It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Mince pies, festive films, Christmas trees, carols, twinkly lights. Christmas certainly has its good bits. But it’s not without its difficulties. There are some parts that are trickier than others. While we love snuggling up on the sofa and watching Elf, spending time with our family over the festive season can be… strained. From worrying about making sure everyone has the ‘perfect’ time to dealing with those with whom we might not have great relationships, and navigating potential financial worries to boot, it can be… a lot. But there are tricks to managing family relationships this festive season so you’re able to enjoy the whole thing a little more.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the perfect Christmas is something every family has. We’ve long been sold the idea – through Christmas films, TV shows and (especially) schmaltzy TV ads trying to sell us the perfect lifestyle – that the only thing you need to make the perfect festive season is a connection with your friends and family. But the truth is that the whole thing is a lot more complicated. We’re only human. And when you throw humans together in a space that they don’t usually reside in, then add in additional pressure to make everything just right, it doesn’t always go to plan.
And while we’re looking forward to Christmas this year after the chaos of 2020’s last-minute change of plans, we know that managing family relationships this festive season will be, for many, as much of a challenge as it would be any other year. While children may see Christmas as a time of magic, for parents it can be a different story. Namely one of domestic hard work, pressure to live up to their kids’ expectations, reunions with extended family and way too much rich food and alcohol. How can we make it all more bearable if it feels like it might be tricky?
Just being aware can help
Tavistock Relationships always sees a rise in couples and individuals seeking relationship support in the New Year. Kate Thompson, a psychotherapist at Tavistock Relationships, explains: “Relationships are hard to do at the best of times and during the festive season many couple relationships are sorely tested. Problems with in-laws are often cited as a reason for couple distress and extended family tends to descend on each other over the festivities. Some couples complain of not recognising the sides of their partner they are seeing. Worse still, they may be exposed to aspects of their spouse that remind them exactly of the in-laws they are struggling to get along with. Just being aware of some of these issues can help couples to navigate the Christmas storm.”
If experience has taught you that family tensions are likely to heat up, put an action plan in place. This will help you figure out how you’ll deal with it in advance. Whether you write it down or just make a mental note, think about what you’ll do if things get difficult. You’ll be able to respond in a more measured manner, rather than adding fuel to the fire. You’re also more likely to avoid saying something you might regret. If you notice tensions starting to rise, or things getting a little heated, don’t underestimate the power of a breath. Stop, breathe and relax. Take a step back and see if that diffuses the situation. Taking a pause can prevent family conflicts from blowing up and getting worse than necessary.
Misunderstandings and poor communication
According to myhomevitality, over 80% of relationship issues are caused by misunderstandings and poor communication patterns, which could have been resolved if one party just let out what they have been bottling up inside. While talking about things might feel difficult, it can go a really long way to solving problems. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to the people you’re having difficulties with, chat with someone else you trust. But talking is a great way to foster closeness and open up relationships. The more we communicate with one another, the more we can understand each other’s points of view. This can be especially useful with those we’re finding difficult (if we can stop butting heads for long enough!).
One of the quickest ways to diffuse tension
Agreeing to disagree is one of the quickest ways to diffuse tension. In the wise words of Elsa, know when to “let it go”. It takes two people to keep an argument going and if a conflict is going nowhere (which, let’s face it, lots of times is often the case), you can choose to move on. Agreeing to disagree is a good way to make sure you stop the conversation in its tracks in a way that isn’t going to offend anyone, meaning you can remain civil and keep relationships as positive as possible.
Avoid unrealistic expectations
While a picture-perfect Christmas has long been the hallmark of ads and movies, the reality is often far different. And that’s even before we bring Instagram into the picture. Comparison is rife at the best of times, but when Insta is serving up perfectly curated Christmas scenes and the scene in your house feels less than impeccable in terms of family relationships, it can be a bit jarring. If you know you’re prone to idealising the perfect Christmas, let go of any unrealistic expectations. Remember the idea of ‘good enough’. After the last few years, perfection can, in our opinion, do one. Just surviving is enough. Remember that ‘good enough’ is enough. When we lower our own expectations of ourselves and each other, things seem to flow better.
Be aware of any issues – and don’t expect Christmas to fix them
Kate Thompson explains that often we can expect Christmas to fix our issues, which can make them feel all the more tricky in the cold light of day. “Perversely, the more difficult the festive period may be, the more this imprint of something magical that can wipe out all ills and mend the deepest hurt can prevail. The idea that Christmas will make everything in a relationship or family alright again is a strong one to resist – cue the John Lewis Christmas advert. But when the holidays are over and we wake up to rediscover our difficulties have not evaporated, it can sometimes make things worse than ever.”
Awareness is key again. Tavistock urges couples experiencing anxiety, worry and confusion about their relationship to seek expert support to help avoid a crisis. Support can help avoid relationship breakdowns, emotional turmoil and potential mental health issues for the whole family.
Look after yourself
Time for yourself over the festive period is essential when it comes to managing family relationships. Find mindful moments or steal some time for self-care, even if you only have five or ten minutes. If you have the capacity, giving back is good for the soul and there are so many people and organisations in need around Christmas time.
Taking time to reflect on what Christmas means to you and what really matters can also help you take stock when things get heated with family members. If it’s about your kids and your close family, if Auntie Jean is banging on about politics, you can tap into this and focus on how your little ones reacted to when the Christmas tree went up, or remember your partner’s face when they opened the gift that you chose so carefully.