How to survive common relationship problems at Christmas

The festive season is seen as a time for family get-togethers, but what can you do if a fall-out seems more likely? We help solve your domestic dilemmas...

Woman surrounded by fairy lights

Disagreements are a part of many family Christmasses – almost a tradition in some cases. But there are ways to defuse tense situations before they blow up. Psychotherapist Lola Borg has some practical ideas to help.

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How do I do Christmas differently?

We have the same family Christmas every year. My mum is set in her ways and gets offended if I try to suggest something new. I’m a 33-year-old woman with my own life but I get treated like a teenager when I go home – which admittedly does make me act out.

I’ve talked to my sister and we’d like to do something different and have more input. How can we do it without hurting our mum’s feelings or causing an argument?

Ali, Cirencester

Lola says: Do it the kindest way possible, with as much notice as you can. You could say to your mum, ‘I really love what we do every year but wouldn’t it be nice if…’ and suggest something. Otherwise you could reframe it and say, ‘Have you ever fancied doing something different and having the year off?’ Your mum might well do the same thing every year because she thinks that you all love it that way.

With a family Christmas, by the way, it helps to be aware of how people regress when they get together. Some mothers find it difficult to accept their children are adults, but look at your own behaviour too.

Don’t expect your parents to wait on you hand and foot, and respect them in the same way you would friends and colleagues. If you behave like an adult you’re more likely to be treated like one.

Veggies vs meat eaters

This year I’m going my boyfriend’s parents’ house for Christmas. I lead a pretty healthy life – I don’t drink much alcohol and I’ve recently become vegetarian.

My boyfriend comes from a big boisterous family who all love their food and drink. I’m on one of their family WhatsApp groups, which was nice of them to include me, but they’re already making jokes about me eating rabbit food for Christmas lunch.

I know they don’t mean it but it upsets me. How can I survive a boozy, meat-heavy Christmas Day without being seen as awkward or a killjoy?

Nia, Cardiff

Lola says: First of all, it doesn’t sound like much of a joke. If they’re ribbing you continually it doesn’t sound as though they’re particularly respectful of you or your choices. That might say a lot about how they feel about their own health issues, so it’s worth bearing that in mind.

The key here is your boyfriend. Could he be the middle man and say something like, ‘Can we lay off the jokes because it will be difficult for her [you] to enjoy Christmas if she’s feeling outnumbered.’? From your perspective, try to meet them halfway. Have as much of the Christmas lunch as you can stomach, or offer to bring a vegetarian option so it’s one less thing for the host to think about.

If someone does make a jibe on the day, try not to engage. Ignore it or deflect it by saying something like, ‘Isn’t the table looking lovely?’. What you usually find is that after the first few glasses of wine no one notices what you’re eating anyway.

Woman standing among Christmas trees
Unsplash/Alisa Anton

Flying solo at Christmas

I’ve been single for eight years. For most of the year I feel pretty happy and content with my life. I have a job I enjoy and lots of friends, although I’m not very close to my family. But Christmas makes me feel like a failure because it’s geared around couples and families.

I don’t want another one like last year, where I pretty much sat at home alone for most of it feeling miserable (even though I normally love my own company). Going on social media makes it even worse. Even though I know what to expect, Christmas always leaves me feeling bad about myself.

Layla, Cambridge

Lola says: A great way to nip this in the bud is to volunteer. There are plenty of organisations, such as the homeless charity Shelter, where you can give your time and feel you’re doing something worthwhile. There’s no better way to feel better about yourself than helping others, and two days of doing that will give you huge gratitude for the life you have for the rest of the year.

As far as social media goes, remember that people buy into an ideal version of Christmas. We all know there’s a huge difference between what we post online and the reality of our lives. People go into a kind of collective fantasy at Christmas. Part of you has to hold onto the fact that most of the time it’s just not true. Remember what they say about ‘compare and despair’. So if it means not going on Facebook or Instagram for a few days over the holidays to keep your peace of mind, then do it.

Coping with controlling in-laws

Every year my husband and I rotate Christmas with our different families. This year the in-laws are coming to ours and I’m dreading it. His mum is very controlling and critical, but in a passive aggressive way, and I constantly feel I’m treading on eggshells, even in my own home.

His sister always asks pointed questions about when I’m going to start a family – even though we’ve actually made an active choice to not have children. They both end up dominating Christmas and I’m left feeling exhausted and resentful towards them both.

Stefanie, Manchester

Lola says: If you’ve got difficult relations, preparation is everything. Work out a policy with your husband for dealing with his mother before she arrives and ask him to step in and swerve a situation if things get a bit sticky. Be aware that she will probably criticise something, so when it comes you’ll be prepared. You could try mentally putting on a flak jacket so any criticism will simply bounce off. If she says something antagonistic, smile sweetly and say, ‘That’s really interesting, thank you,’ and then carry on with what you’re doing.

With your sister in law, again try to think up something witty or deflecting beforehand. If she asks you about not having children you could laugh and say something like, ‘I guess I was too busy buying shoes’ (or something relevant to your interests). A joke stops this developing into something more awkward. If all else fails, wander out of the room on the pretext of getting a drink.

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Lola Borg is a psychodynamic psychotherapist who also works with the mental health charity Mind. Find her online at www.twitter.com/lola_borg

This article was first published in Mindful Christmas magazine issue 1 in 2018.