved ones are just a little dense. They're not actually trying to insult you and pass judgment. They're asking you these poorly worded, ill-timed questions because they're curious or concerned. They may be insensitive, but they're not monsters. Try not to take it personally.
  • If they really are monsters, make different plans for next year's holidays. You don't need to go through this twice.

Here's what to do:

  • Take a deep breath. Better yet, take 5 or 10 deep breaths. Think about your response for a moment before actually saying anything. It's probably better if you don't say the first thing that comes to mind. This is a measure twice, cut once situation for sure.
  • Deflect: "Oh Uncle Art, I know you're worried about me. I'm so grateful to have such a lovely family that cares about me." You haven't actually answered "Isn't it time you started dating again?" or "I told you that you should've used my lawyer! You'd be taking him to the cleaners if you'd listened to me!" while actually being quite polite.
  • Ignore: Pretend nobody said anything. Response with "Would you pass the rolls?" or "I heard the funniest joke...." You really don't need to respond to "I told you she was a creep before you married her." The rest of the table will be just as happy as you are to change the topic of conversation.
  • Be hard on the problem, not on the people. A statement like, "getting through my first year of holidays on my own has been harder than I thought it would be. I'm so glad I have your support and understanding," doesn't place blame.
  • Use "I" statements, particularly for astonishingly inappropriate questions: "I'm not comfortable talking about my ex's cross dressing. I'm sure you understand."

If someone is a little too persistent, consider talking to him or her alone, privately, where you can ask them politely to back off. Your life really isn't their business, but you also don't need to call them out or involve the rest of the group.

Remember, you are not alone. There's no way you are only one at the table who's dreading an intrusive examination of their life. Ever heard these: "Have you gained weight?" and "So how did you manage to flunk out of college after just a semester?"

Look on the bright side: you're off the hook for those inquiries, at least this year.

Diana Mercer is the co-author of Making Divorce Work

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