How to survive a family gathering

If we were to believe the depiction of the perfect family life that gets portrayed in movies and TV ads, we’d be fooled into thinking that everyone's playing happy families. Everyone, apart from you, you may think...


When we start to peep behind the curtains into other people’s homes, the ideal family may not be as achievable as our screens would have us believe. When it comes to family gatherings, there can be an expectation that the problems faced throughout the rest of the year will disappear while we all play happy families together.

Family occasions can intensify problems

Problems inherent throughout the year can have a unique way of showing up when it comes to family occasions, which can sometimes make them feel even more intense and highlight feelings you didn’t know you were harbouring. Anger at coming face to face with an ex can highlight disappointment about the relationship not working out the way you desired. The frustration of tending to an elderly parent may bring up feelings of guilt about not being the perfect child, much like how you felt as a kid. The stress of buying the presents, doing the cooking, sending out invitations or cards can raise resentment about not feeling supported by your partner. Or, perhaps the idea of family gatherings being loving occasions highlights the betrayal you felt at your partner’s previous affair. With all of these potential pitfalls, it’s understandable, then, that thinking about how you’ll cope may make you feel quite anxious.

Expectations can create anxiety

There can often be an expectation about the way things should be 'done'. Assumptions can mean these expectations are rarely discussed, which can naturally create tension if others have a completely different approach. Beliefs about how the event will go can also bring up anxieties about the stuff you may fear happening too; perhaps anxiety about arguments breaking out, feeling taken for granted by certain people, or perhaps even feeling overwhelmed by spending so much time with family. All of these situations can be difficult to manage.

The anxiety surrounding these expectations can lead people to avoid having a conversation about how they would like to spend the occasion. This can cause frustration when things don’t go according to plan, but the problem is that most people forget to share their plan. It may exist in your head, and you assume everyone is on board with it. However, what seems obvious to you may be completely alien to someone else. It can sometimes be difficult sharing your expectations because you know others may have a different view, which you believe is going to make life difficult for you. "If only they’d do things my way!", you may say. The thing is, they might be saying the same thing, if not out loud, maybe in their heads, too.

Tips to survive a family gathering

If any of this sounds familiar, here are a few things to remember that may help. Some of these may seem obvious, but by making them conscious, it can open up a conversation with your partner and family that may just make family gatherings feel a little easier.

  • Talk about how you imagine the event will go. Having some insight into the expectations of the people you’ll be spending time with may help you avoid some of the disagreements that could break out when you want to do things one way and they have different ideas. Make the time to have a conversation in advance, and become aware of where tension may arise. Think with them about how you can all do your best to manage or compromise on certain expectations so that disagreements don’t get out of hand and everyone is on board (as much as possible) with how you’d all like to spend your time together.
  • Don’t expect too much (of yourself or others). Don’t get caught up in trying to achieve the picture-perfect family gathering. Know that there’s the potential for things to go wrong, and try to make peace with it ahead of time. There may be some things that don’t work out how you’d have liked, or simply couldn’t have been planned for. Does it matter if someone is late? A disagreement breaking out at some point may well be inevitable. Remember that, even with all the pressure for everything to be perfect, you are still human, and that means mistakes will be made. That’s OK.
  • Make time for yourself. It can be overwhelming to spend intensive time with family, some of whom you may actively avoid at other times of the year. It can easily feel as though the walls are caving in on you, and there’s nowhere to hide. If it all starts to feel too much, think in advance of ways to create some physical and mental space for yourself. Maybe taking a walk by yourself, even if just to walk around the block, would help you feel less consumed by the occasion.
  • Go easy on yourself. A successful family gathering is not your sole responsibility. Get others involved in the preparation. Arrange a time to talk through everything that needs to be done, and be sure to agree on how you will split the tasks. You may not be able to achieve everything to the standard that you set yourself, and that’s OK. By sharing the preparations and tasks on the day with others, you may feel more supported if things don’t go as imagined, and you may also have a bit more patience for others who fall short of your mark.
  • Be aware of your triggers. The occasion itself may well bring up old feelings or past hurts that can be hard to deal with. Maybe you’re sensitive when it comes to buying baby gifts if you’re longing for a child or have lost a baby. It could be painful if a parent has passed away. Such thoughts could leave you with complex, conflicting feelings. Making yourself aware of these triggers, as difficult as this may be, is one of the ways that could help you become less reactive to them if they come up. Know that it’s normal to have these feelings, and you may want to consider therapy to help you manage them in future.
  • Remember, it’s just one event. It can be common for people to hold onto resentment from events in the past that haven’t gone well. However, this doesn’t have to dictate the quality of your family relationships in future. Try not to use things that go wrong as a reason to build resentment. If arguments break out, try to find some time after the event to have a calm conversation with the people involved so that you can lay it to rest and try again next time. The conversation may highlight things about your general interaction that could be worked on together, either through therapy or in some other form.

In a nutshell, there are, of course, no surefire ways to guarantee successful family gatherings, but hopefully, some of the things highlighted here will help you survive it until the next time and prompt some thoughts about how you could improve your relationships in future.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Naomi Segal is Founder of The Couple Consultancy, a specialist relationship counselling and psychotherapy service for couples and individuals. She was trained by some of the leading experts in couple relationships and from this, has developed a way of working with couples that moves them from gridlock to growth.

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