Side-step the annual family Christmas feud with our expert negotiation tips.
Christmas is billed as the most magical time of the year, but for some of us it’s also the most stressful. From overspending to clashes with the in-laws and claustrophobic family gatherings, there are multiple reasons why we don’t all embrace the festive season. According to a survey carried out by Relate, 68 per cent of us are expected to row over the festive season, with 39 per cent citing Christmas Day as the mostly likely time to have a major family bust-up.
If yuletide leaves you tempted to go for your sibling’s jugular or you always end up fighting with your other half, you are not alone. Thanks to enforced family gatherings at your nan’s house, generally cold weather and a little too much booze, Christmas can be an emotional rollercoaster and it’s perfectly normal not to feel like Santa’s little helper every single moment of the holidays.
Add coronavirus into the mix and tensions could go through the roof this year, with family members either disappointed that you chose not to see them to prevent the spread of coronavirus, or stressed out by the threat of COVID lingering in the air. Either way, family negotiations are likely to be especially tricky this year and you’d be forgiven for feeling anxious about the festive season.
We spoke to life coach and psychotherapist Andre Radmall, Relate counsellor Rachel Davies and family counsellor Diane Stevens about how to avoid a family fall-out this Christmas and prevent coronavirus from sabotaging your festive sparkle:
Why do families fall out at Christmas?
Every January, Relate receive a significant increase in calls as family tensions came to a head over the Christmas holidays, so remember that you’re not alone if you’re experiencing estrangement or you feel challenged by a family relationship.
There are a number of reasons why Christmas can be a particularly challenging time for the family, says Relate counsellor Rachel Davies. ‘A lot of people who are having difficulty this time of year put on a brave face to focus on having a good time and think the problems will go away,’ says Davies. ‘But of course they’re still there after the Christmas decorations have been taken down.’
Expectations of the perfect family Christmas can make us all feel inadequate and disappointed come the big day.
Thanks to Instagram and advertising geared towards the nuclear family, unachievable expectations of the perfect Christmas can also play a role in making us all feel inadequate and disappointed come the big day. ‘There are problems with the expectations we put on families to fulfil the Christmas card image of large extended families having a lovely time,’ adds Davies. ‘I think there’s a lot of pressure on everyone to live up to that.’
Combine these feelings with coronavirus anxiety and it’s no great surprise that many of us will be feeling less than festive this year. ‘Some families have seen a lot less of each other this year due to lockdowns and different tier levels, so getting back together in a short space of time could be stressful,’ says Radmall. ‘There may be a feeling that a lot of lost time has to be made up, quickly. This can increase stress, as even in normal times it takes a day or so to get used to being with each other.’
So what can you do to make the best of a bad situation, inject some Christmas cheer into your lives and simultaneously side-step family fall-outs?
10 ways to manage expectations this Christmas
If you’re dreading the idea of spending Christmas with your extended family because you end up fighting every year, here are 10 ways to cope with family rifts over the festive season and see the New Year in unscathed:
1.It’s OK to cancel Christmas
If there was ever a year to hedge your bets and cancel Christmas to avoid catastrophe, it’s 2020. You are perfectly within your rights to take the safest route possible (with the least risk of family feuding and COVID-19 infection) and cancel Christmas, so don’t be afraid to postpone family gatherings until it’s safer to see each other.
‘It may be sensible to cancel Christmas if people are concerned about catching or passing on COVID,’ says Radmall. ‘The stress and possible guilt may just not be worth the risk. Cancel on the understanding that families who care for each other don’t want to put each other under unnecessary stress,’ he adds.
If your family protests, politely point them in the direction of the latest statistics and remind them that you have their best interests at heart. If cancelling Christmas because of coronavirus coincidentally makes life a million times easier for you in terms of avoiding family dramas: bonus.
- Plan your week realistically
If you know that there’s likely to be conflict within your family or anyone is high-risk and concerned about coronavirus, spending extended time together over Christmas just might not be realistic, so plan your week accordingly. ‘Be realistic ahead of time, so you can avoid putting yourself into situations where it’s going to lead to problems further down the line,’ says Davies. ‘Make sure your plans are realistic and achievable.’
Set achievable goals such as shorter times allocated for particularly difficult family members on mutual ground. Arrange to meet in a pub garden or go for a bracing walk in a park so that you can politely leave if the atmosphere gets tense, or better yet take it online as you can always log off if it gets difficult.
If the idea of a Zoom get-together fills you with dread, plan an online Christmas quiz or murder mystery dinner. Forced FaceTime can feel a bit awkward, but if you all have a task to fulfil it can distract from family tensions and might even be fun!
- Talk openly about your COVID fears
If you’re anxious about offending the in-laws or leaving an elderly relative alone over Christmas, your first instinct might be to soldier on and do the right thing. But COVID is a very real and dangerous threat and even if none of your family members are infected, the unknown fear that an asymptomatic carrier could be amongst you can add unnecessary stress to an already tense situation.
Before you make any drastic decisions, try talking to everyone in advance of making plans to see each other. It sounds simple but your family might be unsure about how they feel or find it hard to say, so an open and honest conversation could be beneficial for all of you. ‘It may be helpful to make space to share one another’s feelings and fears about COVID,’ says Radmall. ‘Everyone is likely to have a different opinion on the restrictions. If it’s possible to talk without arguing, this could relieve tension.’
- Confide in a family ally
If you’re worried about facing up to a tricky family member, deciding whether or not you should risk seeing each other at all could add to your stresses. Find a family member you can trust before you head home for the holidays and communicate your worries to them. Verbalising your feelings with someone who knows your family intimately can be surprisingly cathartic, so you’ll feel more relaxed when the silly season starts.
‘Discuss how you are going to manage those few days with a trusted friend or family member,’ advises Davies. ‘And even if they don’t share your concerns, it may be that they are better at dealing with that person than you are.’
- Compromise is key
Remember that Christmas only comes once a year, so if you are forming a family bubble and facing a few days trapped indoors with your nearest and dearest, try to compromise. A healthy dose of acceptance and understanding will stand you in good stead over Christmas, so breathe deeply and prepare to meet your family halfway. When Auntie Margaret tucks into the port, her snarky comments about your career choices might leave you fuming, but remember you only have to see her once a year.
‘You may have some people who drink more heavily than others or maybe not at all,’ says Stevens. ‘So, compromise and decide to start drinking at Christmas dinner, rather than earlier in the day. If there are arguments at Christmas, limit things like alcohol because that obviously creates extra irritability.’
- Make yourself busy
If Uncle John leaves you raging every year with his archaic political views or your Grandma hits the whiskey at 11am and keeps asking why you’re not married, you don’t have to stay for the long haul if you know it will lead to a dispute.
Rather than forcing yourself to spend extended time with the members of your family who you find most difficult, break your time up to alleviate the pressure by finding useful jobs to do. Cook the Christmas feat, start training for that marathon, or simply do a COVID-safe doorstep visit and then head home before tensions start to flair.
‘There are all sorts of clever ways of creating reasons to take some time out,’ says Davies. ‘Things like being the one who walks the dog or who finds a late-night garage to buy some milk. It’s important just get a break from the pressure from each other.’
- Keep the conversation light
This is not the time of year to tackle your Dad about his drinking problem or resolve that longstanding feud with your sister. Opt for lighter conversations and if chat turns to Brexit or anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, steer the conversation gently back to the weather. Alternatively, bring out the board games and stick to good clean family fun.
‘Try to avoid heavy conversations if you can or controversial topics about politics,’ says Davies. ‘Unless your family really enjoys debating, of course!’ The same goes for COVID chat. Once you’ve made your decisions as a family, stick to them and try not to let the unseen threat of coronavirus sabotage your day.
- Plan some time out
If you’ve collectively agreed to spend Christmas together as one giant bubble, this decision to join forces in the face of adversity could create extra pressure to have 24/7 fun, which is an unrealistic goal for even the most emotionally robust family. Don’t be afraid to suggest down time, or simply take some for yourself. Tis the season to be jolly, but it’s also the end of a very long and stressful year and we all need a break, so it’s OK to switch Elf on the telly and relax for a bit.
‘Even though bubbles may come together in the same house, people may be used to their own space,’ says Radmall. ‘So agree times in the day when everyone can either go to their room or go out and get some me-time. This will diffuse a lot of tension.’
- Look after yourself first
If there is no way to resolve a family dispute and being cooped up in a two bed flat with your entire family for five days is only going to make things worse (and puts you all at risk of coronavirus infection), give yourself permission to take yourself out of the situation as soon as you can, or cancel completely. It’s OK to put your needs first if the situation is damaging to your mental and physical health.
‘If it’s something that can’t be controlled and is becoming a real problem, you may have to make the decision to say this isn’t okay, and either go home or away from what’s going on,’ says Stevens.
- Seek help if it all gets too much
If you need to talk to someone but you’re reluctant to confide in a member of your family, consider talking therapy. A therapist wont judge you or take sides and will be able to help you to find strategies to move forward.
Alternatively make an escape plan. ‘Arrange with friends, not in your Christmas bubble, that you can call them if you think you are losing it,’ suggests Radmall. ‘Then you can always excuse yourself to make the call.’