Surviving Home For The Holidays: Tips for Avoiding Conflict While Visiting Family During the Holiday Season

happy family at christmas

It’s a classic — the flurry of calls to my office in January from couples who feel their relationship is really strained – or even on the brink. The trigger? The visit home for the holidays – it led to a major blow out fight that felt all too familiar. If they can’t celebrate the holidays together with their families are they really meant to be together? Isn’t this a sign?

Not necessarily!  Going back to your childhood home is often a set up for conflict, distance, and strain in your adult relationship. Old ways of relating and managing conflict reemerge. Historical family dynamics are re-enacted without warning. A bit of anticipation and thoughtful planning can go a long way in preventing damage to your adult relationship.

The Holiday Challenges Faced by Two Couples

Sarah and Kate are the classic example.  Both of their families live in other states and when holiday time rolls around the pressure is on, especially for Kate who is an only child. She is everything to her parents, they look forward to her visits all year. And when she is home their attention is all-consuming. They want as much of her as they can get and don’t particularly relish sharing this precious time with her partner.

For Sarah it’s a different issue.  Until recently her parents weren’t embracing of her same sex relationship.  The last time she took Kate home for Christmas the reception was ice-y and strained. All of this adds up to a holiday season with the families that is ripe with potential for stress and conflict.  Both Kate and Sarah put so much energy into managing their own feelings about going home they lose sight of each other.

For Kevin and Jenna, traveling across the country with their young toddler and infant to spend Christmas with Kevin’s family pretty much guarantees tension, turmoil, and a nasty fight. Kevin and his mother (who has been a widow for many years) have a close, yet volatile relationship. His mother relies on her adult children for emotional and practical support. Kevin’s mom doesn’t hold back on expressing emotions. What this means, according to Jenna, is that every time they visit, Kevin and his mom have a screaming argument that includes threats, insults and curses. They don’t resolve anything, they just cool off and move on.

Jenna comes from a different kind of family. Her parents are happily married and were extraordinary care-takers and nurturers to their children. They never relied on their kids for emotional stability.

For Jenna, bearing witness to these arguments is traumatic. Now that they have children she finds the thought of this dynamic even more unbearable. She would prefer to spend Christmas elsewhere. Both Jenna and Kevin agree that they want their children to have a relationship with their grandmother. However, they acknowledge the even greater need to set firm boundaries so that their children will be spared this volatility and tension. They want Christmas to be magical and filled with positive memories. Even though they are on the same page about this, they are unsure and even disagree as to how to accomplish it.  This tension has been the cause of Jenna and Kevin’s worst arguments. Recovery from the visits and the subsequent fall-out is painful and slow, and the damage is lasting.  Needless to say, the thought of the holidays fills them with dread.

What these couples have in common is a feeling of despair as the holiday season approaches. The description sounds like post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Just anticipating the holidays brings back memories of past visits that didn’t go well. They start to re-live past events, together with the stress, anger, and hurt that occurred. Some couples replay the fights, the mere mention of what didn’t go well last time recreates the same tension and before they know it they are having the same argument.

What to do? 

Planning, Preparing and Communicating Can Help You to Get Through the Holiday Visit with Your Relationship Intact.

Plan

  • Don’t leave the time open ended and spontaneous.
  • Plan your days, including time together away from the family, things you want to do with your children, and time for your parents to spend with their grandchildren.
  • If possible do not stay with your parents and definitely don’t sleep in your childhood room.

Prepare

  • Go over the agenda and identify what triggers the fights so that you can prevent the triggers from taking you down a familiar rabbit hole.
  • Commit to time together and periodic check ins, these can be 5 minutes but should be done at least twice a day
  • Keep in mind the type of holiday traditions you are creating for your children, and be intentional – don’t leave it to chance.
  • Spend some time identifying traditions from your past you want your children to have and also those you would like to change. Even if you grew up with the narrative, “there is always a family fight at holiday time,” it doesn’t have to be that way for your children.

Communicate

  • Let each other know if there is something about visiting your families that you just can’t do or prefer not to participate in, and be open and flexible about this.
  • Ask your partner for support where you need it.
  • Make sure you hold your partner in mind during the visit.
  • Set limits and manage expectations with your family.
  • Communicate directly to all involved as much as possible.
  • All families have their idiosyncrasies and unwritten rules which must be taken into consideration. Within that, establishing adult boundaries and letting your family know your relationship and your children are your priority will send a strong message.

For Sarah and Kate there was this sinking feeling that they were lost to each other during family visits – they felt completely disconnected by the end of their stay

The solution was to plan ‘check ins’ so they could re-connect and re-group

A walk, a hug, even five minutes a day to just take a break, close the door, look at each other and ask “how are you doing?” made a huge difference.

They planned their time with the family so it wasn’t open ended – and included a few times to escape. They talked in advance about specifically what was hardest for them during these visits, they identified the triggers and then were able to ask for what they needed from each other.  They let each other know “I’m still your person and I’m here with you,” which created a completely different tone.

For Kevin and Jenna it was a bit more complicated. They had to do the planning, preparing, and communicating, but Kevin also had to accept that for the sake of Jenna and his children, the fighting with his mom had to stop. Even though it was his “normal” he had to find a way to disengage. Ultimately, they ended up staying elsewhere when home for the holidays and explaining it to his mom in the most loving yet firm way possible.

Families and holidays are often less-than-perfect, but you can make the most of your holiday times together.  By planning ahead, prioritizing each other and your children and making a concrete plan to do so – going home for the holidays can be a different experience for all.

Would couples therapy help improve your relationship when you’re home for the holidays? Contact Tracy Ross today to request an appointment.

When Happy Couples are Very Unhappy 10% of the Time

discernment counseling

I often hear from couples that they are reluctant to begin couples therapy because really, their relationship is good or even great 90% of the time. It’s just that other 10% – are they being greedy by focusing on that?

Shouldn’t they be able to fix it themselves?

As we get deeper into the conversation it becomes clear that the 10% can be extremely distressing. They become volatile, distant, stop talking, are hurt and frustrated and don’t understand how they got there. The trigger seems so silly it’s embarrassing.

The anchor in any good relationship is connection. This can be spending time together or simply a check in, letting each other know you’re there with each other emotionally. When this doesn’t happen small resentments build and a simple misunderstanding can trigger an all out war.

Sex and intimacy is a primary way couples stay connected. Each may have somewhat different sexual needs or they are out of sync sexually and distance creeps in, this can be subtle and happen without either person realizing it, or it can be extremely obvious. In many cases both partners avoid talking about it, resentment and confusion builds.

Another volatility trigger is “the in-laws”. At times the needs of your parents and the needs of your partner may be in conflict. The pull to satisfy both often results in your partner feeling neglected, not a priority, or misunderstood.

It all comes back to connection, the anchor of every relationship. What that connection looks like varies from couple to couple and for each person in the couple. One may require more alone time and the other may need more together time. This has to be communicated so it doesn’t turn into a trigger.

These are some of the ways couples end up in the volatility cycle going down a rabbit hole of arguing that only leads to more hurt and distance.

Identifying these triggers can help prevent fights or repair and reconnect after some volatility has already occurred.

As your relationship partner, I help create a safe space for these conversations so that you can identify triggers and communicate in a way that brings more understanding and closeness.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Couple sitting on couch listening to therapist

They enter my office, nervous and uncertain as many couples do during a first visit—he is trying to smile and break the ice; she is stone-faced and clearly contemptuous—of him? Of the process? Hard to say, but what quickly becomes clear is that she doesn’t want to be here. Her body language speaks volumes as she turns her body away from him and avoids making eye contact.  

What emerges is a story I’ve heard all too often: both agree that it isn’t working but he feels they can save the marriage; she is in the other camp, thinking it’s too late.

We have all seen this—attorneys and therapists alike. A couple in distress comes for your services; one wants to work on the marriage and will do anything to save it while the other wants a divorce. Are they done?

What is clear is that they can’t go on like this any longer.

This situation is fertile ground for volatility, frustration, and a feeling that the professionals they have consulted have let them down.

How can an attorney or therapist make headway with this kind of “mixed agenda” couple? The truth is, going the usual counseling routes, it’s almost impossible. They will continue to sabotage each other’s efforts until they have a common goal. Often they will blame the attorneys and therapists, calling them incompetent and unhelpful, saying they “just don’t get it”.

Many couples in this predicament are frustrated by the lack of progress in couples therapy. In a sense they are correct. It’s virtually impossible to make any progress when two people are working towards entirely different goals. One or both may consult attorneys but they don’t take the next step because they see the writing on the wall. The break up will be ugly and harmful. They don’t want to go down the road of contentious divorce.

That leaves them stuck, stuck, stuck, and unsure and even untrusting of where to turn for help.

This is the perfect time for a focused, time-limited method for getting couples on the same page, working toward the same goal, so they can move forward.

This is Discernment Counseling:

Discernment Counseling gives couples a safe and constructive environment to hear each other’s pain and despair while not having to agree to any long-term arrangement. It sets the stage for either committed couples therapy or moving through divorce. Most importantly, it allows each to take personal responsibility for where they are and where they are going.

  • A structured (or specific) approach to choosing the goal
  • Takes the focus off of blame and how each person was wronged
  • Puts the emphasis on what comes next, and attaining an outcome that will benefit all involved

That same couple that entered my office with arms folded and bodies turned away from each other is now engaged in a dialogue. They have softened toward one another and have joined together to choose the best path forward for themselves and their family.

6 Signs It’s Time to Go to Couples Therapy

Every relationship has an ebb and flow to it: moments of giddy excitement and closeness to treasure, and then periods when you feel distant or frustrated with each other. When the rough patches hit, it’s tempting to wait them out and assume they’ll pass without making a long-term dent in your relationship.

Therapists, though, advise against that strategy. “The best time to seek out couples counseling may be when you’re feeling happy in your relationship,” says Gail Saltz, MD, psychiatrist and the author of The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius. Wait too long to seek help after challenges crop up, and bad habits might cement in place, along with resentment and anger. “That’s a very toxic place that’s difficult to undo,” says Dr. Saltz.

“It’s easier to work with couples who decide to intervene before the damage is really great,” agrees Tracy K. Ross, LCSW, a NYC-based couples and family therapist. With a therapist’s help, you can break negative cycles, discover what’s causing conflicts and distance, and restore a connection that may feel frayed. “Perhaps most importantly, it helps [couples] identify and remember the strengths of the relationship,” says Ross.

How can you know if your problems amount to a few rough weeks or months—or are big enough to break you up? All relationships are unique, but experts say it generally boils down to certain issues. Here are six signs you might want to consider couples counseling.

Read More at Health.com

Are you in a volatile relationship? 5 signs to look for

First, you may think volatile relationship means you’re always fighting. No! Many couples in volatile relationships are what I call 90-10 couples™.

90% of the time, things are good or even great! You’re happy in your relationship. You communicate well, enjoy spending time together and generally feel positive about your relationship. But that 10% looms in the background like the dreaded Voldemort, that which should not be named.

What are the signs of volatility?

  1. The smallest slight, without warning, triggers a big argument. I call these rabbit hole arguments. They seemingly come out of nowhere, but they get emotionally explosive quickly.
  2. When the relationship demon shows up, one or both of you may say things you don’t mean, but they are hard to take back.
  3. You experience days or even weeks of minimal communication or not talking at all. You avoid each other, not knowing how to find your way back to the person you know and love. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife.
  4. You feel isolated, lonely, and disconnected. The person you love feels unfamiliar, distant, and a stranger
  5. You think the worst and fall into hopelessness about ever working it out. You may use the word divorce even if you don’t really mean it. You just don’t know what else to say, but the pain of hearing it out loud lingers.

The good news is that the 90% can win. If you are willing to examine the triggers, practice new strategies, and experiment with new behavior, you can go from volatile to versatile and actually use the passionate energy in a constructive way.

Relationships can and do get better if you are both willing to commit to putting aside the need to blame and doing the hard work to protect your connection from the volatile rabbit hole.