Kate Thompson is a couple psychoanalytic psychotherapist at Tavistock Relationships, a London-based charity specialising in helping couples with their relationship difficulties. Tolerance and negotiation become even more important within relationships during holiday periods, she says.
Here at Tavistock Relationships we always see a significant rise in couples and individuals seeking relationship support in the New Year.
"There is often a yearning to be looked after at Christmas."
Relationships are hard to do at the best of times and during the festive season many couple relationships are sorely tested. The pressure created by the relentless public bombardment of images created by advertising agencies selling their products and lifestyle choices, where every moment appears to be filled with picture-perfect families sharing fairy tale meals – all in often painful contrast with our everyday lived experience.
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Christmas is primarily for children, a time of magic and surprise, presents, being looked after and spoiled perhaps. For parents it can be a time of domestic hard work, financial concern, pressure to live up to the expectations of their children, reunions with extended family and way too much rich food and alcohol.
For adults, there is also the memory of Christmas past, when they too were the willing recipient of magical treats. This expectation of a 'perfect Christmas' can be indelibly stamped into our unconscious and all too often adults can regress back to that expectation at this time of year, carrying an unconscious, yet powerful hope for magic, and a yearning to be looked after that cannot be met.
Perversely, the more difficult the festive period may be, the more this imprint of something magical that can wipe out all ills and mend the deepest hurt can prevail. The idea that Christmas will make everything in a relationship or family alright again is a strong one to resist, but when the holidays are over and we wake up to rediscover our difficulties have not evaporated, it can sometimes make things worse than ever.
So it’s not surprising that we tend to see a rise in people coming to us for help after Christmas – often in a sad and worried state, anxious and confused about how they feel about their partner and their relationship.
They often tell us that things have become strained and quite unbearable and they fear that if things go on as they are, either their relationship or their own emotional or physical health might break down.
So if all you want this Christmas is family peace and harmony, here are five suggested ways to help reduce conflict and keep the Christmas spirit joyful over the festive season:
Tolerance – accepting and tolerating difference is essential in every relationship. Both halves of a couple need to learn to regularly take time to put themselves in the other’s shoes, respect their differences and think about what makes the other person happy in order to strengthen the relationship. This can also work wonders with extended family members and in-laws – even when it comes to discussing the more difficult topics like Brexit and parenting styles, and graciously accepting unwanted gifts that would make a Tracey Emin exhibition look tame [Editor's note - alternatively, MHT is happy to provide a home for these].
Find the third way – it’s all too common for couples to squabble over how Christmas ‘should be’, linked to their own experience as children. For example for one partner, presents need to be opened on Christmas Eve, while for the other gifts can only be exchanged after The Queen's Speech. Couples must negotiate these emotionally charged ‘family of origin’ cultural differences and, ideally, carve out their own 'couple way' of celebrating Christmas by creating a third way that is about their relationship and their new family.
Team work - every day stresses stack-up within everyone (especially in the run-up to Christmas) and the majority of people are oblivious to the weight they are carrying around. It can be helpful for partners to get to know not only feelings of stress mounting up within themselves, but also in their partners. Helping each other with even small domestic tasks, is a way of understanding another’s struggle, minimize blame and create more time to relax, with a shared sense of accomplishment. So pop on those Christmas tunes and spend time together writing Christmas cards, wrapping presents, decorating the tree and planning the holiday period.
Appreciation - despite the length of a relationship, saying 'thank you' is really important. Some couples assume the other knows they are grateful but ‘thank you’ is a magical phrase that can unlock important feelings of validation and prevents feelings of being taken for granted and creating resentment. It creates a benign cycle between partners, encouraging ‘the giver’ to repeat a generous act – even if it is just unloading the dishwasher or making a cup of tea in the morning.
Playing together - laughing and ‘playing’ has all kinds of health benefits, from easing stress, countering depression and boosting positive mood: they release hormones that can increase a sense of wellbeing. Research reveals that most people look for a good sense of humour in their ideal mate and sharing a sense of what’s funny affirms an intimate relationship – so watch a funny Christmas film together and dust off those long neglected board games to lighten the mood and increase a sense of pleasure in life and each other.
To find out more about the training offered by Tavistock Relationships, go to tavistockrelationships.org or call 020 7380 8288.