As a relationship therapist in San Francisco, I get asked the question “Why do I hate the holidays?”  every year right around this time. I think it’s that first Pumpkin Spice Latte that gets people thinking about colder weather and the holidays and reminds them that the holidays aren’t always what they are cracked up to be.

The holidays might not be so bad, your expectations may be too high.

Why do I Hate the Holidays?

Watching holiday specials, movies and all of the commercials filled with loving families is just one reason our expectations are out of whack with reality.

We all remember those perfect holidays of our youth. The food was wonderful, the conversation was stimulating, and everyone had a wonderful time. As children we probably didn’t pay much attention to the snide remarks grandma made to her daughter-in-law about the mashed potatoes and we probably didn’t understand many of the discussions taking place. The reality is, as children we didn’t notice the conflict happening around us. Unless the conflict turned into an actual physical brawl, we were oblivious to the stress the adults were experiencing.

As adults with baggage of our own, we now experience the stress and anxiety that is part of every family.

Of course some families have more stress than others, and some families manage conflict better.

Holidays are stressful. If you’re hosting the event you’re dealing with cooking, cleaning, and all the other responsibilities that come with hosting a family gathering. That’s stressful enough. Add in the knowledge that Aunt Peg is coming and she hates Uncle Pete and will insist on sitting as far from him at dinner, and suddenly you’re stressed out. You want everyone to get along and yet you know that isn’t really likely to happen. Already you are dreading the event and nothing has gone wrong.

If you’re a guest you have a good idea about how family members interact and know that there’s at least one person who will find a way to stir things up no matter what. If there are places in your life that don’t line up with other’s expectations, you go into the gathering with defenses up. All year long you may be a wonderfully successful person in your own right, but gather with your siblings and suddenly your 10 years old again fighting about the same issues you’ve been mulling over for 30 years.

So what can you do to reign in expectations?

Turn off the TV – It would be lovely if families could tie up all the loose ends after an hour and half of conflict, but it doesn’t work that way. At least not without professional intervention. If you love the classic holiday programs just be mindful that that’s not how things work out. Remind yourself that there are more families like yours – families who fight, argue, and bicker over the holidays, than there aren’t.

Distract everyone – If people are occupied they are less likely to fight and bicker. Set up an area with games and puzzles, hopefully not too competitive. If weather is favorable suggest an outdoor activity.

Steer away from difficult conversation – This isn’t always possible, but if you can deflect difficult discussions about politics or religion you’ll go a long way in ensuring a nice time.

Put your food down – Explain to your family that they will need to leave any bickering or conflict at the door (this may or may not work).

If after all that intervention you still don’t have perfection remind yourself that people aren’t likely to change because of the holiday. In fact, they are likely to be more annoying and grating than at other times of the year due to close quarters, alcohol and their own expectations.

Even though it is the holiday season and we are inundated with messages of miracles, the odds of a perfect family gathering are slim. Expect that things will go wrong and then do your best to laugh it off when they do. You may never love the holidays, but you don’t have to hate them.