Tensions over the 2016 presidential election led some families to shorten Thanksgiving dinner that year to avoid conflict; others cut ties altogether with relatives whose politics differed. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll from 2016 found that one-third of respondents said they had gotten into a “heated” argument with family or friends in the wake of the presidential election.
The pandemic has created only more divides. Now that most American adults have been vaccinated against Covid, many families are having their first winter holiday gatherings in two years. It should be a joyous occasion. But some people are not inviting unvaccinated family members to Thanksgiving; others are scoffing at relatives who insist on masks.
“Now it’s no longer whether you just disagree about the long-term effects of climate change,” said Jill Suitor, a sociologist at Purdue University, where she leads a project investigating family conflict in 550 multigenerational families, “but whether you believe that having certain family members present poses a serious danger to other family members.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Americans believe the country has become more polarized since the pandemic — which is saying something, given that before the pandemic, 40 percent of people on both sides of the political aisle considered the other side “downright evil.”
The good news is that it’s possible to navigate this year’s unique holiday conflicts gracefully. Doing so requires understanding what’s really driving family tension this year, both political and personal. In many cases, according to psychologists, those classic fights about politics or where to spend Christmas are really about something much deeper, especially in 2021: a yearning for love, connection and, above all, belonging.
Psychologists have been studying belonging for decades. In a seminal paper published in 1995, the social psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary argued that human beings have a powerful need to belong that largely stems from our evolutionary origins.
People feel a sense of belonging, according to Dr. Baumeister and Dr. Leary, when they have frequent positive interactions with others that are based on mutual care. With true belonging, you are valued for who you are intrinsically, and you value the other person in turn.
During the holidays, the yearning for belonging is supercharged. Jeanne Safer, a psychoanalyst in New York who specializes in family conflict, told me that many of her patients romanticize the holidays. They have a fantasy about what family life should be at this time of year — loving, happy, accepting and warm. When loved ones gather, they desperately want the fantasy to play out, hoping that old childhood wounds and unresolved issues will be healed. “Maybe this time, my parents will understand me. Maybe this time, my in-laws will accept me.” That fantasy is especially potent this year after so much time apart.
But such high hopes and expectations are usually dashed. There are so many opportunities to feel rejected during the holidays — and every encounter can become a referendum on how loved you are (or aren’t).