Words by Lydia Smith.
Christmas is a time for love, joy and for a lot of people, the occasional screaming argument with a family member over the dinner table.
Suddenly, after not speaking for months, you’re forced to spend days in close-quarters with an opinionated distant relative whose views differ wildly from yours.
The combination of obligatory festive cheer and obnoxious relatives can be testing, to say the least – and it can be difficult to hold your tongue.
According to data published by YouGov, one in three Brits (29%) think it’s likely they’ll have an argument with their family at some point during Christmas.
So, what will they be fighting about? Long-standing family tensions take the top spot, followed by sibling rivalries, money, activities and games, drinking too much, the cooking, and of course, politics.
“Just after the Brexit vote we were at my mum’s for Christmas and it came up,” says Jamie*, 27. “She said that she would’ve voted leave if she could’ve because immigration is a real problem. The reason she couldn’t vote? We are immigrants. I had to stop myself from flipping a table.”
Andy*, 30, says his family regularly argues about Brexit. “It can get quite heated and ends up really awkward as it only stops when someone else steps in telling us to stop talking. This then leads to awkward silences and just ruining any christmas cheer.”
So why does the holiday season put the spotlight on family tensions? Firstly, the old adage of “you can’t choose your family” is pretty relevant. Being related certainly doesn’t mean you have to share the same views – and arguing can become inevitable if you spend longer periods than usual together.
“Christmas is meant to be a happy time. We get to see friends and family who we don’t see very often, which in theory is great,” says life coach Chris Cooper, a member of Life Coach Directory. “However, especially in family situations, it’s not uncommon for tensions to rise. Inevitably, conversations involve catching up on what happened since you last saw each other. This may have been a long time ago.
“We find ourselves on edge and worry that we are being judged by other people. Comments intended as harmless may get taken out of context,” he explains. “Old arguments and rivalries may also come to the surface, leading to arguments and ill feeling. A ready supply of alcohol on hand doesn’t help matters either.”
There are things you can do to reduce the likelihood of awkward situations, bickering and full-on fights, though.
Counsellor and psychologist Philip Karahassan, a member of the Counselling Directory, says it’s important not to pick sides, although this might be difficult.
“Should there be an argument, be supportive but don’t pick sides,” he says. “People will expect you to take sides and validate their point of view, but instead, try and be supportive, don’t pick sides, and make sure that you can still have a good Christmas irrespective of the family feud.
“Don’t be drawn into an argument which isn’t yours to have,” Karahassan adds.
And the prosecco might be flowing on Christmas Day, but try not to overdo it as drinking too much can lead to unnecessary arguments.
“Alcohol is a part of Christmas that can help you relax, but make sure that you don’t drink to excess, and if you notice someone else is, managing them as best you can,” Karahassan says.
If tempers do start to flare, he adds it might be helpful to subtly separate people. “If you notice people are bickering or arguing, try, and if you can, give them space from each other by asking one for help – maybe with preparing dinner or refilling drinks.”
Preparation is key, too. If you know you don’t get on with a cousin, aunt or uncle who will be there at Christmas, be proactive about the situation and steel yourself for some uncomfortable comments.
“Approach things with an attitude that you’re there to have a good time,” Cooper advises. “Set yourself a goal that you won’t let your own mental state be altered by the people around you. So if someone says something you don’t like, don’t take it personally, It’s not worth it.”
This is, admittedly, more difficult – but if you really don’t get on with someone, try to spend less time talking to them. “You could also have some topics of conversation in mind that you’re happy to talk about and which won’t be controversial,” Cooper says. “The weather is much less likely to cause an argument than Brexit! And if you feel things getting heated, have an excuse ready to leave the room and get some air.”
Perhaps most importantly, try to think of the bigger picture. Christmas is about spending time with people we don’t see all that often, so this might mean swerving a few unsavoury comments for a few days.
“The best thing to do is to remember the reason why you’re there, which is to celebrate Christmas and have a good time,” Cooper says. “So try to avoid taking things to heart and getting drawn into arguments. If someone says something provocative, take a breath and subtly move the conversation in a different direction. Be the ‘better person’ and rise above it. It’s much better to keep the peace than to start a war.”
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