Wouldn't it be great if your only problem on Thanksgiving Day was figuring out how long to roast the turkey? It's almost a given: Even when everyone else is on his or her best behavior, there's always one dinner guest who makes you crazy.
In the interests of holiday harmony, we picked six of the most common troublemaker types and asked for advice on how to deal with them. Dr. Richard Perlmutter, a psychiatrist and family therapist with a private practice in Baltimore, and Charlotte Ford, author of 21st Century Etiquette (Penguin, 2003), agreed to help. (Because of space limitations, we used some shorthand. For instance, we know the Unhelpful Husband may be the Unhelpful Wife in a certain percent of American households.)
The Critical Mother
It takes four hours to cook a turkey and six months of therapy to prepare for a critical mother, says Perlmutter. If her being critical is an old pattern, spend some time thinking about it in advance. "If her criticism is a shock each time, that's where the rage comes in. And rage isn't exactly compatible with gratitude, which is what the holiday is about."
Some questions to ponder: Where does her criticism come from? When she says, "The mashed potatoes are lumpy," why do you let it bother you? Is there any significance in the things she picks to criticize? Plan how you're going to respond in advance, and have some fun with it, Perlmutter advises. React differently this time instead of acting the same way you usually do to her comments.
If possible, adds Ford, try to ignore her criticisms or make light of them; then deal with them later. "You don't want any unpleasantness in front of your other guests."
How to deal: If you know it's coming, you can duck gracefully.
The Picky Eater
Maybe it's your vegan daughter, or a guest with a food allergy, or someone on the Atkins diet, low-salt diet, no-fat diet. Maybe it's just a picky eater. Whatever. It makes you long for the days when you could just cook a meal and expect people to consume it. Or at least eat what they could and not tell you about it.
If you find out about the restrictions ahead of time, try to recruit the person to help, suggests Perlmutter. "Sweetheart, would you mind making a dish for you and any other vegetarians?" If not, maybe trying to figure out why the person is fussy will help you let go of your annoyance, or turn it to compassion.
Your first priority is to make your guest comfortable, says Ford. "Thanksgiving is such a mishmash it's not so difficult to have some things everyone can eat." If you're the guest you have a responsibility, too, she adds. Just eat what you can, or eat before you go and just nibble.
How to deal: Adding a couple of dishes won't ruin your menu.
The Drunk Uncle
You know the one. He arrives a little tipsy, has a drink or two before dinner, and keeps emptying his wine glass. He gets maudlin or argumentative, neither of which is pleasant.
There are only two things you can do, says Perlmutter: You can make it hard for him to get alcohol, and you can get him out of the house early. The time to work on the problem is between holidays, by saying something about how you felt when he drank too much last Thanksgiving, rather than "protecting" him. "But you can't do anything until the person is ready."
"Get him a ride home," says Ford. "You can't tell them to stop drinking, but you can level with him if it's a family member: that it's unpleasant to have him around."
How to deal: Line up a Designated Driver before he arrives.
The Unhelpful Husband
Wouldn't this day be a lot easier if your spouse would peel the potatoes or set the table? Especially when most of the guests are his family.
Deal with it, advises Ford. "If he's unhelpful on Thanksgiving, he's generally unhelpful around the house and you know it. Don't expect it to change." Get some extra help for the big day.
Pull the fuse, advises Perlmutter. "There are two main reasons he's unhelpful. One is cultural gender issues, even though those are weaker these days, and the other is football."
Assuming you can tear your husband away from the TV and the college football games, you can probably get him to help by talking about it in advance. "If you can plan your recipes, you can plan a discussion ahead of time," Perlmutter says. Sometimes the problem is that people go on instinct and don't think about what their holiday roles are. ("Mom always cooked Thanksgiving dinner.") Straighten those out in advance.
"If your husband isn't aware of these [cultural gender] issues," Perlmutter says, "You have a bigger problem than Thanksgiving dinner."
How to deal: Find a chore he can do during commercials.
The Needy Friend
You know the one. She lurks in the kitchen telling you what's wrong with her life while you're trying to make the gravy.