• U.S.
  • Holidays

It’s Going to Be Rough Around the Thanksgiving Table This Year. Start Planning Now

7 minute read

Thanksgiving this year arrives three weeks after what's promising to be a very divisive election. If recent history is any guide, there is almost no scenario in which those who voted for the person who loses will be at the "accept-it-and-move-on" stage by turkey time. Last election year, the losing candidate had not conceded by this point. Even for families who are all on the same political page, there's also a war in the Middle East, the involvement of the U.S. in a grinding conflict in Europe, and the relative merits of Taylor Swift. There's a lot to disagree about.

But it's Thanksgiving, the most unifying and nonsectarian of all American celebrations. And experts advise leaning in to family occasions during discordant times. Proximity is key to building bonds and empathy; it's much easier to demonize that cousin whose political beliefs enrage you when the two of you communicate only via group text than when she's passing you the cranberry sauce. And getting together with people whose opinions you deeply loathe, but which are shared by a significant portion of your fellow citizens, can build understanding and fellowship. Provided, that is, that you can communicate effectively.

Therapists are already concerned that this celebration may be more tricky than the post-election Thanksgivings that have come before. "I think it's going to be tougher because the folks who are concerned about Trump are even more concerned they were in 2016," says William Doherty, professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. The first Trump Administration has heightened their fears about what may happen if he wins again. And if Biden wins, says Doherty, "for those who are supporting Trump, particularly if they're enthusiastically supporting Trump, there will be this sense that he was deprived of the presidency twice in a row."

Read More: Trump's Presidency Divided Families. What Happens Next?

If the election is in any way disputed, as it was in 2020, there may be events between the election and Thanksgiving that will stoke those fears. "I don't know anybody who is not anxious about it," says Amy Begel, a family therapist in New York. Sometimes that kind of apprehensiveness can draw people close together. Sandra Murray, a psychology professor at SUNY Buffalo, has studied the effect of threatening political circumstances on family life. "To the extent that people are feeling unsettled about what's happening politically," she says, "they're going to want to find more reasons to feel good about that holiday and feel good about those close relationships."

But even close families who agree on most political issues have been feeling the strain this year. Among left-leaning families there is contention over America's traditional support of Israel given the conflict in Gaza. And more conservative families have found themselves at odds over Ukraine, with some alarmed about the threat of Russian aggression and others more perturbed by U.S. involvement in an expensive foreign war. "The hottest conflicts and the strongest feelings occur when people feel betrayed by those who have been on their side," says Doherty. Families can be blindsided by dissenting views from relatives with whom they have always agreed.

Therapists are recommending preparing ahead of time so that the day can be a time of unity rather than further create discord. "If one can reasonably anticipate that they're walking into a very tricky situation, I think it makes sense to do a little advanced planning," says Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist and author of, most recently, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers, who suggests that people with children and teenagers could even role-play over the dinner table a few times between now and Thanksgiving as a kind of training exercise. "Someone might imagine a provocative comment that lands in the middle of the Thanksgiving table. And we can take turns practicing firm yet gentle responses."

Read More: How to Reconcile With an Estranged Relative

Doherty, who co-founded Braver Angels, an organization that gets people on both sides of the political fence to talk to each other, cautions that political discussions are difficult around the meal table, because there are many complicated relationships at play and it takes only one person to derail the tone of the discussion. "I think you have to be worried about family group conversations," he says. "Those can disintegrate fast." Instead, he and most therapists suggest that a host can ask ahead of time that politics be off-limits at the dinner table, or a guest can informally get a general agreement with other family members about what topics are welcome while dining and what should be saved for a more intimate discussion. Or people can start right now to adjust their expectations. "Surrender the idea that you're going to have a family member who's going to change their mind about something that's important to them because you have enlightened them," says Doherty. "Give that up."

"I always encourage people to have a menu of strategies to calm themselves," says Bernard Golden, a psychologist and the author of Overcoming Destructive Anger. These include breathing exercises beforehand, calming music during the meal, and envisaging a mental traffic light on whether to proceed or stop before speaking, to give yourself a chance to disengage. And even now, long before the menu is planned or the guests invited, he counsels beginning to "be alert to the voice in your head that says, 'People should see things as I do,'" he says. "You could address that long before the people come."

Forewarned is forearmed, so this might be a good year for a little scoping out as to what disputes might arise. You can usually get a sense of where there might be difficulties from other relatives, social media, or a casual conversation ahead of time. "Don't just walk into Thanksgiving and be surprised," says Doherty. "Think about the divisions and be prepared to bring your kind and gentle self to this event."

Read More: How to Set Boundaries With Relatives, According to Family Therapists

Not all families—even the happy ones—are alike. (Sorry, Tolstoy.) For some, family is a place where they can be their most authentic self, secure in the knowledge that they belong, no matter if they behave like a jerk. In others, family members have to be on their best behavior to make it through without some kind of contretemps. In contentious times, it's better to be even more prepared than usual for not-quite-healed scars to sting again. "In preparation for Thanksgiving or any gathering, it's a good idea to do almost like a body scan of our triggers," says Begel. "Anticipate that there might be a couple people who we know will try and push our buttons and to make sure that we've protected those buttons."

That means being aware of where our sore points might be and trying to figure out how to navigate conversations away from them. Because such a thing is more easily said than done, it's better not to wait until the morning of the event to reflect on and notice issues that rile us up. "Really, it's better when it happens early on," Begel adds. Emotions tend to get more intense, not calmer, as the holidays draw near.

As passions run high, it may be tempting to see Thanksgiving as an occasion to get together with like-minded people to grieve or vent. But therapists caution against omitting a family member because of their ballot-box preferences. "I think not inviting people who are typically included sends a strong message that our divisions are beyond repair," says Damour. "In my most optimistic heart I want Americans to try to use Thanksgiving to find common ground with one another."

While all of this seems like a lot of work just for the privilege of fighting the traffic on the way to someone's house to eat a hard-to-cook poultry meat and then pumpkin for dessert, the therapists were all unanimous on the value of getting together on the holiday. "Thanksgiving is the probably the only universal family holiday in our country," says Doherty. "So it's essential for most families and it would be an earthquake to cancel it." Even if you're dreading the next four years, he says, "don't let political leaders hurt your family."

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com