Published in Blog by Sarah Ingram on December 9th 2022
Sarah Ingram, Associate Director of Strategy & Partnerships at Tavistock Relationships, offers some advice on how to reduce relationship conflict this Christmas.
Here at Tavistock Relationships we typically see a significant rise in couples and individuals seeking relationship support in the New Year. The pressures of buying lots of presents and of providing and preparing masses of food, as well as time spent with extended family where simmering tensions easily erupt, can often be the final straw for already stressed relationships.
With 4 in every 10 children not living with both their biological parents*, Christmas will be a time of tug-of-war for many families, especially when there is ongoing and unresolved conflict between parents.
With 4 in every 10 children not living with both their biological parents*, Christmas will be a time of tug-of-war for many families, especially when there is ongoing and unresolved conflict between parents. And as the rise in fuel and food bills is putting extra strain on families, relationships are likely to be under even more pressure this year.
For those struggling to cope with sky-high bills, rent increases or rising mortgages, the pressure to spend money on the latest phones or trainers couldn’t be coming at a worse time.
To help families cope this Christmas, we’ve identified some key areas that can help reduce family conflict:
You grew up in a family where you opened presents in the morning. Your partner was brought up in a family where no-one, ever, was allowed to open any gifts until after the Queen’s speech. So, who gets to choose when the great unwrapping begins? Couples often squabble over how Christmas ‘should be’, based on differing experiences each partner had as children. To have a more relaxed festive season, it’s important that both parties can let go of some of their notions of their ‘ideal’ Christmas. Perhaps you can think together about how you can each cherry-pick the best components from your two childhoods and create their own unique Christmas traditions by establishing a new ‘third way’? And for separated couples, it’s just as important to find the compromise and to agree arrangements at an early stage, so that children don’t feel torn between the two. Whatever your set-up, agreeing a realistic budget for children’s Christmas presents ahead of time will also massively help to reduce the stress of expectations.
Misunderstandings about what a partner or ex-partner is thinking often sparks couple conflict. Couples frequently resort to high emotion or shutting down to send a message to their partner that they are hurt. It’s best to try to recognise stressors and avoid having important conversations when you are exhausted or anxious. Instead, make time to ‘check in’ with your partner. This can help maintain feelings of closeness and seeing the relationship as a resource for both of you. And it allows you to cope with difficulties in a more hopeful state of mind.
Yes, everyone argues, but it’s not okay to expose your children to sustained parental conflict, nor ask them to side with one parent over the other. This ask can be particularly intense at Christmas, when the stakes are raised at this special time of year for families. Sometimes children feel the urge to become a parent figure, thinking one parent needs to be protected from the other. This push forward in terms of their development, which places them in the centre of an adult dynamic they don’t completely understand, can leave them with long term feelings of blame and guilt.
Everyday stress stacks-up, especially during the run-up to Christmas. But the majority of people are oblivious to the burden of anxiety they are carrying around. Try to get to know signs of stress mounting up within yourself, as well as in your partner. Help each other, even with small domestic tasks, as a way of understanding each other’s struggle, and minimising blame.
Over time, couples can come to believe that their partner knows what’s in their mind and they are telepathic experts. We stop bothering to acknowledge each other’s hard work. A heartfelt ‘thank you’ never loses its effectiveness; it can unlock important feelings of validation, prevents growing resentment and a partner or co-parent’s belief they are taken for granted.
One of the most common communication blocks for couples is the tendency to internalise thoughts and feelings. This can be the result of the upbringing of one or both halves of the couple, where their own parents weren’t able to encourage them to share their feelings when young. If parents are emotionally unavailable, through a variety of reasons, such as depression, chronic anxiety or alcohol misuse, children soon learn to sort emotional vulnerabilities out within themselves. However, internalising all thoughts and feelings can be the enemy of intimacy, and can cause difficulty within adult intimate relationships. Mulling things over for weeks, and then delivering fully formed ideas to your partner, who has no idea where these feelings came from, comes as a shock. Try to share ideas, observations, plans and feelings at an early stage, to build up trust and strength in your relationship.
*Children’s Commissioner ‘Family Review’, published 1 September 2022 Family Review | Children's Commissioner for England (childrenscommissioner.gov.uk) citing data from the Millennium Cohort Study shows that of children born in 2000-2001, 44% do not live with both biological parents throughout their entire childhood Kiernan, K., Crossman, S. and Phimister, A. 2022. ‘Families and inequalities.’ IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities Families and inequalities | Inequality: the IFS Deaton Review
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