The country is reeling from the alleged Tory Christmas party, we’re still trying to scrub those images of Matt Hancock from our minds and we’ve got to spend the next few days sitting around the Christmas dinner table trying not to mention any of this to our relatives.
Maintaining peace during the festive season, when families are spending extended Bailey’s-fuelled periods of time together under the same roof, creates the perfect storm for arguments. And that’s without the added political turmoil of 2021.
Peter Saddington, a counsellor at Relate, the UK’s largest relationship charity, says: “This always happens at this time of year because we’re not following structure, it’s open-ended, there’s no work and lots of alcohol. We’re simply not used to seeing each other this much, there are high expectations, we’re fed up, we start arguing.”
So much so, in fact, that a 2019 survey by Relate found one in five (19 per cent) of Brits predict political disputes at Christmas.
So how do you ensure you’ll still be talking to your in-laws come January 2022, and won’t have thrown a trifle over Uncle Harry? We asked Saddington and Murray Blacket, a psychotherapist and counsellor, to share their advice for staying friends rather than enemies, this festive season.
You already have 100 things on your to-do list so adding another one might not seem tempting, but Saddington says the key to getting through the period is preparation, which includes talking to your family members who you know you can trust to be on your side in a conflict.
“Talk to your partner beforehand and make contingency plans for if fights start. If you know that one person is prone to starting, then have something in place to distract or divert. For example, ask the perpetrator to come and help in the kitchen, do the washing up, or go for a walk. Be proactive,” he says.
Blacket recommends thinking about what didn’t work before and adjusting. “For example, don’t let two people sit next to each other who you know wind each other up, create a seating plan. You have to be clever with how you manage the day if you’re worried about fights.”
Speak about your limits
Saddington says if you know that you don’t want to see a certain group of people then make sure you say that ahead of time to your partner or those closest to you. “If you don’t like your in-laws but you have to go see them, then tell your partner that you will only go for a certain amount of time that you can handle. Don’t stay beyond that.”
Blacket says there also can often be a gendered aspect to this where women bear the burden of the problem. “Being a canny manager often comes down to the women,” he says. “So have that conversation beforehand and get prepared together.”
Saddington also recommends preparing a list of things you’re okay to talk about, and make sure your partner knows so they can divert away if the conversation is moving in that direction.
Acknowledge we all have baggage from the year
Blacket says that although people can be frustrating, remember that everyone is bringing their own issues from the last 12 months and that these play into long-standing family dynamics.
“In the last year you might have someone who got a divorce, one was made redundant, one got ill, you’re bringing all these people and their respective problems together. All families have this, we just need to be understanding of it,” she says.
Be on the lookout for tension
Although sometimes fights get out of hand quickly, Saddington says it is key to try and predict when tensions might be brewing. “Learn to recognise if a row is looming – if people are appearing upset or angry or are talking about topics that normally end this way.”
Limit use of alcohol
Although another glass of sherry can feel like the perfect antidote to awkward situations or small talk, Saddington says it can actually have the exact opposite effect if not done in moderation. “You need to be careful about the use of alcohol.
Blacket says don’t put out loads for people to help themselves too, distribute as and when it is needed so that there is some measure and people don’t just drink it all.
Get activities in place
Although sitting on the sofa for hours watching Doctor Who can be tempting, not getting out of the house can make arguments more likely. This is especially true of children or teenagers, says Saddington, who have lots of energy and are likely to be eating sugar all day.
Saddington says: “They simply aren’t used to being at home with the whole family for such long periods of time, they are normally at school. Make sure you have activities to break up the day like going for a walk, playing a game or peeling the sprouts with them.”
“There is a lot to be said for letting people snooze or taking everyone out for a walk,” says Blacket.
Don’t let people dominate conversation
Every family has certain people who are more comfortable taking the stage or speaking at length, but this can be frustrating for others who feel overshadowed or like they can’t get their point across.
Blacket says if this is a particular problem for your family then play pass the spoon where only the person holding the cutlery can speak.
“So even if people still have strong opinions or contentious ones then everyone has a chance to say what they think.”
Spend time by yourself
You might have fantasised about the idea of ditching your whole family and spending the day alone with your face in the Quality Street, but spending time alone can be more than a dream.
In fact Saddington says you should actively make it happen if you’re feeling tense. “Speak to your partner, or other close ally, beforehand and say that if you need 30 minutes alone then they need to cover for you, and vice versa. Go upstairs and sit in your room, read a book, have a nap.
“And don’t feel guilty about it. If you being selfish for a short period means you survive the day, then it’s worth it for everyone.”
If a row starts, walk away
Saddington says that although it can be tempting to let it all out, if things have escalated to the point where you’re fighting, it’s unlikely a resolution is going to be reached. Especially if those involved are drunk.
“Under attack we release adrenaline because of the fight or flight complex. Instead of fighting, move away.
“To get rid of the adrenaline the ideal situation would be to have a punchbag, but if you don’t, then do something else physical – walk the dog, punch a pillow, rip up some wrapping paper.”