It’s that time of year again. The holidays are in full swing and many families feel the need to come together to celebrate them. This is the time of year when people decorate their homes with special decorations, remember their friends with holiday themed cards, attend holiday parties, and go to church. Many people consider the holiday season as “the most wonderful time of the year”. On the other hand, for many other people, the holidays can be very stressful and even quite depressing. With everything that goes on in the month of December, it’s no wonder that some people end up feeling overwhelmed, especially when they have to deal with family members with whom they don’t mesh.
So what’s a person to do when the pressure to conform to family traditions gets to be too intense? How can one escape the often inevitable family related squabbles that tend to come up during the holiday season? Here are five tips on how to avoid family fights during December. They have helped me learn to love the holidays again.
Tip #1- Don’t be afraid to abandon tradition
Thanks to surviving a number of dramatic Christmas celebrations with my own family, I’ve pretty much sworn off celebrating Christmas with my family of origin. That’s because, in the past, I’ve so often left family gatherings in tears, feeling depressed. My husband and I now spend our Christmases at home with each other and our dogs, even though we always get an invite to celebrate with either side of our families every year.
Our decision to celebrate amongst ourselves came about over Christmas 2003. We had given into the pressure to spend the holidays with my parents, who, at the time, were living just a few hours away from us. One of my older sisters lived nearby and wanted us to give her a ride to our parents’ house. I’m not quite sure what made her decide to ride with my husband and me. Maybe she was hoping to save gas money. In any case, I explicitly warned my sister that if a fight broke out, I wouldn’t be sticking around to see the end of it. My husband and I had already decided that we would rather spend the holiday in our own home in the case of a fight. My sister agreed, so my husband and I agreed to drive her.
Lo and behold, a doozy of a fight did break out just a few hours after our arrival. As promised, I told the sister we had given a ride to that because there had been a fight, we would be leaving in the morning. My sister had an enormous temper tantrum because she had wanted us to take her shopping and wasn’t ready to go home. Though I had witnessed these types of tantrums from her before, this time I decided I wasn’t going to stand by and endure it. While my sister, then in her mid 40s, ranted and raved about our sudden change of plans, I made a quick decision that has made a huge difference in how I get treated by my immediate family. I turned to my husband and said, “If we take my sister with us, we will be subjected to her foul mood for the whole four hour drive home. I’d rather not have to put up with that. So I think we should just leave her here.”
With that, my husband and I got in the car and left. I was very upset about leaving my sister at my parents’ house. I hadn’t wanted to do it. And yet, the fact that we did do it made a positive change in how she and some of my other family members have since treated us. I am the youngest of four sisters and there’s a large age gap between me and my three older sisters. Because of that gap, I tend to get treated like I’m 12 and often end up on the receiving end of their attempts to manipulate.
But this time, when I didn’t back down and dared to leave my sister at my parents’ house, it showed that I have a spine and won’t tolerate abuse. It also gave me some blessed quiet time, since my older sister didn’t contact me for awhile after that incident. My husband and I were able to salvage the rest of Christmas 2003 at our own house and my sister now treats me with more respect.
I learned several good lessons from what happened over the Christmas of 2003. First of all, if you know you’re going into a high conflict situation, such as a holiday gathering, it pays to have your own transportation. Secondly, don’t be afraid to leave a “celebration” if things start to go badly. If you’re an adult, you have every right to escape when things go awry, even if it’s just to take a drive. Thirdly, if you make a pact, be sure to stick to it. And finally, if you’ve endured a number of painful Christmas celebrations with your family, maybe it’s time to abandon the tradition and come up with a new plan.
Tip #2- Don’t be guilted into spending the holidays with someone you can’t stand
Christmas 2004 was as stressful as Christmas 2003 was, but for a different reason. That year, my husband and his ex wife were battling over visitation with his daughters. The ex wife, who lived on the other side of the country from us, decided that she wanted us all to gather at my husband’s father’s house for Christmas. She informed my husband that she and her new husband and baby would be staying with my husband’s kids at my father-in-law’s house for Christmas, while my husband and I were expected to stay in a hotel.
Needless to say, I was not in favor of this proposal. For many good reasons– too many to list in this article– I can’t stand my husband’s ex wife. However, because she was so difficult about visitation, I knew that Christmas at the in laws’ with the ex might be the only way my husband would be able to see his kids. The ex wife hadn’t met me in person, but she had heard some things about me from the kids, who had one visitation with me and their father. I had a feeling that she wanted us at my husband’s dad’s house so that she could put me in my place while being reasonably assured that I wouldn’t make a scene.
At that point, my husband and I had only been married for two years. I felt very pressured to attend the holiday gathering because I didn’t want to alienate my in laws or my husband’s kids. But in the end, I decided not to go. I had a number of reasons for not attending what turned out to be a disastrous gathering. I knew that no matter what I did, it would be reflected in the worst possible light. I could be quiet and unassuming and that would translate to being “unfriendly”. I could be outgoing and assertive and that would translate to being “uppity” or “aggressive”. I had a feeling that despite my husband’s ex wife’s allusions to wanting family solidarity, she wasn’t really interested in being friends or family members with me. Frankly, I wasn’t interested in being buddies with her, either.
I knew I wouldn’t enjoy myself and doubted that anyone else would enjoy my company. The sole reason for me to be at that gathering was to make my in laws feel like the situation was okay and give my husband’s ex wife the chance to check me out. Even if I did manage to keep a lid on my temper and things went reasonably well, it would also send the message that future gatherings were permissible. I knew I didn’t want to have that kind of pressure heaped on me in the years to come.
It was a no win situation, so I decided to do what was going to make me the least upset. An added benefit to staying home was that we saved significant money because we only had to buy one plane ticket and didn’t have to board our dogs. In the end, I learned that it’s okay to turn down an invitation to an ambush. My in laws were upset with me for awhile, but when I finally explained my side of things, they realized that I was right to stay home and forgave me. The end result, once again, is that I earned more respect, both from myself and my family.
Tip #3– Consider staying in a hotel
Different families have differing opinions about hotel stays. My parents are fine with it, especially since they recently moved into a senior assisted living facility. My husband’s mother is also okay with it, since she has limited space for guests. My husband’s dad and stepmom, however, get offended by the idea of family members staying in a hotel. In fact, when my husband went to visit him without me over Christmas 2004, my father-in-law was upset that he was staying in a hotel instead of with family. Actually, the suggestion for us to stay in a hotel was the one thing with which I agreed with my husband’s ex. Here’s my rationale as to why, if you can afford it, it’s a good idea to stay in a hotel.
A hotel room gives you your own space. If you have a hotel room to go to, you have your own bathroom and your own bed in the type of room that you selected. You have privacy and a sanctuary that gives you the chance to rest and regroup. A hotel room gives you a place to escape to if things get too stressful or weird during a family visit. Yes, hotel rooms can be expensive and impersonal, but I consider that money well spent when I know that family fights are possible or inevitable. When it comes down to it, staying in a hotel may be one of the best ways to maintain your sanity and peace when you’re dealing with the stresses that can come from family reunions.
Tip #4– Watch your drinking!
I really enjoy a well-prepared alcoholic drink. Wine is soothing to me. Beer can be very relaxing or a social lubricant. A cocktail can be festive and help facilitate conversation. But drinking too much alcohol, especially around family members, can lead to disaster! For that reason, I recommend watching your drinking at family gatherings. Drinking too much can lower your inhibitions and you might end up saying or doing things you really wish you hadn’t. Drinking too much can have an adverse affect on your mood, as well as the way you feel physically. It also increases your need to urinate, which can lead to long lines at the bathroom.
My advice, which I’ll admit can be hard for some people to take, is to pace yourself and try to stick to non-alcoholic beverages as much as possible. As an aside to this, I also recommend not trying to resolve family issues over the holidays, especially if you’re going to be drinking. Aim for healing old psychic wounds at a less stressful time of the year, like January.
Tip #5– Remember that the holidays are really just regular days
At this time of year, people feel a lot of pressure to live up to the heartwarming scenarios that are so often shown by the media. Who can blame us for being sentimental when even the commercials that air on television are corny and push an unrealistic image of peace on Earth and good will toward all men. While I agree that it’s great to be charitable and kind, the reality is that December really is just like any other time of year, with a liberal amount of extra stress mixed in. Why should you be expected to be more charitable and kind just because it’s Christmas, especially given everything else that’s going on? Why not simply be charitable and kind all year?
I think it helps to keep a realistic perspective about the holiday season. While miracles can occur during this time of year, chances are excellent that they won’t. There will still be people in the world who have problems and the Christmas season doesn’t change that. So my advice is to try not to put too much pressure on yourself just because the holidays are upon us. Holidays are manmade entities and really shouldn’t be any more stressful than any other day of the year, but they inevitably are because we make it that way. Relax, enjoy the lights, eat some good food, open a few gifts if that’s how you celebrate, and realize that a new year is on the horizon.
I wish all my readers a joyous holiday season… and the wisdom to understand that if you don’t manage to have a joyous holiday season, it’s not the end of the world.