Look at this cute puppy. Credit: Shutterstock.
I never thought relationships were meant to last forever. People come and go, and life goes on. Having divorced parents gives you some inevitable scepticism about love and acceptance. The strangest part about family, for me, is the idea that you’re supposed to love these seemingly random people, who you might not have a single thing in common with other than blood.
My love for my family has, in the past, been cradled by feelings of inadequacy, mistrust, disrespect and, especially when I was younger, hatred. While growing up I often said to myself that once I’d left home, I wouldn’t look back.
My negativity didn’t stem from a particular event, but from years of arguing, failed communications and relationships broken by unresolved arguments. Over time, though, my anger and mistrust has morphed into acceptance, and sometimes even understanding.
Recently my views have changed. I’ve come to realise that most of us can choose how we interact with one another.
It’s worth noting here that not everyone is lucky enough to have an option. All too often at Christmas people face abusive behaviour, both psychologically and mentally. Incidents of domestic violence are reported to go up by as much as a third on Christmas Day, according to the NHS.
I love my family. But there have been times when I’ve wanted to scream (and have done). When I made the choice to stop shaving, the subject of armpit hair came up with my mum. She gasped: “I hope you still shave your legs!”
I cried out in despair. Not (just) because of her archaic views on body hair, but because of a feeling of rejection. How can she possibly love and accept me if this trivial topic shocks her so much? There’s so much she doesn’t know about me.
But actually, that’s OK.
When deciding how to cope with and manage family relationships, the choice is yours. We can choose to stay in contact with our families, the ones we’re told to love, we can even cut them out of our lives entirely if we want to. But if we do want to keep these people in our lives, we can - to some extent - be in charge of how we want our relationships with them to function. If we don’t want to divulge the specifics of who we’re dating, our thoughts on politics or religion, that’s no one’s business but our own. Our boundaries are ours to set, and once we’ve communicated this, it makes those awkward dinner table talks a lot easier.
If you are planning on spending Christmas with family, having a set of coping mechanisms is a big help.
Here are some I’ve found personally useful:
1. Imagine they’re dead
This one I found while reading an article in the Guardian recently, and although it made me laugh at first, it’s actually pretty solid advice. In the article it says to close your eyes and truly imagine what it would be like if each family member had died. Think about what you might have said, or wish you hadn’t said, and act on that. Remember that the person you’re speaking to has their own set of experiences, and disagreements aren’t always personal. Compassion is humanity’s greatest tool for coexistence.
2. Do your best to remain in control of your emotions
This one is tricky, especially when someone around the table has said something particularly belligerent. But remaining in control of your emotions is key to survival at Christmas time. Disagreeing with a family member is especially difficult because they’re family, so when you remember that their opinions aren’t your responsibility, it helps you think about things logically. You might know that you’re right, but who cares? It shouldn’t be about who’s right and who’s wrong, as this will lead to arguments. Steer the conversation away from knee jerk politics and keep your cool.
3. Politely step outside
This is one I’ve used before several times. Go to the toilet. Turn on the taps to mask your quiet sobs. Whatever it is, the key here is to step away from the situation before you explode, and (hopefully) return calmer, and more centred. It’s a classic tactic given by counsellors and therapists, and most of the time it does the trick.
4. Set your boundaries before meeting
Request with a friendly party before meeting that certain topics aren’t discussed. If you can get someone on board before the family occasion to help you steer away from hot topics, it will make you feel less isolated and even more relaxed. Unless I’m feeling especially patient, I veto discussions on politics, sex or religion. It’s not worth the trouble. If a topic comes up that you’re uncomfortable with, politely request to change the subject. This is not an unreasonable request and should be respected.
5. Look at pictures of puppies
Sometimes when a conversation is happening around me and I either don’t want to be a part of it, or I know that my opinion isn’t wanted, I simply look at pictures of puppies on Instagram. It seems silly, but I remember that giving zero fucks about the current situation and satisfying my human need for all things cute and fluffy is a surefire technique to lifting my spirits, even if only for a moment.
6. Reminisce about the good times
Remember that time we all had a super fun Christmas? No? Well there was a time when… there was definitely a time when we were all enjoying one another’s company. Remember that? Let’s talk about it for a few minutes and see if one of us can remember how it happened.
7. Invite family members to share an activity you know they enjoy
This one seems simple, but it can be easy to forget simple courtesies when hanging out with family. Does your sibling like scrabble? Does your parent enjoy an old-fashioned? Play together, make a drink for them, have a riot. Christmas doesn’t need to be about the topics you disagree on, it should be about enjoying the company of the ones you love.
8. Plan your escape
If you think things might get too tough, it’s a good idea to have an escape plan. Think of a justifiable reason (whether it’s true or not) for leaving beforehand, so that you can rehearse your leaving statement in advance. Better yet, have someone you can call to come and pick you up and ask them in advance if it’s OK to drop by last-minute. That way, you can enter the situation knowing that you’ve got an escape route if you need to leave. Similarly, if you know that you’ll only be able to manage a few hours, plan on making it a short visit right from the start. You’ll have made the meaningful gesture of spending time with family, with the knowledge that it will only be for a few hours.
9. Go it alone
There are a number of services available which cater for waifs and strays at Christmas time. UK charity Stand Alone has a helpful guide to spending Christmas on your own, and offers advice to anyone looking for guidance, while Relate offers live relationship counselling, as well as general advice on coping with personal relationships.
Volunteering is an option for an alternative Christmas, with the added benefit of meeting and helping people. VolunteerMatch.org provides an easy way of finding out volunteer opportunities happening around you. A simple internet search will yield heaps of results for anyone looking to volunteer at Christmas time.
It’s still a bumpy road, but since I’ve learned to accept the people in my family, I’ve been a lot happier in their company. My mum and I have distinctly different views on almost everything. But she raised me almost single-handedly and my love for her is unconditional.
If you’re contemplating an alternative Christmas, knowing that you can limit your contact with family members in favour of a Christmas with people who love and accept you for who you really are can be empowering. Blood is thick, but the love and respect formed within relationships built over many years is often thicker.