Family stress at Christmas

Although the weeks leading up to Christmas can be wonderful, catching up with old and new friends and celebrating with work colleagues, sometimes Christmas Day itself can be difficult and even heart-wrenching.

This is often because families have old, unresolved wounds that can result in all sorts of tensions.  These tensions can be bad enough that family members become so alienated that they end up spending the day alone and lonely.

More commonly though, when long-standing conflicts have not been resolved, there is sheer boredom and emptiness when families come together, simply because they have nothing they can talk about without causing a huge eruption.  Just like all roads lead to Rome, all ‘real’ conversation leads to eruption. 

Therefore, topics become unreal, safe and tedious (often talking endlessly about the children) with people getting drunk to cope and falling asleep on the couch in front of the TV.  These are the sorts of hollowed out and empty relationships that occur when conflicts build-up and compound over time and are not resolved.

But even with these tedious and safe avoidance strategies it doesn’t take much (maybe a little ‘barb’ or a nasty little ‘joke’ inserted into the conversation) to be back raking over the coals of past family injustices.

Unfortunately, what I frequently see in my clinical work is that people then start debating what did or did not happen in the past when they were 8 or 14 years old.  This debate of who did what when, and who was right or who was wrong, can go on fruitlessly for decades.

Generally, it is best to resolve only current (not past) grievances and this can be done throughout the year (instead of Christmas Day) by talking through issues of conflict as they arise.

Of course, it goes without saying that talks should always be kind and friendly and although they can become intense, they should always be highly disciplined. 

In these discussions, people should never be personally attacked (like ‘you’re an idiot’), but any specific problem-behaviours (like sulking or harshness) can be talked through and alternative behaviours (like speaking up more or exhibiting more softness) can be suggested in order to achieve better relations.

Interestingly, in solving the current grievances, the past ones are usually also resolved.  This occurs simply because problem-behaviours from the past are generally carried forward into the present.  Debating them in the present allows them to be clearly identified and described, making it more likely they can be resolved and eliminated.