Article: Managing Difficult Family Dynamics Over The Holidays (The Three R’s)

I’ll admit, over the past too many years it hasn’t been my family that janked with my holiday cheer, it was my now ex-partner.

He hated Christmas, and I mean hated it, to the point where I once spend 5 hours straight packing all our Christmas gifts to others, only for him to go on a rant about how Christmas was too ‘in his face’ all the time, the moment I collapsed on the bed after finishing. If I wasn’t a stupidly extreme pacifist I could have strangled him there and then.

One year I even ended up in hysterical tears on Christmas as a result of his behaviour, having to be reassured by my family. And I fucking love Christmas, so the fact I was sobbing on one of my favorite days of the year was a blow all its own. But I digress.

Clash of Characters

No matter who the source is, I think we can all agree that there are some people at Christmas who just sap all of the fun out of it. And, sometimes worst: They may cause extreme distress, anxiety, and depression with triggering and antagonistic behaviour.

This is to be expected when you cluster a bunch of people who have various political, social, and cultural beliefs and just DNA or marriage affiliations in common, but that doesn’t justify people’s behaviour in such situations, nor make it easier to manage in the moment.

A triggering situation is a triggering situation, no matter the ‘love’ you’re all supposed to be feeling over your festive reunion.

Let’s try our best to avoid this.

So, how can one best protect their sanity and avoid a break-down during big holiday reunions? These are a few things that I’ve found which may help mitigate any discomfort, also known as as the three R’s of family reunions.

Recognise (And Reconcile) What You’re In For

If your cousin was an insufferable boar last year then changes aren’t great that they’ve become perfect BFF material over the past year. If you know your mother becomes emotionally co-dependent when you arrive for Christmas don’t expect otherwise, and don’t excuse the behaviour either. Recognise that shit and know what you’ll likely to be in for in advance, not so that you can build up dread or worry but so that you can prepare.

If you know that you’ll likely be in for certain behaviours from certain individuals then you’ve already, to some agree, accepted that you’ll be facing this during the holidays, meaning you don’t have to become frustrated, upset, or irritated when it happens, because you’ve already predicted and made peace with the habits of those around you.

Alternatively if you know that certain behaviours will always press your buttons then by knowing who has those behaviours you can best anticipate who to avoid and plan tactics to mitigate the impact on you. Which brings me to my next point…

Refuse Without Regret, Guilt, Or Shame

I have a personal policy that I won’t discuss veganism while myself and non-vegans are having a meal together, and I’ll explain as such if someone tries to initiate a conversation.

Don’t get me wrong: I love talking about veganism and what it means to me, but dinner isn’t the right time because veganism often causes guilt among those still eating meat, and no-one likes feeling guilty during their meal, which means aggression and defensiveness become (completely understandable) responses, and thus none of us will enjoy the outcome.

Instead, I typically say ‘I would love to talk about veganism with you, but I have a personal policy against discussing veganism while we’re eating. Hit me up after the meal and I’m sure we can have a natter’ or something to that effect.

The ‘personal policy’ method is something I learnt in, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and it’s something to be used sparingly but firmly. People can argue against your beliefs, your opinions, and pretty much anything else, but if you simply explain that you have a rule against engaging with some topics and hold steady to that then there’s not much anyone can really do to mitigate that. You’re basically opting out of stress before it even starts.

If you know that you and your family clash politically, or in any other way, then decline to engage in any conversations or situations that might cause you distress, explain that there’s a personal boundary in place there, and leave it at that.

The other person might try to bait you, but if you’ve committed internally to that refusal then it shouldn’t matter, because you know you have a rule not to engage and you know you’ll be happier if you stick to it, so internally you’re a winner.

This sounds incredibly hard (and it can be) but you’d be surprised at just how well it works. I’ve personally had some very lovely post-dinner vegan discussions as a result of it, no food guilt or ‘but bacon tho’ involved.

Resist Trying To Change The World (Or At Least Your Family)

If you’ve taken the time to employ the first R then you already have a good idea of what discussions, behaviours, and actions your family will bring to the table this year and, depending on your own personality, you may want to modify these behaviours to align more with your own.

But here’s the thing – none of us can truly change another person. Granted, we can influence, educate, and perhaps even inspire others, but any changes need to be decided and implemented by that other individual, and family meetings generally aren’t the place to do this.

Not only are you already with a cluster of people where there are known clashes, holiday stresses, and (most likely) some form of alcohol involved, but the disjointed group dynamic that you all find yourself in means that none of you are really receptive to change.

Be reflective and think about your own Christmas mindset – you know you’re going to be around people you might not like, you know there have been clashes before, and you just want to power through any disputes, and enjoy your Christmas as much as is possible. Chances are everyone there feels a similar way and when anyone is in social survival mode then personal change is pretty much impossible.

So resist the urge to try and change your family members as much as possible during your get together. Keep conversation light and don’t put any weight in the words of those you already know are going to be disagreeable. Use those barriers where needed to opt out of aggravating conversation and then turn to talking and spending time with family members that you know you like.

Sure, you might not change anyone’s minds about you or any of the causes you believe in, but you were never going to anyway and, what’s more, you’ve actually allowed yourself a semi-pleasant meeting with people who, when you’re not all shouting at each other, can be amicable in their own way.

…Maybe…sometimes Uncle Bob really is just a full-on jackass.

And That’s All For Now!

So those are my three R’s which, although I don’t often use on Christmas day, have gotten me through a fair few pre-Christmas family reunions unscathed and with minimal feathers ruffled come the end.

Some might call the three R’s passive but I prefer to think of them as protective.

If you are a firm fighter and you know that they won’t work for you, that’s fine – no coping tactics work for everyone – but I hope that there are at least some helpful points you can take from the above.

Finally, if everything gets too much and you just can’t cope then do take a ‘restroom’ break where you go in to the safe space of the locked bathroom and allow yourself at least three deep breaths. You’d be surprised at just how much this can help.

God speed everyone. I believe in you!

P.S. Please feel free to share your worst Christmas reunion stories in the comments, because sometimes ranting can be useful too.