The Christmas break up
When I was younger I was shocked when my GP friend told me that on Christmas Day his wife announced she’d been having an affair and was leaving him. Her timing struck me as heartless. Now that I’m a relationship therapist, I have a more balanced view.
Come early January, the phones of couple counsellors are red-hot. Post-festive-holiday is a notoriously busy time as individuals seek to address, repair or end a troubled relationship. If I were being flippant, I’d say ‘book early while stocks of good therapists are still available’, but it’s not a subject to be flippant about - I’m well aware of the associated heartbreak. Moreover, in many cases, the realisation that the relationship is in crisis comes as a shock, at least to one partner. The ‘book early’ guidance is therefore unhelpful as well as insensitive because it’s only over the holiday period that cracks in the relationship – previously perceived as minor and normalised (‘surely all couples have their little differences’) – can turn into gaping chasms.
In this article, I speculate about why it is that relationship problems escalate at Christmas and New Year, and offer some suggestions about what individuals in these situations might do.
Our expectations of a ‘Happy Christmas and good New Year’ are often hugely optimistic. At a rational level, we may well realise that, especially if past experience is anything to go by. But at an emotional level, possibly unconsciously, we cling to the idea of perfection – a triumph of hope over experience. It’s hardly surprising, since from mid-November onwards we’re bombarded by adverts that position sales -perfume, after-shave, toys, even turkeys - around images of blissful family and romantic relationships. We’re treated to witnessing smiling families around the dinner table, couples holding hands and children opening the best present they’ve ever had, and why wouldn’t we want to make our loved ones happy by treating them and spending a wonderful time with them? However, how often do we step back and reflect on what constitutes a lovely time? Is perfection possible, and if we don’t achieve it, are we or our relationships flawed? This is especially true of our relationships with the ones we love the most.
The Christmas holiday is often a period when we are under immense stress. For those of us who work, it’s often a long time since our last break. We’re frequently on our last reserves of emotional resilience. We may have had to cope with the Christmas deadline. The usual stress of tidying things up at work before taking leave is compounded by being required to complete a task or project before the end of the year.
For working parents the stress is multi-layered – coping with wrapping up all the loose ends of the job, wrapping up the Christmas preparations and wrapping up the Christmas presents, so we find ourselves going into the holiday mentally overloaded and in a state of high nervous arousal. An inadvertent remark from a partner can send us into meltdown.
Sometimes we need to share ourselves among other families – maybe Christmas with the parents of one partner and Boxing Day or New Year with the other’s family. The complications of trying to please everyone can be even more difficult in the case of extended families. Add on top of this travelling on crowded trains or motorways, perhaps with noisy and excited children or truculent teenagers who’d rather be at home and hanging out with friends, girlfriends or boyfriends. Personally, I’m feeling exhausted writing this. Not surprisingly our tolerance levels might be low and our defences high - ‘don’t you dare say that about my mother, father, sister, brother, child!’ - delete as appropriate.
Clients come to counselling to resolve a relationship dilemma. Often the question is should they stay or leave their partner. Sometimes the problem involves a third party. It’s not unusual for a conflicted individual to profess love for both. Individuals in these situations may experience a range of emotions. High on the typical list are guilt, shame and resentment.
Understandably, people can feel guilty about their actions. In counselling, they often castigate themselves for the hurt they would inflict if they were to leave their partner. Perceived damage to children can be a major source of guilt. They express shame about their actions – ‘what have I done?’. They can be ashamed about feeling helpless or out of control, mistrustful of their judgement or ability to make a decision. At a deep level, they sense that their behaviour feels out of sync with their core values. A common theme is, ‘this isn’t me’.
In counselling, in the run-up to Christmas, there is a perceptible heightening of these emotions. The resentment can then build. Sometimes the pressure can’t be contained. Maybe they feel ‘is this it?’. I suspect that’s what happened in the case of my doctor friend’s wife.
If our relationship with a family member or partner is already under strain or, in more extreme cases, we’re already actively contemplating separation then the Christmas holiday can be the tipping point. Below I offer some suggestions about how life in these situations might be made more manageable before the breaking point is reached. I do so with humility, knowing there is no quick fix or easy answers, but I hope my counsel will help some fresh thinking and at least allow some respite.
Much of the pressure of Christmas relates to expectations. For the most part, those expectations are socially and commercially conditioned. We don’t have to own them. We have a choice. Yes, we want to give everyone a good time, but can it ever be perfect? Be realistic.
Similarly, at New Year, we reflect on the past and the future. Is the path we’re on the one we want? Before we jump off it, we need to take an honest appraisal of our current situation. Can it be improved? How can you take ownership - ‘what can I do?’. Moreover, if we’re looking at an alternative, are we flattered by new attention that we’re receiving, turned on by the excitement of an illicit liaison, or swayed by the illusion of the grass looking greener on the other side of the fence?
Do we seriously believe that any family is perfect, that all families and partners don’t argue at some point? Being allowed to express difference is healthy; suppressing it is not. The challenge is to achieve a balance between being accommodating and feeling taken advantage of. That requires encouraging and enacting open, two-way dialogue.
For many of us during the holiday period, there are fewer times when we’re alone with our partner – family meals, visiting relations, being stuck with the kids on the motorway. If that’s the case, it’s important to make a deliberate attempt when you can talk and, as importantly, listen. It’s not the case that a partner will always be looking for a solution, your view on how to ‘fix it’. But it is the case that they’ll want to feel heard. Often that’s all that’s required.
Nor does communication have to be about what’s not right in your relationship. Maintaining it will be helped immeasurably by expressing what’s good about it. Many people find expressing love in words difficult, but there are other ways – physical touch, proximity, intimacy and acts of kindness can work wonders for relationships in trouble, and also for maintaining healthy ones.
Express your needs
Is it realistic to expect my partner to be perfect? Of course not. None of us can be. Can I expect to receive the perfect gift? If not, does it mean my partner doesn’t love me? Again, obviously not, but you can help to get what you want by stating it. Not in terms of product and serial number, but in terms of what makes you feel loved and valued – maybe a gift as a token of affection is important to you, or you see spending time together as an act of love, or helping with the Christmas tasks list proves you’re not taken for granted. The core reason why an individual is unhappy in a relationship is that they feel an unmet need. If so, what is that need? Could that be the Christmas gift you yearn for symbolises that need? Identifying and saying what it is could be the first step towards receiving it.
It’s easy at Christmas to relegate one’s own needs; to sacrifice yourself to make everyone else happy. While that’s a noble aspiration, it isn’t sustainable. At some point, self-sacrifice will tip into resentment. Resentment will inevitably lead to emotional disengagement. A partner will sense this. Disharmony will follow; much better to express what you want and don’t want. Never say ‘you should know’. Nobody is a mind-reader.
Take the pressure lid off
Much of the foregoing is about expressing feelings and desires. Doing so relieves the pressure. That is especially the case if you’re entering the holiday period with significant questions or doubts about your relationship. When relationships go awry, the smallest things can cause huge irritation. There becomes zero tolerance for difference. Be mindful of that. Stay in touch with your feelings. If you begin to feel them about to erupt, get some space and distance. Saying things while in a state of high emotion is rarely helpful. If, after careful consideration, you do decide to end a relationship, plan a suitable time and prepare what you’ll say. I’m aware that short sentence could be the subject of an entire further article, but it captures the headline strategy.
As a further note of caution, during the holiday festivities, alcohol is often freely flowing. Without wishing to appear moralistic or a killjoy, drinking never helps decision-making, nor does it contribute to finding peace of mind.
It may sound trite, but talking does help. If you’re struggling with a relationship, talking it through with a close friend can help enormously, not necessarily to get answers but simply to articulate and share the issue. If you feel you need more than that, find a qualified relationship counsellor who you’re comfortable and at ease with. See it as a positive self-affirming act and not a weakness – not an inability to make a decision. Getting into counselling is the first step in finding a solution that is right for you to take back control.
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