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Squabbling Thanksgiving Guests

I am hosting Thanksgiving this year after a long hiatus from planning any parties due to the birth of and the adjustment of raising a child. (I know my limits).   I am so excited to host this year, have made invitations, a menu, decorations, etc.   I’m just concerned about the behavior of my mom and my sister.

They have this co-dependent relationship with one another….if my mom is not complaining about something my sister is doing, then my sister is complaining about something my mom is doing. Very often it escalates into cursing and a true argument, and I don’t want that at my party. I just want people to have a good time, and be thankful for one another, which is really what the day is all about.

Now, in a somewhat tacky move, I wrote “No Bitching Zone” on the dry-erase board in my kitchen, and have thought about pointing to the sign whenever I hear a possible complaint session beginning…..but I thought I would ask the Dame of Manners herself: How would you handle this?

Can I maintain my sign and be passive-aggressive about it, or tell ’em before they walk in the door; “Be nice or go back home?”

They are coming on Wednesday and not leaving until Friday. If they were not staying so long, I would probably just deal with it, but I’m excited for this event, for my in laws and family to be together and share a good meal, and would appreciate any advice you have to give.   1125-13

Two female relatives of mine would squabble throughout the meal prep on Thanksgiving Day, sometimes escalating into a real angry battle. It didn’t happen in my house as I was not the hostess so I took the approach of not getting involved and just watching the drama unfold, sometimes even laughing out loud at the absurdity of the pettiness of their bickering. In other words, I did not allow their attitudes to affect mine. Your guests will cue off of your behavior and if you are frazzled, angry, flustered, they will pick up on that.   You take the lead in setting the tone of your home and do not allow others to overrule that.

As hostess, you can direct these two women to take their contentiousness to a back bedroom, work it out there and come back when all is rosy between them. There is nothing wrong with informing two warring guests that they are not allowed to ruin everyone else’s enjoyment of the holiday while they pursue their selfish needs to fight with each other.   You can also plan ahead to catch the squabble in its infancy and direct one or both women to do a task which actually separates them…..anything to distract them for a moment. I’m like Gordon Ramsey in the kitchen, minus the cursing, and direct the women helping me to do specific tasks like a commander of the kitchen army.

Lastly, I would strongly recommend you readjust your expectations for a perfect holiday of happiness, family harmony and glittering party perfection. You are setting yourself up for a major disappointment if your mother and sister cannot set aside their selfishness for a few hours.

{ 32 comments… add one }
  • gramma dishes November 26, 2013, 10:18 am

    Are we not supposed to assume that our guests will know how to conduct themselves in our homes? LOL. Yeah, I know. Wishful thinking.

    But seriously, if your In-Laws are going to be there too, maybe your Mom and Sister will at least keep themselves in check to avoid embarrassing themselves in front of the other side of your family.

    On the other hand, it doesn’t sound like anyone has ever called them out on it before.

    So if things unfold as you suspect they will, I don’t see any problem at all with saying to them in a quiet, but firm tone of voice something to the effect of “We don’t tolerate silly bickering in this house, especially on a holiday where we’re just thankful to all be together. So please cut it out — or go home.” Then get out your dry-erase board and slap it on the wall! 😉

  • Cat November 26, 2013, 10:42 am

    I understand your frustration as we must share some of the same relatives. My understanding is that, in ancient Japan, disturbing the tranquility of ones home was considered a major social offense. Yell and scream in your own home to your heart’s content, but, when elsewhere, good manners are required.
    Nasty signs won’t help and good luck with trying to corral them in a bedroom. It’s time for tough love. “Mom and Sis, I understand you have disagreements and you have every right to discuss and to try to resolve them. But this is a holiday in my home. Please save this for Black Friday. For today, we are going to lay our differences aside and be thankful for what we have-including having one another here because the day will come when we will not all be here.”
    If that speech fails, give them each pad and pencil to write down their disagreements and they can then, having expressed it via writing, deal with it later. Be firm and stop them as soon as they start.
    And, good luck. If they cannot behave for a few days, there are inventions called hotels. I’d ask them to stay in one so they can go at one another as much as they please.

  • Kirsten November 26, 2013, 10:49 am

    I would warn them both beforehand that you don’t want this behaviour in your home. Apart from anything else, your child hardly needs to see Granny and Auntie whingeing at each other all Thanksgiving!

  • Mae November 26, 2013, 11:06 am

    The OP’s situation sounds just like what happens with my mom & sister! For the last few years, add in that my sister has had a child, expects everyone to cater to him and has also divorced. Nothing would stop the constant complaining and angry outbursts if anyone said no to her child.

    I finally just stopped the family get-togethers at my house because is was not fair to me, my family and any guests to put up with the bickering and her expectations regarding her son. Both my sister & my mom try to guilt trip me every year since but, I just am not going through it again. I will visit before or after Thanksgiving but turkey day is for me, my husband, my children and any guests we choose to invite. I love my family but I will not put up with the antics.

    OP gives some excellent suggestions. I hope you will use them and have a great holiday!

  • Stacey Frith-Smith November 26, 2013, 11:10 am

    Well said, Admin! Half of the difficulty with any holiday comes from our own expectations of ourselves and of others. When taken to extremes, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and we can compare ourselves, our homes, guests, decor and food to some internalized standard of perfection. Not a good idea. Holiday veterans make room for the absurd- because as humans we are all too flawed.

  • Ruby November 26, 2013, 12:07 pm

    Take a deep breath and be grateful that your family can take te time an expense to visit you for several days.

    I live hours away from most of my family, so for us it will be me, my husband and kids, my brother who lives out here, and a friend. I would love to travel back home this year and can’t, and they can’t come out here. So I won’t even see my two sisters, dad, nieces and nephews, etc.

    And I lost my my mom almost three years ago, making it even worse. She wasn’t perfect, but I would put up with anything to see her at my table.

    Enjoy your family, faults and all. Be thankful for them.

  • knitwicca November 26, 2013, 12:08 pm

    I have found that laughing in the face of the person acting with silliness can often diffuse the situation. Or it will irritate that person to the point that (s)he will stomp away.

  • DGS November 26, 2013, 12:09 pm

    Personally, I find the sign passive-aggressive and distasteful, but I understand the temptation. I’d have a stern conversation with each beforehand, assign them tasks that separate them from each other and redirect all squabbling, as Admin biggest, with your good attitude.

    My in-laws don’t get along with my BIL and SIL’s family, and DH and I have had to have stern conversations with each side before family functions to keep them in check.

  • Anonymous November 26, 2013, 12:36 pm

    OP, is there any reason why you invited your mom and your sister for three days, instead of just for Thanksgiving dinner itself? Do they live a significant distance away? Are there other events happening in your area during that time that you’re planning to attend together? Is it a family tradition to make an overnighter/weekend/three-day event of Thanksgiving, and it’d therefore be rude to exclude or B-list your mom and your sister? My answer would have been to scale down the festivities for EVERYONE, to maybe Thanksgiving dinner (at your home or at a restaurant), or Thanksgiving afternoon (so, parade and/or football plus dinner), and also invite enough other people so that there’d be a “buffer” between the two of them. I like the idea of the “No Bitching” sign (because, after all, it applies to EVERYONE; the same as the ubiquitous “No Smoking” signs), but I have a feeling that “No Bitching” for three days, between two people who haven’t been known to follow that edict in the past, might be a bit of a tall order.

  • Library Dragon November 26, 2013, 12:42 pm

    OP, I occasionally hang a sign on my office door that says “No Weltschmerz Allowed.” When someone starts a general whining & complaining I point to the sign. A well thought out concern is heard. This might be a more fun version of your sign–less confrontational. As Admin suggested, think of those tasks that will separate and keep busy these warring parties.

  • kingsrings November 26, 2013, 1:21 pm

    I can so commiserate with the OP, because my family goes through that with my aunt. And she’s very defensive, so any attempts to corral or make her stop just makes her even more volatile. We can rarely have any family gatherings where she isn’t getting upset and vocal about something at least several times. I like the idea about asking the warring family members to take it to another room and not come back until they calm down. Also, try to find humor in the situation. You know it’s going to happen, so just laugh to yourself because their behavior is so very ridiculous. Have a, “Oh, here they go again!!” kind of attitude.

  • ferretrick November 26, 2013, 1:28 pm

    If I had your sign at my office, we’d have to fire half the workforce. 🙂

    Seriously, though, the sign is amusing but tacky. I think despite past history you have to kind of give them a clean slate here-you saying anything in advance is just as likely to start a battle as they are themselves. Instead, what you have to do is be on alert and, at the first sign of trouble, be prepared to step in and diffuse. “Mom/Sis, this is my home and I will not allow you to talk to each other that way. It’s rude to me and rude to my other guests to subject them to this, so I’m asking nicely. Treat each other with civility and respect, or leave.” Then be prepared to back it up.

    And in future, don’t invite two people who have a history of not getting along for an overnight stay in the same house. That’s just asking for trouble. Keep it to one mealtime.

    @Ruby: I understand where you’re coming from and that you mean well, but a little condescending don’t you think? OP is not wrong to want her holiday to be argument free.

  • just4kicks November 26, 2013, 1:37 pm

    OP, I must congratulate you on one of your sentences: “I know my limits.” Good for you!!!!
    That is a lesson I learned WAY too late. Happy Holidays!

  • Elizabeth November 26, 2013, 1:47 pm

    I don’t think you will have the time and focus to monitor them, separate them as needed, defuse, etc.

    I think this merits separate, side conversations prior to the gathering. And don’t be afraid to be stern, making mention of your home and family and how things are handled in your home (emphasize your home). And when (and I say when and not if) things begin to brew, a clear and focused, ‘this is exactly what we spoke about and it won’t be tolerated’ may help curb them.

    You can’t control them, only how you interact with them. And yes, I did this with a close family member and while she was stunned initially, there was some change in attitude once it was clear that the old patterns of behavior (and tolerance) would not be accepted. Good luck!!

  • Karen L November 26, 2013, 1:49 pm

    NO ONE gets the Thanksgiving they want. You’re lucky just to get some edible turkey. Understand also that none of your guests are getting the Thanksgiving they want either. Once you understand and embrace this, you can work on just getting through the day and then it’s finished for another year.

  • Lo November 26, 2013, 1:51 pm

    It’s stories like this remind me why I won’t host any holidays. The temptation would be too great to stand up, whisk the food back to the kitchen and say, “Okay, everyone go home, I’m done with you.”

    One of my siblings and I have, over the years, taken the tack of just laughing at all the stupid things people argue about at our family get togethers. If you can stomach this then sometimes treating your life as your own personal sitcom has a great deal of entertainment value. There’s no better attitude towards toxicity you can’t immediately escape than to devalue and demean it; making a joke of it instead of letting it cause resentment.

    Which is kind of why I like your sign. Yes, it’s passive aggressive, but it’s funny. And I’d appreciate it if I were in your family.

  • Teacup November 26, 2013, 2:05 pm

    I agree with the admin. You will set the tone for the day. It is your home, you get to dictate the rules and what can and cannot go on under your roof.

    As far as the sign goes, just think about the tone. I have relatives that might be offended by a “No Bitching Zone” scribbled and underlined on a board, but think a little decorated sign that says “No Bitchin’ Kitchen :)” is cute and quaint and might even elicit a laugh to lighten the mood. Just remember your audience.

    Don’t forget to take a moment to step back and be thankful for all of them, no matter how difficult they make it sometimes 🙂 Good luck!

  • MichelleP November 26, 2013, 2:08 pm

    Same problem, only with my sister and her husband. The problem isn’t at my house, it’s when they are at our parents’ home. Fortunately my BIL works often, and usually doesn’t come to holidays with us. I didn’t feel like I should say anything since it wasn’t my house, but finally had enough and told them to cut it out. I don’t come here to hear it. BIL now refuses to come back since they usually don’t get the specific bedroom he wants. I just put my foot down; they aren’t going to ruin my holiday.

    @Ruby, while I’m sympathetic, I respectfully disagree that we should tolerate others’ poor behavior simply because we should be grateful that they are alive and can travel to see us. Sure I would put up with my deceased grandmother’s antics again in a heartbeat, but that doesn’t change the fact that the time we spent together was usually ruined by her passive aggressiveness. And you are lucky to have a husband, kids, brother, and friends. There are a lot of people who don’t have that.

  • Wild Irish Rose November 26, 2013, 2:34 pm

    I’d have that no-bickering-allowed conversation with Mom and Sis before they arrive, and let them both know that if they start in on each other, they’ll be called on it X number of times (three-strikes-and-you’re-out kind of thing), and if you have to speak to them three times, you will ask them to leave. It’s YOUR home. If you are being generous enough to open it to them, then they need to behave themselves. This is especially the case if they are staying on for more than just Thanksgiving dinner. Be prepared to follow through, though–that’s the hard part. But for your own peace of mind, you need to be ready to give anyone the boot who refuses to play nice.

  • Marozia November 26, 2013, 3:28 pm

    My sisters and mother would always bicker during the holiday season. When they did it at their house, I just sat back and did as Admin did “laughed at the absurdity of the pettiness of their bickering”.
    When they came to my house, it was ‘MY RULES’ and no bickering allowed. One sister is very outspoken and argues with mum all the time.
    My cure: Take the dogs for a walk and work it out. There’s something about two arguing women walking two pit bulls that is quite comical (and safe too, nobody came near them). BTW – they worked it out too.

  • BH November 26, 2013, 3:49 pm

    I have a sign in my house that says “Be nice or leave” I joke with guests it’s meant for my husband, but no one can be mean in my house.

  • acr November 26, 2013, 4:37 pm

    In my house, we all start singing “Jingle Bells” loudly and in annoying tones whenever certain people start sniping or bringing up unpleasant topics. I don’t think the phrase “be nice” particularly works b/c they think they are being nice, or at least they think that they aren’t being “not nice”.

    One thing that is helpful – what is your part in this pattern? I don’t think you are deliberately contributing to the problem, but if they start sniping and you try a softly spoken, “Please get along” then that’s obviously not working. What can you do that is outside of the pattern that might break it?

    • admin November 26, 2013, 10:00 pm

      We do the “la la la” song from the Smurfs when topics come up we’d rather not hear about.

  • sweetonsno November 26, 2013, 5:06 pm

    This one is a little bit tough. On the one hand, history has shown that this is likely to unfold in a particular way. On the other hand, it’s not entirely polite to engage in “fortune-telling” and lecture an adult about what you assume they will do.

    Ultimately, though, I think it’s better to have a conversation than put up a sign. If Mom and/or Sister complain to you over the phone, say, “I’m sorry you’re annoyed, but I do hope you two can avoid discussing [issue of contention] at Thanksgiving. I’d really like it if we could all just enjoy ourselves.”

    If they do start getting snippy on T-day, nip it in the bud as cheerfully as possible. I like the distraction technique. “Mom, I need you in the kitchen. I can’t get the Jello out of the mold. I forgot to oil it like you suggested and I’m pretty sure I’ll rip it in half if I try to do it.” Or “Hey, sis, would you do me a favor and refill wine glasses?”

  • Thistlebird November 26, 2013, 10:34 pm

    I’m for laying ground rules with them beforehand. My brother & father are visiting in a month & based on my experience last time they were in my home together, I am instituting a “no politics at my table” rule. You can talk politics in my house, fine, but when I do a bunch of work to put a nice meal on the table for my family whom I very rarely get to see, the conversation is not going to be co-opted by your little one-up war, thanks.

  • Anonymous November 27, 2013, 8:09 am

    I like “No Bitchin’ Kitchen,” because it’s fun, it rhymes, and it could plausibly look as if it was a regular fixture of the kitchen, so instead of pre-emptively accusing Mom and Sister of “bitchin’,” it’s merely stating a house rule.

  • lakey November 27, 2013, 2:58 pm

    This discussion makes me feel thankful for my own family and their behavior at get-togethers. It isn’t that they are flawless and never do annoying things. It is that everyone is pretty much non-confrontational. Other than the occasional eye roll, we usually just keep our mouths closed when someone is annoying.
    I have one sister who is an attention sponge, so there is a bit of eye rolling or people finding reasons to go into another room, but that’s pretty much it.

  • FerrisW November 27, 2013, 3:05 pm

    My aunt has a rule over Christmas that if anyone gets rude or argumentative, they have to take their opinions outside. Since it’s always cold and snowing, no one appreciates having to stand out there, and quickly get over whatever issues they have. It started when two teenage cousins were getting boisterous with each other, and then extended to adults. It’s become a running joke that people will say you’re ‘banished outside until you can behave’ and it’s definitely reduced arguments over the holidays.

  • kingsrings November 27, 2013, 4:41 pm

    I have to agree with the others that putting up any kind of sign instructing that no arguing is allowed, or lecturing people ahead of time that they’re not to argue is not a good idea. My feeling is that it will immediately put the warring parties on the defensive and they’ll get offended and thus start arguing with YOU. I also agree that it could come across as condescending and patronizing. Simply deal with the problem when it occurs – nip it in the bud right away when the parties start to argue. And I LOVE the idea of starting to sing or doing other silliness when people start to argue with one another! It’s so funny and outrageous that it should put a stop to the fighting. And if it doesn’t, then simply start to sing even louder!

  • Jenny Islander November 27, 2013, 9:35 pm

    One very important thing to keep in mind: On no account attempt to settle the quarrel, even if you think you have a solution, or the solution is just so obvious, or all you want to say is that the squabble is silly. Keep the focus on the disruption of the squabble, not on the topic they are squabbling about.

  • Enna November 28, 2013, 1:25 pm

    OP: it depends what you think will work best with your mum and sister. I like the advice of admin but also of other posters who have advised talking to them before. What I will add is if they do argure and whatever action you take does not work then do not invite them next year. That will send a clear message that neither have behaved well. If you invite one and not the other you will be taking sides and it might not be best to do that.

  • Angel November 30, 2013, 9:51 pm

    I don’t like the idea of a sign. It sounds passive aggressive and a little rude. It also assumes that your guests do not know how to act–which I personally might take as an insult. But you know your relatives much better than we do. What I have done in the past is when people are arguing/complaining in my home, and start spewing their negativity to me I just get up and walk away from the conversation. And yes I think twice about inviting them back to my home. I don’t like negativity but especially not during the holidays.

    The holidays are for music, giving and happiness. Not all that other BS. If you want to put up something on your white board, why not an inspirational quote or other nice saying about the holidays that will get a conversation going off in a positive direction? Start the season off on a happy note. I don’t normally advocate playing holiday music until after Thanksgiving is over, but maybe in your house it will be needed. Look at Pinterest for some craft ideas or even some recipe ideas you can make together. Keep busy and you don’t give anyone a chance to complain!

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