'Tis the season to be quarrelling

Christmas time is often portrayed as a time to be jolly, a time for giving and a time for forgiveness. In reality, Christmas isn’t always a completely celebratory time: As many of us know, it can involve much stress and quarrels are not unheard of. Part of this has to do with the adage that you can choose your friends, but not your family. Christmas can indeed be a reminder of why you avoid certain family members the rest of the year.

Another, more important reason is that Christmas puts pressure on the relationship with your spouse that may already be fraught with tension. With more things to organise than usual, unresolved resentments and latent hostilities can rear their heads as tasks are delegated. For example, the question of who picks up the visiting mother (in-law) from the train station, can turn suddenly into a quarrel that is fuelled by an unresolved question of domestic politics: One party might unreasonably expect the obligation to be honoured by the other, since their partner always picks the kids up from school; in contrast, the other party might start to dissent, because they are seething at the unfairness of always having to collect family members.

As straightforward as it may appear to be, it is worth exploring why quarrels are rarely the solution to family tensions, even if they seem a means to resolve a heated issue. The basic reason is that quarrels do not prioritise resolving an issue for the benefit of all; rather they are arguments, contests where one side wants to defeat the other and claim victory for their point-of-view according to a logic of ‘either/or’ (either I am right or you are right). But here is the crucial point: Seldom are there true victors in a quarrel. Even if you win the argument, even if you were indeed ‘correct’ in principle, the adversarial nature of what happened, is very likely to have repercussions-sometimes far-reaching ones. Quarrels indeed aggravate tensions rather than resolve them.

So, what is one to do instead?

With family members who you only see periodically, not making your differences be known might be the best course of action. If it is ,the case that they are doing something you deem unacceptable, then instead of a quarrel, it is better to take them to the side, and politely tell them in confidence why you feel the way that you do; if they don’t accept your point of view, then you can consider later the possibility of not inviting them again or mull over the possibility that accepting their behaviour might cause less stress all round. The latter option is always worth contemplating because family gatherings aren’t designed to cater to only your preferences, as others must be considered as well; it might indeed be the case that your partner loves the person you can’t stand, and so their presence might prevent a more long-standing problem with your spouse.

In the case of avoiding spats with your partner, remind yourself of the ultimate futility of quarrels and how there is nearly always some unwelcome aftermath, even if there has been an ego gain. Instead, it might be wise to reflect upon what the avoided quarrels might have really been about. If the issue is important enough, sitting down with your partner and having a discussion can be a means of resolving a troublesome matter that has often been hiding ‘underneath’ a seemingly trivial difference of opinion (since quarrels are often really about unfair power relations (where one side feels oppressed in some way by the other; to put it colloquially, ‘taken a loan of’) and/or the unbalanced distribution of love and affection (getting not enough love or too much of it that it is smothering) these are areas worth looking out for). These type of discussions are much more fruitful, because they are respectful and they are founded upon the premise that to resolve an issue, you must honour its complexity by trying to see the value in each side of the discussion (quarrels, as I mentioned earlier, are all about ‘either/or’) In short, discussions prioritise the will-to-understand rather than, as quarrels do, the will-to-win.  

Overall, if these issues become difficult for you to understand and/or resolve, talking to an experienced counsellor can be a profitable course of action to help you negotiate through this sometimes challenging terrain.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Dr Alexander Fox (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))

I am a pluralistic counsellor in private practice in the city centre of Dundee. I am trained to help clients with a wide variety of problems and I am able to employ a number of different therapeutic approaches, so that the therapy process is always tailored to the individual needs of each of my clients.… Read more

Written by Dr Alexander Fox (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))

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