We asked Dr Sheri Jacobson, a retired psychotherapist with over 17 years' clinical experience and the founder of HarleyTherapy.com, for advice on the things we worry about in private.
I’ve been with my partner for two and a half years and have so far successfully avoided spending the holidays with my side of the family. We spent 2019 apart and 2020 together, isolated from our families. This year my mum is insisting we spend it with her.
He has met my mum and dad before on separate occasions but we’ve never had a big family gathering and essentially I don’t want him to have to endure it.
The problem is the way my family behaves. I love them but they can be very full-on for outsiders. They are belligerent drunks, incredibly judgmental and in many ways the opposite of my partner. He is kind and quiet and loving and though I know he won’t judge them I don’t want to put him through that, especially as he doesn’t drink. When I raised this with him he said that he wants to be with me and if that means being with my family then so be it.
Under different circumstances we could maybe delay it another year but his family is European and planning on getting there, with COVID still looming, feels risky if not completely doomed to fail.
What can I do to make the holidays run smoother? How can you negotiate difficult family members without isolating anyone or making things worse?
Let's start off with your mindset as that's what we have the most influence over. First by finding the hot emotion (is it anger, embarrassment, anxiety, loneliness, shame?) and then finding the thoughts behind that. Thoughts like 'this never runs to plan' or 'they always pick on me' or 'it's uncomfortable because other people get drunk and embarrass themselves'. There's often a 'hot' thought that really drives our discomfort around most occasions, particularly Christmas, as repetition of the holidays produces the same feelings. Once you dig down and find the negative thought that's behind it, you can try to challenge it.
This often comes down to softening our expectations so that we don't have a picture-perfect vision of the time spent together, which gives some more latitude for all the difficulties that usually surface. Take heart that you're not alone in this – the holiday season can be very fractious or lonely for a lot of people. Despite all the wonderful, stereotypical presentations of what Christmas should be, the reality is often very, very distant to that. So tempering our expectations can often be a real relief.
You say your partner doesn't mind about the behaviour of your family but you're reluctant to believe him. Often when we hear things like 'don't worry about it' we struggle to believe people because we haven't broken down the thought process ourselves. In this instance, the thought is something like 'my family will embarrass me' or 'my family will drive away my partner'. Or perhaps it runs deeper: 'My partner will see my family's true negative side and in turn, my partner will think that I am an extension of them, therefore I must be flawed and unworthy of being in a relationship.' This is clearly not true based on what he has told you and this is the kind of thought you must challenge.
Beyond this internal work, there are ways you can manage judgmental comments. There's often two avenues to take. One is communication: setting some time aside before the event to speak to people in question and let them know the impact of their behaviour on you. Crucially, you are not saying that the behaviour itself is a problem but it's how you perceive it. For example: "I noticed that when we get together over the holidays, you tend to drink and voices are raised. It becomes quite difficult for me to be around. I'd like to let you know the impact on me and I'd really appreciate if we could talk about ways to soften that if you're open to it."
That's very stark. Often my clients find it very difficult to be that upfront and tell me that's a very American way of dealing with things. In which case, that's fine! You could say something brief, like "Just to let you know, last year I felt uncomfortable around the level of drinking," and see what comes out. If someone's very defensive and not hearing you or wanting to engage, then it's often best to not continue.
Route two is doing what you can to manage your own emotions and your own thought processes. A lot of it is actually working towards bearing the discomfort and working around the judgmental statements, but only up to a point. If they become attacking, threatening or make you feel unsafe then it's probably better to either walk away or set a strong boundary that you're not going to tolerate this and will have to leave if it continues.
When it comes to priming someone ahead of events like the holidays, I would start off with the therapy classics of asking and listening. Ask a question, like "How do you feel about this Christmas?" Listen, and be guided by what they say – there may not be an issue! It might be our own thoughts that we've projected onto the other person. With your partner it feels like the prospect of being with a family hasn't triggered anything. The purpose of coming together is to be together and that will be a particular backdrop. The foreground is you as a couple.
Once you've asked and listened then you can give your views. By having it as a dialogue, not projection, you might learn that it's not an issue or it might be that they have their own particular wounds or traumas. With this groundwork, you can use it as a basis to ask for support. Good luck.