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Home for the Holidays: Five Strategies for Managing Family Stress

By Russ Klettke

The holidays are a reminder to everyone—gay and straight alike—that perfect exists only on greeting cards and in Lexus television commercials. So say three therapists who have extensive experience with gay clientele, who are quick to point out that the stresses of Christmas, Hanukkah and other vaunted events can be particularly difficult for gay men whose families’ conservative religious and political affiliations are at odds with who they are. 

After all, who wants to attend religious services where official doctrine says you are damned? Where is the joy when family members enthusiastically support politicians who act to codify you as a second-class citizen? 

To get some ideas on this, I spoke at length with Loren Olson, MD, author, board certified psychiatrist and Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association; Michael McFadden, a counselor and Director of Social Services for Howard Brown Health Center, an LGBT facility serving 28,000 adults and youth in Chicago; and Douglas Nygaard, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist who also works with gay men in private practice, also in Chicago. All three concur that gay guys from conservative backgrounds face a particularly difficult challenge with families and holidays.  

The fact is, almost everyone experiences some level of stress during this time of the year. The exact dynamics of this varies from family to family, of course. But all three counselors suggest something very important: Be clear with yourself on who you are and what you expect. That kind of grounding serves as a foundation for managing time with families at the holidays—which can include choosing to instead celebrate the season instead with “families of choice.” 

Guidelines for coping
Dr. Olson—who himself has avidly conservative Christians in his immediate family who presumably don’t support with his recent marriage in Iowa to his partner of 23 years—offers up some tough love on this. “If you expect a fight, you’ll probably be the one who provokes it,” he said. “You overreact to remarks which were innocently intended, responding curtly and angrily, which then sets up a vicious cycle of interaction. All you have the power to change is what you contribute to the ongoing conflict.” Doug Nygaard encourages a certain kind of tolerance, pointing out how conservative relatives are victims of their own culture and religious teachings.  

But even with such restraint, the experts tell us millions of gay men will always encounter undeserved disapproval, ridicule, hostility, isolation, shame, inadequacy or other adverse treatment from conservative family members. They recommend several coping mechanisms, as follows. 

  1. Establish your place relative to family: Do you visit family because it is what you want to do, or out of a sense of obligation? If it’s the latter, “it’s like saying I don’t own my life, my family owns it,” says Doug Nygaard. Particularly if you’re not out to all family members and Aunt Agatha innocently asks if you’re dating, your response should show no signs of weakness or defensiveness. If she doesn’t like when your answer is “his name is Mike and he’s an accountant,” remember it’s her issue and not yours, says Nygaard. 

  2. Consider and rethink traditions and rituals: Michael McFadden’s Howard Brown Health Center offers a mental health tips for the holidays, including how “you may find yourself falling into old family patterns or behaving in old ways. Pause and remember that you have different choices that you can now make (even if your brother is still a butt-head).” 

    Some of those traditions might be sweet and comforting, an indulgence you appreciate. But others might be problematic, such as excessive drinking. “If Dad gets drunk and makes inappropriate comments, you have to ask yourself, ‘what are my optional responses?’,” says McFadden. The advantage of rituals and predictable bad behavior is you can at least anticipate them and make your plan. This might also include opting out of religious services, or skipping certain events. Be sure to discuss it hours or days earlier, not while everyone else is getting dressed up to go. 

    In a related vein, McFadden often hears from clients who feel they have to mute themselves for holiday visits, even when incendiary comments fly. “Do a pros and cons list of what might be said, what you can tolerate and what you might say in response,” he suggests. 

  3. Set limits, plan escapes:  Some of those rituals might include traveling hundreds of miles for a multi-day visit, or at least a four or five hour feast with a dozen or more relatives. This can be stressful for all concerned. Says Dr. Olson: “If you know things are going to be intense, make the visit rather brief. Just because it is the holiday doesn’t mean you have to spend the entire time with your family. If you have the means, stay at a hotel and just make mini-visits.” 

    All three therapists suggest occasionally leaving the room, perhaps to phone a friend when things get particularly difficult. At any time during the season, if the atmosphere becomes stressful, “do something silly” advises McFadden—put reindeer antlers on a dog or watch a funny movie. I like to engage nieces and nephews in games their own parents may not be strong enough to do. Only real jocks can be the horse, twirl a four-year-old overhead or teach the ten-year-olds how to do a Warrior 3 yoga pose. But if things get really bad, there is a 24-7 lifeline: The GLBT National Help Center offers online resources and a telephone hotline: 888-834-4564.  

  4. Your body, your emotions: Holidays, travel and staying with family can have a physiological effect that is counter to fitness. The overeating and drinking are bad enough, but if you aren’t exercising, negative moods can result. Nygaard and McFadden both recommend finding a local gym, or to carve out time for some non-gym exercise. Shovel snow, move furniture or perform other homestead tasks that require strength, endurance, perhaps a little taste—and which will be much appreciated. Dr. Olson advises against drinking away the stress: “People think that alcohol will ease the pain and make it less difficult. Usually all it eases is self-control…and then things really get out of control.” 

  5. Who’s your family?:  Ultimately, many gay men discover that holidays and family are simply a bad combination. Michael McFadden suggests that we “unhook family relationships from holidays,” to instead find other times of year to make visits. Friends might be a much better group to hang out with at times so fraught with expectations and tension. 

    Dr. Olson reminds us that, “it isn’t necessary to love everything about your family. People are not black and white, good or evil,” he says. For most families, “on balance they are good people who may be guilty of doing some not so good things.” 

  6. Happy holidays—you may not get a luxury car sporting a big red bow this year, but perhaps a little bit of family peace is the gift you really want. 

    About Russ Klettke: Russ Klettke is an ACE (American Council on Exercise) certified fitness trainer and also the author of “A Guy’s Gotta Eat, the regular guy’s guide to eating smart” (Marlowe & Co., 2004, with Deanna Conte, MS RD LD), available where books are sold and more than 70 public library systems in the U.S., Canada and Europe. For more information, see