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'All range of emotions come out': How family relationships can spill over at Christmas... and how to sort it

Relationships with loved ones can be a tricky thing to navigate – especially at Christmas time – but it can be done.

Image: Shutterstock/gpointstudio

IT’S SUPPOSED TO be the “most wonderful time of the year”, but beyond the cliché it’s not uncommon for the stresses and strains of a relationship to become more apparent and present over the Christmas time.

With adults usually spending a lot more time at home than they usually would over the next few weeks, tensions can heighten with loved ones.

But there are ways around it and ways to stop it becoming a problem, according to relationship expert David Kavanagh.

The psychotherapist told TheJournal.ie: “If you’re expected to be with your family longer than you’re used to, underlying family dynamics come out.”

And what are the signs that things might not all be going well in a relationship?

“Snapping at someone for no good reason,” Kavanagh cited. “A person seeming to be cranky for no good reason. If you’re not calm – or if something’s wrong but you’re not sure why – it could be something there that’s not been explored.”

At the most basic level, Christmas should be a time when – by and large – people have fun, the psychotherapist said.

And if that’s not the case, then it’s worth interrogating further. 

“A whole range of emotions can come out at Christmas time,” Kavanagh said. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s always an accurate reflection of what’s going on.”

He said that, for couples he may come into contact with, reframing can be an essential technique to help people cope when tempers flare up at critical times.

This involves creating a different way of looking at a situation, person or relationship by changing its meaning, and by making people realise how they feel is down to their outlook on a situation, rather than the actual circumstances of the situation they’re in. 

Kavanagh said: “It’s so important to get a different perspective of what’s going on. To open up a new idea of how to look at something.”

A tricky time of year

For others, things like substance abuse problems can become more prevalent during the Christmas period. 

“Partners will more be anxious about alcoholics, for example,” he said. 

And then it’s dealing with the aftermath of the Christmas carnage… carnage that children may have been witness to. 

In situations like this, Kavanagh recommended that partners share a frankness with each other over the period.

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“I would suggest to form contracts with each other,” he said. This could involve making a promise to a partner to only have x number of drinks, or no drinks at all, at a particular event during the period.

It’s important to say something like ‘if my drinking is a problem, then hold me to account’. If people become very honest and open with themselves, that’s a good step.

In some cases, if a relationship hasn’t been possible to reconcile it can then create unique problems at Christmas time. 

Kavanagh said it can be very difficult on children in the family in particular in these cases.

“For the children on Christmas day, whose house does Santa go to?” he said. “This all has to be arranged and sorted well in advance.”

Above all else, creating an openness with yourself and others is essential, no matter what the situation.

In any relationship, once you take off the rose-tinted glasses, there should be a basic level of happiness. But nothing changes unless you take action about it. 

Yesterday on TheJournal.ie, we featured some advice on how to look after your mental health during the festive period.

It contains some tips from Mental Health Ireland and the HSE for how to cope with difficulties that may arise over Christmas.

You can read it here.

About the author:

Sean Murray

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