Marriage and Family Therapist
updated December 20, 2021
How to Cope With Difficult Family Interactions During the Holidays
Christmas is approaching, and it’s time for FAMILY. Although there are plenty of reasons to opt out (e.g. concerns about COVID-19 and travel or wanting to see friends), many of us will be with our family and/or our spouse’s/partner’s family. Nothing like family to bring up all sorts of feelings. Let’s take a look at how to spend enjoyable time with our and then our partner’s family.
DAVE’S HOLIDAY SURVIVAL PLAN
Recently, my client “Dave” has been worried about his yearly visit to Southern California. He and his wife and kids are spending Christmas with his parents, siblings, and lifelong family friends and staying for a few days afterwards. As Dave is a chef, the unspoken expectation has been that he will cook a lavish feast, getting help from only his wife and mother. In previous years, by the time the celebration starts, he has been resentful, exhausted and in no mood to celebrate.
Dave wants things to be different this year. He has already told his parents that he’s taking the year off from cooking. He has suggested either a potluck or going to a restaurant. He has also made plans to take his wife and kids to Disneyland for a couple of days. He then plans to return to his parents’ house for their last night before heading home.
NEW HOLIDAY STRATEGIES
Just as Dave is trying a new strategy this year, each of us has to figure out what to do differently, to increase the chance of enjoying the holidays with our families. Here are some thoughts to keep in mind as you prepare to go.
It’s OK to break lifelong patterns of behavior. There’s nothing like time spent with family for you to suddenly find yourself talking and acting like you did when you were a teenager living at home. When you realize you’re doing this, gently remind yourself that you are now an adult, and as long as you aren’t rude or inconsiderate, you’re free to behave however you want.
Be aware that your siblings and parents are also likely to repeat their lifelong patterns. The brother who has always said mean things in order to knock you down will probably try to do the same this year. Remind yourself not to take his bait. Instead, take a deep breath and respond to him as calmly and kindly as possible. Eventually, he’ll lose interest and pester others.
And this might be particularly difficult for Dave this year. His brother missed Thanksgiving with the family, because he refused to get vaccinated. He figured that his parents were just bluffing when they said only vaccinated people could come. Rather than miss Christmas dinner, his brother and family chose to get vaccinated. But Dave is ready for them to make snide, sarcastic remarks about the vaccine and how COVID, “isn’t that bad,” and he wants to remain calm
And a part of this for Dave will to be taking a break from his family/brother. He knows that he’ll feel pressured to spend EVERY MINUTE of time with them. But he’ll fight through it and take care of himself. And we need to do this, too. Be it spending an evening with a friend, heading away overnight, or just taking a walk around the block after dinner, if you take breaks when you feel your temperature rising, you’re more likely to enjoy your time with them (and them with you.)
Regardless of what you plan to do differently, be aware that you will probably feel the pressure to act like you always have. If you stick to your guns and do what makes you (and your spouse and children) happy, rather than giving in and feeling badly afterwards, it’s likely that you’ll leave feeling satisfied and (almost) ready for next year.
OR IS THIS THE YEAR YOU’RE WITH YOUR SPOUSE’S FAMILY?
When you walk in the door at your parents’ house for the holidays, you know what to expect. Your father greets you at the door, wearing the same holiday sweater he always had. It’s tacky but oddly comforting. Appetizers are at 2 and dinner is served at 3:45 on the dot. At 6:15 p.m. everyone walks around the neighborhood to look at Christmas lights and then have fudge at 7 when you return. Only then do you open up presents. What seems overly scheduled and boring to others is as comfortable for you as your favorite sweats.
When you get to your spouse’s house, things will be radically different. Uncle Max will sit outside and smoke a cigar and sip some Bushmill’s, rain, snow, or shine at 3 p.m. just as he has for the last forty years. As he gets loaded, he’ll probably start making up Irish songs about his friends in the nursing home who have gotten sick from COVID, because they refused to get vaccinated
Before he gets further momentum, you’ll get inside where it won’t be much better. Her entire family will duel over politics and feelings will be hurt. You know you’ll have to shout to be heard, so you’ll just button your lips. Someone will drink way too much and break into traditional Irish folk songs. Eventually, your wife will probably be set off by something that won’t make sense. But your confusion is beside the point, because you aren’t there to make sense of things. You’re there to roll with things, be supportive and hopefully have some fun.
As much as it’d be great to be spontaneous and spend the ENTIRE evening with Uncle Max, you know that would be a disaster. Instead, when it comes to HER family, the best way to have fun is to prepare ahead of time. Talk about who’s going to be there and what they typically do that gets her goat. Then make a plan for what you’ll do when she’s had her fill and needs a break. Perhaps you’ll go for a walk or a coffee. Maybe you’ll see old friends. You might even plan to take a vacation from your vacation and go away ASAP after dinner.
Once there, check-in with your spouse from time-to-time. If she’s starting to get frazzled and dragged into those same family disagreements from 20 years ago, take her away from the festivities for a moment and suggest that you do some of the things you planned ahead of time.
Keep in mind that you may have to be strategic about when you take your break. You could get in the way of family traditions and cause more problems than it’s worth. Rather than skipping the 30-year tradition of taking eggnog and Aunt Sally’s inedible fruitcake to all the neighbors and upsetting everyone, take time away before or after the ritual. Once you’ve had your time away, it’s more likely you’ll enjoy yourselves (and be more enjoyable).
Also, cut her some slack. When at home, she’s probably kind and considerate and you get along well. When with her family, things probably won’t go so smoothly. Rather than getting on her for being less than elegant, try to understand that she’s putting all of her energy into managing her family. She’s doing her best to be pleasant to you, even if it doesn’t seem like it. If you find yourself getting crabby, take a moment and remind yourself that the holidays are only a small moment in time. And after you’ve both had a chance to detox, things will be back to normal. Also, keep in mind that you’ll be with YOUR family next time, and they’ll do all the nonsensical things (to her) that they do. And you’ll want her to have your back.
About The Author
My counseling practice is located in Midtown Sacramento and I focus of working with middle and high school students and adults. To learn more about me and how I work, feel free to contact me at 916-919-0218. Or at Steve@rivercitycounseling.com
I also write my blog on a regular basis. It focuses on parenting, relationship, and random stuff. It can be found on my website. Other counseling material can be found on Facebook @River City Counseling and on Twitter @rivercitysteve. My Twitter page also includes ongoing conversations about coffee, growing succulents, and whatever else seems interesting. I hope you check it all out.
If you’re having a hard time coping with the holidays, you may want to consider finding a therapist. Therapy can help you to cope with and/or sort out better ways of interacting with family. SacWellness.com is home to over 190 therapists in the greater Sacramento area and many of them work with issues like codependency, family therapy, and relationship counseling.