Sarah Ingram, associate director of Strategy and Partnerships at Tavistock Relationships, a charity specialising in helping couples with relationship difficulties, offers some advice on reducing relationship conflict this Christmas.
At Tavistock Relationships, we see a significant rise in couples and individuals seeking relationship support each New Year. Unfortunately, the pressures of buying many presents, providing and preparing masses of food, and spending time with extended family where simmering tensions erupt can often be the final straw for already stressed relationships.
With four 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 will likely 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 – drawing on our clinical experience – we’ve identified some key areas that can help reduce family conflict.
Find a third way
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 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 a compromise and agree on arrangements early so that children don’t feel torn between the two. Whatever your set-up, agreeing on a realistic budget for children’s Christmas presents ahead of time will also massively help reduce expectations’ stress.
Check-in with each other
Misunderstandings about what a partner or ex-partner is thinking often spark couple conflict. Couples frequently resort to high emotion or shutting down to message 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 closeness and see the relationship as a resource for both of you. And it allows you to cope with difficulties in a more hopeful state of mind.
Don’t speak ill to your co-parent
Yes, everyone argues, but exposing your children to sustained parental conflict is not okay or asking them to side with one parent over the other. This ask can be particularly intense at Christmas when the stakes are raised for families at this special time of year.
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 most people are oblivious to the burden of anxiety they carry around. Try to get to know signs of stress mounting up within yourself and your partner. Help each other, even with small domestic tasks, to understand each other’s struggles and minimise blame.
Over time, couples can come to believe their partner knows what’s in their mind and that they are telepathic experts. We stop bothering to acknowledge each other’s hard work. A heartfelt ‘thank you’ never loses effectiveness; it can unlock important feelings of validation and prevent growing resentment and a partner or co-parent’s belief they are taken for granted.
One of the couples‘ most common communication blocks is the tendency to internalise thoughts and feelings. This can result from the upbringing of one or both halves of the couple, where their parents couldn’t encourage them to share their feelings when young.
Children soon learn to sort emotional vulnerabilities out within themselves if parents are emotionally unavailable for various reasons, such as depression, chronic anxiety or alcohol misuse.
However, internalising all thoughts and feelings can be the enemy of intimacy and cause difficulty in 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, is a shock. Try to share ideas, observations, plans, and feelings early to build trust and strength in your relationship.
Tavistock Relationships has developed an app to help individuals and couples dealing with relationship problems.