Family Get Togethers

by Andrea Blundell
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Have a big get-together ahead this season? Meeting your partner's family for the first time, spending time with in laws, or just having to see your own messed up family and it always goes wrong?

How to navigate the stress of holiday get-togethers

So what should you keep in mind to have a peaceful holiday this season, and really to better navigate any get together throughout the year?

1. Avoid polemic.

Here we are, in the second year of a pandemic, and there are certainly strong differences of opinion around all its repercussions.

They are worthy of discussion, yes. But family get-togethers are arguably not the time to showboat our research or political arguments.

Political arguments might be fun for you, personally, but for most people, political disagreement causes stress. An American survey, for example, found that 58% of citizens, voting for different parties, rated political disagreements as very stressful.

Get togethers are about the group, not the individual. Perhaps your group loves politics, so all good. But if not, then if you or someone else wants to start a political discussion, the best manoeuvre might be to suggest it is discussed after the holidays in a one-on-one discussion.

2. Lower expectations.

Get togethers don’t go wrong as terrible things happen, but more just as our hope that they will be different don’t manifest.

In other words, the less expectations you have of a get together ,the easier it becomes. Yes, you probably will stress eat and walk away bloated, say regrettable things, suddenly revert to your sixteen self instead of the fantastic adult you have become, and pretend you don’t mind Uncle’s sexist jokes even when you swore this was the year you’d stand up to him.

Family is tough. Lower the bar and it means you can walk away without the self judgement. For example, set one simple goal. You won’t drink your Great Aunt’s knockout rum punch this year. Done.

Researchers at University College London created a "Happiness Project" phone app that generated data from over eighteen thousand participants. The key takeaway? Lowering expectations came in as the most important way to up your mood.

3. Reconsider any plans to dominate the moment.

Group get togethers, family or otherwise, are not the ideal moment to suddenly demand that everyone except you for who you are, understand you, or apologise to you. These are issues between you and others that deserve one on one time, including for your own wellbeing and safety.

Group dynamics can be far more tempestuous and explosive if things go wrong. More people equals more energy, for better or worse!

Raising serious personal issues at a group together can leave you vulnerable to too many opinions and leave you attacked. Of course if you have decide this is your moment to, say, come out, that’s fine, but be prepared and have support should it not go well.

4. Prioritise the group dynamic over the individual one.

Speaking of the group dynamic. Family get-togethers go wrong as we clash horns with someone, and our individual battle then pulls in others, what’s called ‘making triangles’. And then it’s just fireworks.

The best thing here is to think about the group when you are making decisions on what you will do and say.

It’s not about suppressing who you are, it’s about survival, about getting through it without drama and exhaustion.

Note that this also means you don’t have to be perfect, or impressive, you simply need to fit into the group for the few hours you are there.

5. De-charge in advance.

Really annoyed at someone who will be at the get together? For example, having to finally spend time with a controlling mother in law you can’t stand? Here’s a tip -- get your big emotions down to neutral in advance.

This can look like an hour of furious journalling of all the things you wish you could say, or finding a private space and ranting and screaming out loud until you feel calm and are laughing. Or it might look like punching some pillows or a long hard run before you get in the car to go, whatever works for you that helps you show up relaxed.

Note that a quick bit of mindfulness in the car before going in can also do wonders.

6. Watch your communication.

Remember the basics of good communication and you won’t be drawn into any unnecessary conflict.

  • Listen carefully, reflect back.
  • If you don’t want to get dragged in, feel free to just ask good questions instead of letting anyone know your viewpoint, or simply change the subject or respond with “I don’t know” or the elusive “maybe”.
  • Watch out for blame language (you did this, you make me feel that) and try to start sentences with “I”. “I felt this when that happened”.

7. Have good support.

If your family, in laws, or new partners family are knowingly a tough experience, then get some support in place in advance. Have a friend on speed dial, or book a session with a counsellor after the joyous moment. A counsellor creates a safe, unbiased space to rant away in, and can help you stop judging yourself around family dynamics, a game that doesn’t have any clear winners ever.

Time to stop ending up devastated with each family or extended family encounter? Use our easy booking tool now to find your perfect therapist who can support and help you.

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