It's crucial to answer these questions before, not during, a family gathering.
Prior to the event, think through various boundary options until you come up with a scenario that makes you feel comfortable. Would you be more enthusiastic about a get-together if you planned to leave after no more than four hours? Or three? Two? One? Would you breathe easier if you rented a car so that you could get away without relying on relatives for transportation? Would it help to have a friend call you on your cell phone halfway through the evening, providing an excuse for a graceful exit?
Once you've set limits that allow you to feel emotionally safe, you'll find that your relatives seem much more lovable and enjoyable.
Don't violate your own code of values and ethics, but don't waste energy trying to make other people violate theirs. If soul-searching has shown you that your mother's opinions are wrong for you—as are your grandfather's bigotry, your sister's new religion, and your cousin's alcoholism—hold that truth in your heart, whether or not your family members validate it. Feel what you feel, know what you know, and set your relatives free to do the same.
If you've been deeply wounded by your family, you can stop trying to control them by accepting full responsibility for your healing.
Some social scientists use a technique called participant observation, meaning that they join groups of people in order to watch and report on whatever those people do.
Almost any group activity is interesting when you're planning to describe it later to someone who's on your wavelength. In the next few slides are some approaches to help you become a participant observer of your own family.
Queen for a Day
Prior to a family function, arrange to meet with at least two friends—more, if possible—after the holidays. You'll each tell the stories of your respective family get-togethers, then vote to see whose experience was most horrendous. That person will then be crowned queen, and the others will buy her lunch.
In this exercise, you look to your family not for love and understanding but for comedy material. Watch closely. The more atrocious your family's behavior is, the funnier it can be in the retelling. Watch stand-up comics to see the enormous fun they can have describing appalling marriages, ghastly parenting, or poisonous family secrets. When you're back among friends, telling your own wild stories, you may find that you no longer suffer from your family's brand of insanity; you've actually started to enjoy it.
Dysfunctional Family Bingo
A few weeks before the holidays, gather with friends and provide each person with a bingo card. Print out this blank bingo card to bring with you.
Each player fills in her bingo squares with dysfunctional phrases or actions that are likely to surface at her particular family party. For example, if you dread the inevitable "So when are you going to get married?" that question goes in one square of your bingo card.
Take your finished cards to your respective family gatherings. Whenever you observe something that appears on your bingo card, mark off that square. The first person to get bingo must sneak off to the nearest telephone, call the other players, and announce her victory. If no one has a full bingo, the person who has the largest number of filled-out squares wins the game. The winner shall be determined at the post holiday meeting, where she will be granted the ever gratifying free lunch.
Even if you don't play any participant observation games, it's crucial to follow up on family events by debriefing with someone you love. If your brother really "gets" you, call him after a family dinner you've both survived. If you don't trust anyone who shares a shred of your DNA, report to a friend or therapist. Generally speaking, you can schedule a debriefing session for a few weeks after the holidays, when everybody's schedule is back to normal. However, you should exchange phone calls with your debriefing partners within a day or so of the family encounter, just to reconnect with the outside world and head off any annoying little problems, such as ill-considered suicide.