As traditional a Christmas fixture as roast turkey and crackers, over 20% of families start Christmas Day with a row, and two thirds of us say we won’t get to the evening without one. What is it about the season of peace and goodwill to all men that sees us falling out with each other so spectacularly?
For many of us it’s the gap between what we imagine Christmas should be and the reality, the contrast between what we wanted to do and the choices and compromises that we feel compelled to make. For other people being surrounded by relatives or spending Christmas with parents sees them subconsciously revert to childhood relationships and rivalries. How then do we cope with that? This blog post is essentially in two parts – the first deals with what to do at Christmas this year to cope with stress and family tensions. The second part covers how to make sure that next year is different, and that’s work that starts as early as next January.
The first rule of disagreements at Christmas is to check whether you really do need to say anything, and if you do that it’s not a way of addressing a previous wrong or grievance. Is it actually the right time or place for that discussion? Are you, and the other person, in the right frame of mind? What is it that you want to get from the discussion? And is that outcome likely to happen? If you can’t say that it’s justified, the right time and place, and likely to be constructive, then you‘re very unlikely to make things better by opening the discussion. On the basis that you have cleared those hurdles the next step is to think about what you want to say, and be as specific as possible.
Being specific is good because it takes a lot of the heat out of disagreements straight away. It means that you say “I asked you to tidy up and you haven’t done it after you promised to” and not “You never tidy up”. The first one is much harder to disagree with than the second, where it’s whether the other person ever tidies up that becomes the subject of the argument. In the same way saying “You haven’t tidied up after you promised to and that makes me feel unappreciated” is harder to disagree with than “You haven’t tidied up and that’s typical – you don’t care about me at all”.
The other part of being specific is to stick to the one point you want to make. Don’t try and include other things from the day that you’d let go, or worse things from days previously or things you suspect that they will or won’t do. It doesn’t strengthen your argument, it obscures it. If it’s possible try and use humour to soften the mood but do be mindful of sounding condescending or sarcastic.
Having made your point keep quiet and let the other person have their say. Whilst they’re talking don’t sit thinking about what you’re going to say next – listen to them fully, and when you do respond don’t let the conversation drift away from the specific.
Knowing what you want from the discussion means that you can judge when to bring things to a conclusion – either walk away if it’s unlikely, or be gracious if you’ve been successful. If you find that you’re in the wrong then apologise, and keep to the two rules for apologies – use the words “I’m sorry”, and don’t include any justifications or excuses.
For 60% of people the most stressful thing about Christmas isn’t budgeting or shopping but deciding which side of their family to spend time with. So what about making things different next year? The first step is planning, something a lot of people don’t do because they’re uncomfortable with addressing the issue.
The first step is an honest discussion with your partner about what you want to do next Christmas. Be honest as well about the reasons behind doing what you do currently. If you feel obliged to visit parents or relatives because you feel guilty about not seeing them enough you either start to see them more often, or think about whether your guilt is justified.
Doing this in January enables you to tell people your plans long before they’ve built up any assumptions or expectations that can make the situation difficult. Remember as well that wanting to spend Christmas as a couple isn’t selfish it’s honest. Other people, including your parents, will have wanted to do the same, or actually have done it.
Don’t let people frame your decision as an either/or argument – “Either you’re happy to spend Christmas Day with us or you don’t like us” – keep the conversation at a calm level, and don’t let yourself be manoeuvred into feeling guilty.
This is why so many couples who want to spend Christmas in their own company go away for the holiday. If that’s your solution, or if you just keep Christmas Day for yourselves, suggest a date that you can meet with family and relatives and treat it as if it is Christmas Day. Finally if you end up compromising, from whichever side of the discussion, and spending time with family then do so in a positive frame of mind. Sitting there being determined not to enjoy it is a recipe for one of those Christmas Day rows I started this blog post with.