It’s amazing how the simple question of who to spend Christmas with torments so many of us year on year. A 2014 survey by relationship counselling service Relate found that 90 per cent of people would like to spend Christmas with immediate family with only 54 per cent thinking that including extended family members was a priority. Whilst these might look like straightforward statistics, it all gets more complicated when family members have different ideas about who all these important nearest and dearest actually are.
Deciding who to spend Christmas with is often a major source of tension in relationships, especially where families are trying to cover all bases. This is never truer than for step families or blended families where there might be competing agendas, especially where children are concerned. At Relate, we often see people who have felt enraged by an ex-partner having somehow "manipulated" offspring into spending the big day with them instead. Of course, underneath the outrage is often terrible sadness and feelings of abandonment and failure.
Children can get anxious too if they are asked to choose which parent they want to spend the day with, and Relate counsellors often see children who feel they can’t please both parents. In order to deal with the very painful feelings this can create, they sometimes opt instead for showing their distress in behaviours which are often regarded as difficult and sometimes even abusive. This is a reason why getting to the bottom of these issues and trying to reach helpful solutions is so important.
Often problems about Christmas arrangements arise when after years of going along with the same tried and tested routine, someone wants to make changes. This is often the result of life stage themes such as the kids leaving home, one family member feeling fragile following ill health, or quite simply thinking it’s about time the mould was broken. A change of scene at Christmas may be just what the family needs, but do it too suddenly and it can also create difficult dilemmas which are often made worse if people don’t communicate effectively.
At the bottom of much of this distress is often the genuine concern that if we make changes to our plans, someone who may have previously relied on us is going to be hurt and possibly alone. The fear of loneliness at this time of year is heightened - a recent Age UK poll found that nearly 400,000 people aged over 65 in the UK were worried about being lonely over Christmas.
However, there are some pointers that can often make this particular problem a little easier. Firstly, be realistic. You can’t please everyone. Neither can you or should you take on vast swathes of extra work trying to achieve the impossible. So, if it falls to you to do most of the sorting out, it might be helpful to start talking about what feels do-able sooner rather than later. This often means that more people’s opinions can be canvassed and considered before a decision is made.
Secondly, it’s usually better to make change gradually. People can often accept minor differences which before they (and you) know it, become part of a new way of doing Christmas so it’s all less of a shock to the system. Thirdly, if you have a difficult relationship with an ex-partner (or even a current one), it helps to have tricky conversations about any arrangement away from other stressors. So, finding time to connect, talk and listen to their thoughts and feelings within a neutral environment can be a really powerful way of reaching a reasonable agreement.
Finally and most importantly, do recognize it’s OK to take control of the Christmas arrangements. People have a choice about how they react to new arrangements but the old adage "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you" isn’t a bad one to think about, especially at this time of year.
Ammanda Major is a trained Relate Counsellor and senior consultant on Sex Therapy.
Relate provides impartial and non-judgmental support for people of all ages, at all stages of couple, family and social relationships.
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