Family & Friends

Family holidays: How to cope with Christmas if you have a difficult family

There’s no two ways about it – festive pressure can put a huge strain on already tricky relationships with relatives. Here, writer Emily Reynolds explains how a stint in therapy finally helped her see that the perfect family Christmas doesn’t exist IRL – and that’s OK.

Christmas, for all its sparkling lights and promises of festive joy, can be a stressful time. There’s lots of of fun to be had, of course – but running around buying presents at the last minute, tying up loose ends at work, and spending money you don’t have is not always a recipe for relaxation.

For those of us who have less than straightforward relationships with our families, the festive period can be even more difficult. The pressure to have a perfect Christmas doesn’t just extend to cooking the perfect roast or picking the perfect gift, it’s also tied up with all sorts of assumptions about the ‘perfect family’. 

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No matter what they’re trying to sell, Christmas adverts tend to focus on connection: parents and their offspring, brothers and sisters, and, most tear-jerking of all, grandparents and their grandchildren. It’s a reliable source of emotion (and income) for brands, presumably because it’s considered so universally relatable.

Sadly, that isn’t always the case. Statistics around the issue are hard to find, something estrangement charity Stand Alone suggests could be because of prevailing cultural taboos around family fall-outs. But in 2012 alone, over 7,000 students applied for estranged independent status, while a survey of estranged adults in 2015 found that the majority had no interest in reopening communication with family members. 

How to survive Christmas when you have a difficult family
Family holidays: “The pressure to have a perfect Christmas is tied up with all sorts of assumptions about the ‘perfect family’”

There are multiple reasons why estrangement or family difficulties might happen – abuse of some kind, personality clashes, or what Stand Alone call “mismatched expectations about relationships”. There are also many families who reject relatives who come out as LGBTQ+.

I’m not estranged from my family, but our relationship is not always easy. For many years I blamed myself: I was too annoying, too provocative, I started too many arguments. I felt completely powerless to get out of what was an often incredibly draining and toxic dynamic. They were my family, after all. There was nothing I could do.

I was so jealous of friends who had more straightforwardly supportive parents or who had a large, close knit community of relatives; it was so bad that it often festered into a pretty unpleasant bitterness. I was resentful that other people had it so easy – despite the fact that I knew, deep down, things are very rarely as clear cut as all that. 

Christmas only made this worse. I would long for evenings spent playing board games, watching TV or exchanging gifts. Or, rather, I would long for evenings spent doing all this and not ending up in a huge, vicious fight. Again, I internalised a lot of this. I felt, somehow, that I was to blame for it all. The endless parade of schmaltzy ads, TV shows and films felt a million miles away from my life. In fact, I remember trudging through the drizzle one year as a teenager, peering into neighbours’ windows and wondering why I couldn’t have that. Was it too much to ask?

For a long time, this brought me significant turmoil. But when I went into therapy, ostensibly prompted by something else entirely, I started to unravel these feelings bit by bit. It wasn’t my fault – nor was it theirs, particularly. We just clashed in many ways, and had developed a dynamic that had become almost impossible to escape from. 

surviving christmas
Family holidays: “It wasn’t my fault – nor was it theirs, particularly. We just clashed in many ways”

I started to distance myself a little more, putting in boundaries and working out when to back down, not step up to, a fight. I also realised that many of the battles we had fought over the years had simply not been worth it. I developed a lot more compassion for my family: there was a reason they behaved the way they did, and often it stemmed from their own hurts. Talking about this with friends also helped, with more people than you might expect having similar stories.

I do still feel sad at Christmas; it’s unlikely that I’ll ever have the festive season I really want with my family. But feeling able to sit with that disappointment, rather than push it away, has really had an impact on how I deal with December’s flashy promises of love and connection. Often, what you’re grieving is not actually the loss of family members themselves, nor the specific relationships. Instead, you’re grieving the fantasy of what could have been.

How to survive Christmas when you have a difficult family, according to a psychologist

Louise Tyler is a therapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). Here are her tips for having a good Christmas when your relationship with your family is difficult.

1. Ignore social media

We all know that social media just shows people’s best bits. But this can be difficult – especially during Christmas time, when social feeds are full of people’s festive highlights reel. Tyler stresses it’s important, as much as you can, to ignore this pressure. “Remember that what you see on social media is never, or very rarely, the whole story,” she says.

2. Talk about it

“The blood is thicker than water idea means that estrangement or strains in a family tends to be quite taboo,” Tyler says. “People often don’t talk about it, and it leads to a sense of shame.” Remember there are “so many people going through it” and, as she explains, “if we spoke about it more, there’d be a huge sense of relief; once you realise that other people are going through the same things as you, it takes away the sense of shame.”

3. Set boundaries

If you have a difficult relationship with your family, it is possible to spend Christmas together but you must impose strong boundaries. Make a decision before Christmas to avoid unnecessary pressure, and try your best to stick to it.

This can look any number of ways: you may choose to spend the day with family but not spend the night, spend a set amount of time visiting, or going around to see family before Christmas. “It’s OK to limit visits,” Tyler says. “It’s OK to leave early, it’s OK to step away. It’s OK to say no to invitations.”

4. Look after yourself

Some of Tyler’s clients book holidays over Christmas to avoid family pressure or tension. But there are other ways to look after yourself, too. “Have realistic expectations, for one – it’s just one day,” she says. “I tell clients to view it as time off for self-care, being lazy – I call it the ultimate duvet day. It can be what you want it to be; it doesn’t always have to be about sitting around playing happy families.”

5. Make your own traditions

If you don’t want to spend the day with your family, that doesn’t mean Christmas has to be spent alone. “This is where talking to people comes in – you may well find people are in the same position and want to spend Christmas together,” she says. “Start new traditions of who you spend Christmas with and how.” 

Images: Getty, Unsplash.

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