How To Survive Your Next Family Reunion

Can Reuniting Feel So Good?

The words “family reunion” can cause a wide range of reactions depending on who you are, your upbringing and where you come from. For many people, it’s all smiles, fond memories and joyful anticipation — as I think it should be. For others, it’s time to start coming up with creative excuses to avoid the event altogether. Oftentimes, however, our reactions lie somewhere in between. The good news is, with a simple set of coping skills, surviving your family reunion may be easier than you think. More on that in a bit.

I come from a large family. Both sets of grandparents had over 10 kids each, which naturally produced a multitude of cousins, second cousins, and so on. Large families mean varied and diverse personalities influenced by upbringing, the local culture, belief systems, education and job situations, just to name a few. While all these diverse people in one space can be a real hoot, it can also make for some difficult moments.

Within a big family is a core of people that you love and who love you

Fortunately, or unfortunately (depending on your viewpoint), the word “family” seems to give some people a free pass to ignore decorum and go straight for the jugular. Many of us have family members we haven’t seen in years, which essentially makes them virtual strangers. And in my family, these guys play the family card hard. Why aren’t you married? Are you ever going to have kids? How much do you make? Are you gay? Is that your real hair color?

If you’re the people-pleaser type like me, you find yourself answering questions about things you don’t really want to talk about. It’s not really my family’s fault; people are naturally inquisitive. I just feel myself unable to say no when faced with a direct question. (If this is you too, check out our Healthfully Selfish blog for more help with that.)

It would help to know, I moved from the East Coast to the West Coast at an early age. Without a big travel budget, most of my contact over the next 20 years was with my immediate family. As I eventually adopted the culture, style and basic vibe of my local surroundings, I changed a lot over the years without really noticing.

When I would return back east for a family reunion, I seemed to be the object of everyone’s attention. I looked different and I talked different because I was different. Most of my family lived within the same 50-mile geographic location all their lives. That made me an outsider of sorts. I had to develop those coping strategies I mentioned earlier, which I’m going to share with you now.

  1. Play the Game. As I progressed in my career, my wardrobe took on a decidedly different feel. I tended to choose well-made selections that would work in my chosen white-collar occupation and were designed for living in a more temperate climate. After a couple of trips home, I realized that my wardrobe was pretty much like wearing a neon sign around my neck. That was on me. So I bought a few things that blended right in with the hometown crowd. I was no longer standing out from the mob, and that unwanted attention was quickly diffused. This was a step in the right direction.
  2. Don’t Play the Game. You don’t have to answer any questions that you feel are inappropriate. Remember, people like to play the family card. However, you can play it right back. Flip the question back on them. Why aren’t I married? Why are you married? It can be a great icebreaker, or at the very least, the person will get the hint that you aren’t going to be answering personal questions. Either way, it’s a win for you.
    Also, be sure to take time away from the reunion to do something for yourself. Go for a walk, exercise, visit the places you loved growing up, and take some quiet time just for you. I have a favorite place down in the woods across the street from my house where I spent every summer as a kid. A quick stop there generates a flood of happy memories and immediately drops my blood pressure.
  3. Win the Game. I began to understand that the reason so many people were asking me questions was that they wanted to compare my life with their own. That’s just an inevitable part of being in a family. I grew up during an era when parents were always comparing the success of their children in a friendly game of one-upmanship. I can’t imagine what it’s like being a kid today under the social media microscope, with overzealous parents armed with camera phones. What I do know is that within that big family is a core of people that you love and who love you. They are the very reason you came back for the celebration.

Once you settle in past all the normal family reunion rhetoric, surround yourself with those people as much as you can. Share the funny stories you remember about growing up. Be an active listener; be present, mindful and kind. That will help you have the best possible experience, and you just may find yourself winning the family reunion game.

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