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Tips for couples on gatherings with loved ones

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

Love it or hate it or meh, the festive season is upon us. Here are a few tips which might help you have a smoother experience as a couple if you are catching up with loved ones.

Be mindful about expectations

Christmas and Christmas traditions, for those celebrating it, can be fraught with high emotions and expectations. After the year that many of us have had particularly where we have had to be physically distant from loved ones and with heightened anxieties, many people might be putting a lot of pressure on themselves to have the 'perfect Christmas'. This is normal and understandable. However, it is important to not get too caught up in the romanticised notion of happy families. We are bombarded with these types of images in TV, film and social media. But remember, we don't live in a Hallmark Christmas movie filled with 'Happily Ever Afters', and the reality is that most of our family dynamics are much more complex. You are more likely to have an enjoyable time if you accept 'what is' rather than 'how you want it to be', and not push too hard to have the 'perfect time'. As a couple it would be helpful if you discuss your expectations prior to visiting family and friends. This is helpful not only for sharing your inner worlds, but also for being mindful and explicit in your expectations.

Be intentional and flexible

Along similar lines, and in building on past Christmas celebration experiences, you might be playing out 'what if' scenarios in your head. These might be mostly along the lines of the things that you 'don't' want to happen. Many people are worried about conflict and people getting upset at the family dinner table, particularly when alcohol have lowered some inhibitions and opinions are put forward. A couple of tips around this. It is helpful to focus on intentions of what you 'do want' rather than what you 'don't want'. For example, if you want to walk away from the Christmas visit feeling that you've connected with the family and shared some good laughs, how can you facilitate that experience? As a couple you can brainstorm this together. One example might be to play some silly games (be mindful of not selecting something too competitive which can turn nasty). Keep a flexible spirit in this too, particularly if this is something new that you are introducing to your family and friends and its not part of your usual traditions. Some people might not want to participate - remember we can't change others - so its important in this to 'accept what is'.

Politics, religion etc.

Many of us are familiar with the cautionary expression of 'never discuss politics and religion at the dinner table'. This year you might want to add wars and international disputes to the list. It certainly is a topic which has divided many people and families, particularly when there are many alternate theories and experiences afloat. As a couple you might be on the same page with this or have two very different opinions, and you are likely to have already faced challenges with this throughout the year as you converse with families and friends. Again, particularly when alcohol is involved and lowering people's inhibitions around discussions, these hot topics can set off arguments. As a family, you might want to make it clear in the lead up to your gatherings, that these topics are off the table. In other families, some people thrive on these arguments and can have constructive discussions arguing the point, but not the person. Being mindful and intentional here, can be helpful. One technique that can change the tone, is to take a curious approach in learning about someone else's experience. It is often helpful to focus the conversation more on how someone has personally experienced things like lockdown, working from home etc, rather that discuss big ethereal ideas or government policies. As a couple you can discuss in the lead up to your family visits how you want to handle this and support each other to gently move conversational topics away from these danger zones.

If conflict happens what do we do?

Things often start heading south if people feel attacked and criticised. Raising a difference of opinion can be done by having a gentle start-up. That means not attacking the other person (which will only elicit defensiveness), dropping the decibel level and keeping calm. This also includes keeping it focused on how you feel ("I feel...") about something (not the person). As humans we like having allies, and people will often try to convince you of their opinion and recruit you to their side. For others its really important that they 'win' the argument. If this does not sit right with you, it is sometimes helpful to point out that you respectfully disagree, but that its OK that you have two different opinions. It can be difficult, but try to keep an open mind and remain curious about other people's perspectives. If you do notice the volume of the argument going up, it might be helpful to call a time out for everyone to cool down. Again, here you can support each other as a couple to navigate to smoother shores.

Be kind to yourself and each other

In the lead up to and after gatherings with loved ones, make sure that you are taking care of yourself and each other. This can be a very stressful time, so its important that we add some extra self-care into our planning. Feeling calm, centred and grounded will help you bring the best of yourself to your gatherings with loved ones. Remember you can't pour from an empty cup, so take care of yourself!

Wishing you a wonderful festive time with your loved ones!

Disclaimer: This post is for informational and educational purposes only. It should not be taken as counselling/therapy advice or used as a substitute for such. You should always speak to your own counsellor.



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