Health & Wellness

Don't be a Cheney sister: How to avoid sibling squabbles this Thanksgiving

In this July 2013 file photo, Liz Cheney, left, speaks during a campaign appearance in Casper, Wyo., and her sister Mary Cheney, right, is seen in a 2006 photo attending the funeral for former President Gerald Ford in Washington. Liz Cheney is running in a Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat from Wyoming. She told "Fox News Sunday" that she disagrees with her sister Mary Cheney, who is married to Heather Poe, over the topic of same-sex marriage. Mary Cheney responded on Facebook: "You're just wrong."

If you want to have a peaceful Thanksgiving with your siblings next week, remember this: Don’t be a Cheney sister.

The Cheneys just made headlines with their very public fight over same-sex marriage: Liz Cheney, who is running for Senate in Wyoming, said in a Fox News interview that she believes in the “traditional definition of marriage,” Mary Cheney, who wed her longtime partner Heather Poe last year, took to her Facebook page to publicly denounce her sister’s comments: “Liz – this isn’t just an issue on which we disagree- you’re just wrong- and on the wrong side of history,” she wrote. Mom and Dad even eventually stepped in.

The Cheney family members are public figures, of course, and their stances on things like marriage equality matter a little more than a squabble between regular siblings. But psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz says even though the Cheneys are political celebrities, this same thing can happen “on a microscale” in any family. It illustrates publicly what may play out privately in many homes next week — the idea that we don’t really grow out of sibling rivalry.

“I think, no matter how old we get, old sibling rivalries are still there,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, a New York City psychiatrist and frequent TODAY contributor. “Part of what’s magical about the holidays, to some degree, is how much it reminds us of the magical memories of childhood. But it can also put your right back there into feeling rivalrous or competitive with your sibling.”

Saltz and Lizzie Post, etiquette expert with the Emily Post Institute and great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post herself, offered some survival tips for getting through the holiday seasons without tearing your siblings apart.

Don’t take things public. Seriously, do not air your grievances with your sibling over social media, even in a vague “UGH family gatherings smh” kind of way.

“I would like to say this goes without saying, but it doesn’t go without saying, because people have trouble controlling themselves in a moment of anger,” Saltz says. Breathe, and put the smartphone down.

Don’t drag other family members into it. Former Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, eventually felt like they had to weigh in on their girls’ fight on Monday, which is another example of what not to do, Saltz and Post say. Don’t ask other family members to take sides, because that makes it a bigger fight.

“And, I think the biggest piece is what it adds, which is the humiliation factor — and few things feel worse than being shamed,” Saltz says. “If you and your siblings have a fight, well, it’s you and your siblings. But if you out each other to garner support — now you’ve embarrassed your sibling. You’ve now ladled onto the issue something that’s much harder to deal with.”

Work out your issues ahead of time. If you know there’s tension brewing between you and your sister or brother, call them — now — and try to make peace over the phone. Or, if that’s not possible, identify and agree on the touchy subjects – politics, parenting decisions, that kind of thing — that you won’t bring up during the family gathering.  

Don’t drink too much. “The great temptation will be to get there and have a drink, and when everybody drinks, it’s a far greater likelihood of everything heading south,” Saltz says. “Even though you want to have a drink because you feel stressed out, what it generally does is disinhibit you.”

Don’t take the bait. If your sister says something and you know she knows it will rile you up, ignore it, laugh it off, or just change the subject, Post says. Instead, be relentlessly positive: ask them about something that’s going really well in their lives; their kid who is excelling at soccer, or their new-found hobby, or other innocuous things like that.

“Remember that it’s really, really hard to argue with someone who won’t argue,” Post says. “So if you won’t engage in that fight, if you won’t take that bait, they can’t go anywhere with it. They’ll end up looking like a jerk if you don’t react.”

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