Christmas cheer or christmas tears?

It’s December again and many of us are preparing for the holiday festivities. This time of year often involves catching up with family and friends; the ones you like, but also the ones you don’t like. For some couples, it can be a joyful, fun and carefree time. But for others, it can be an exhausting period of discord, distress and misery. You ask why?

The holiday season often involves reconnection with our families; a challenging exercise for many of us at the best of times. And this is where it can get complicated…

Families interact in all sorts of ways and on many levels. They may have emotional, physical and financial relationships that seem strange, dysfunctional and/or destructive. Some families are supportive and some not at all. Some families may have an even spread of care and responsibility, others not. Some families are happy and comfortable around each other and others struggle to be in the same room.  The holiday season is like turning up the volume on your radio. It can intensify good feelings in happy, functional and supportive relationships and amplify disharmony in unhappy relationships. For some families you can hear the distorted feedback for blocks! To add to all of this, if a partner is not able to understand, agree with or support their companion’s interactional patterns with their family, there is the risk that the couple will experience strain in their own relationship.

When couples can’t agree on how to navigate these sensitive and important relationships, apart from the arguments, it can create feelings of anger, frustration, resentment and sadness. The result? The relationship experiences increasing levels of strain and unhappiness. What’s more, partners can feel misunderstood and isolated. So what can you do if you find yourself in this situation? The key is to approach your difference of opinion with softness, compassion and the energy of open negotiation.

Here are some practical tips you can apply to your interactions with your partner:

Instead of striving to be right, strive to understand your partner’s point of view. You can do this by asking for clarification on viewpoints and exploring feelings about a particular situation.

If a certain situation or issue is upsetting you, firstly explore how you feel (you can jot your feelings onto a piece of paper). Then identify your unmet need. For example:
Feeling: “I feel angry when we have to spend 3 weeks with your parents.”
Unmet need(s): More intimate couple time, the chance to rest and recuperate just the two of us
Once you have done this, choose a calm moment to communicate your thoughts to your partner.

Honestly ask yourself if this is an issue worth fighting over or if you could let it go for the sake of the relationship.

Negotiate healthy boundaries with your partner before the festivities begin. Come to an agreement about which events will be attended and for how long. Allow each other the space to opt out. No partner should ever feel coerced into doing something they don’t want to.  This is especially important to remember if the result of attending means more relationship discord. But be careful, this does not give you permission to dig your heels in and refuse to participate. It is essential to exercise patience and compassion while striving to meet your own and your partner’s needs. What does this mean? This means that if it is really important for your partner that you sit through lunch with your in-laws (AND smile), then it may be worth your while to put your own needs aside for a few hours and simply support him/her.

Allow family members to simply be themselves, warts and all. Choose to accept their limitations as simply being part of who they are. This approach makes it easier both for you and your partner to enjoy the positive aspects of your family without the tension or disappointment created when your expectations don’t get met.

As a couple take some time to create your vision of the ideal Christmas and holiday period. Use your imagination to see and feel your ideal experience and write positive statements about how you want it to be. For example, “Christmas day will be fun, light and easy and we will enjoy the company of all present”.

If you and your partner simply cannot get through to each other, it is best to seek professional help from an experienced and qualified therapist who can assist with building effective communication skills.

By applying these helpful tips in your relationship, you’re setting yourself up for happy and harmonious festive season.