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How to Handle Strained Relationships at the Holidays

Snowy countryside road

How to Handle Strained Relationships at the Holidays

For the first time in years — yes, it's been nearly two years — many families feel safe enough to gather again for the holidays. But it's not just festive traditions that are resuming — for some, familiar feelings of dread are resurfacing, too.

The holiday season can be triggering for anyone who is estranged from their family, has experienced a big loss or has a strained relationship with certain relatives.

“We dream of a perfect ‘welcome home,’ a heartwarming gathering that will give us some relief from the stress of the pandemic, working from home and all the worries of the past eighteen months,” says Jean Fitzpatrick, a licensed psychotherapist and relationship therapist. “Some families provide that kind of sanctuary, but others embody all the same conflicts and tensions we see in our world: disagreements about vaccines, masking and politics — as well as ordinary rivalries and grievances.”

And then there's the pressure to appear ‘picture-perfect’ or to stuff down the uncomfortable feelings of the past, along with the seven-course meal.

"Often we try to make get-togethers special or meaningful in these short, intense bursts of time,” says Lia Avellino, licensed clinical social worker and THE WELL Director of Head & Heart. “These expectations may not serve family relationships or the occasion… just because it's the holiday season doesn't mean it erases hard realities."

Jordan Madison, a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist, echoes Avellino’s point: “[The holiday season] may also be a stressful if you've experienced any trauma at the hands of family members,” says Madison. “Seeing certain family members can bring up old emotions that you thought you moved past.”

If you’re dealing with a complicated family situation during the holidays, you’re not alone. According to a study by the American Psychological Association, 38 percent of people said that their stress levels increase during the holidays. Here’s how to navigate this tough time so you can take good care of yourself and protect your inner peace.

RELATED: 7 Tips to Mindfully Set Intentions for the New Year

If Being Around Family Gives You Anxiety:

The best thing you can do is be proactive about it, experts say. “Many times, our anxiety shows us that we have unmet needs,” says Avellino. “Consider what needs you may have that aren't being met by your family and identify if you or others outside of your family can support you in getting some of these needs met.”

Another way to dig into your anxiety is to notice your triggers: what they are, when they come and who might cause them.

“Notice your triggers and how your anxiety shows up then practice ways to help you calm down,” says Madison. “Maybe it's replacing negative self-talk with more positive self-talk or taking a break from family and taking a walk outside. Other ideas: Journal out your emotions before and after you see your family, take deep breaths, listen to a favorite song or have someone there that makes you feel safe.”

Creating a plan around your anxiety minimizes the chances of being surprised by it — which can make you feel more in control.

If You’re Estranged From Your Family:

If you don’t plan on spending time with family because you’re estranged, it’s important to take care of yourself during the holidays.

“Allow yourself to talk about it with people — even if it's been your reality for a while, it doesn't mean it's easy,” says Avellino. “You may still need attention and care from yourself and those who love you. Find a support circle that can help you process what may be coming up for you.”

You’ve likely been told to practice self-care before, but Fitzpatrick says to dig deeper.

“Think beyond getting your nails done or working out (although taking care of your body can certainly give you a lift),” says Fitzpatrick. “Holiday traditions help you stay in the present because they involve your senses: listening to music, baking and tasting delicious goodies, putting up decorations. These offer a welcome distraction and relief from the pain or traumas of the past.”

Madison suggests looking to your community for an extra sense of connection. “Volunteering and helping others in your community may give you a sense of purpose or feel connected with others,” she says.

Take care of yourself, but don’t forget to give yourself grace during this time. “When feelings of sadness or loss come up, let yourself experience them without judging yourself or trying to rush past them,” says Fitzpatrick. “Human beings are complicated: We can feel more than one emotion at a time — happiness, loss and sadness.”

If Your Family Has Opposing Political Views:

In a recent study by the APA, 40 percent of people say the current political climate has caused tension within their family.

“This can be tricky because some political views have also become human rights issues,” says Madison. That’s why she recommends keeping political conversations off the table for the holidays. However, that can be difficult.

"If your family's political views feel as though they are against your existence (think: reproductive rights or Black Lives Matter) then avoiding the topics can be helpful, but still uncomfortable for you to be around them,” she says. "Protecting your peace may look like avoiding confrontation, advocating for yourself, bringing someone with you as a support system or declining the invitation.”

"Protecting your peace may look like avoiding confrontation, advocating for yourself, bringing someone with you as a support system or declining the invitation.”

If confrontation is unavoidable, identify your intention going into the conversation. Is your goal to state your beliefs, regardless of validation, or to convince the other person why your belief is the right one?

“Notice what’s happening in your body when you're listening to a political view that is not aligned with your own,” says Avellino. “Track it: I feel hot, I feel angry, I feel like I want to run out of the room.” This practice will help you stay grounded throughout the conversation.

If you want the conversation to be productive, avoid name-calling and stereotyping. You’ll experience more connection if you focus on understanding the other person’s experience.

“Try asking questions that keep the conversation on the human level: How long have you felt that way? Did something happen that changed your mind about that? Do you know a person in your community who benefited from the bill you oppose, or who will be hurt by it?” recommends Fitzpatrick. “Recognize that people with different views do not only hold different opinions but are basing these on different sets of assumptions and facts — but there are limits to how much mutual understanding is possible.”

If Your Family Is Always Fighting:

Is your family constantly fighting during the holidays? The best thing you can do is set boundaries for yourself.

Remember: You’re not responsible to fix anyone, and remind yourself not to take their behavior personally. Avoid fights with them and continue to set boundaries about not wanting to continue tense conversations. If your boundaries aren’t being respected, enforce them, whether that involves leaving the function to get fresh air or disengaging from the conversation.

“The biggest way to protect your inner peace is to do what's best for you and not feel guilty about it,” says Madison. “You're not a selfish person for setting boundaries or taking care of yourself, just a healthier, happier one.”

Another helpful tactic is to identify what your limits are before being in the heat of the moment, says Avellino.

“Notice what a limit feels like in your body and how you might know it is present,” she says. “What would it be like to respect this inner limit? You might envision yourself encapsulated by a forcefield of light, you might make a plan to walk out of the room once your heartbeat starts to quicken, or you might preemptively share that you won't be engaging in conversations on certain topics.”

Focusing on your surroundings can be a helpful coping mechanism in this situation. “Get up and walk around the room — feel the soles of your feet against the floor,” Fitzpatrick says. “Notice the fragrance of holiday decorations, the background music, your adorable little cousin or niece.”

If the disagreements escalate when alcohol is involved, limit your exposure to the conflict. While it may feel uncomfortable, you are allowed to get up and leave.

If You’re Visiting Your Partner’s Family:

Whether you’re visiting your partner's family for the first time or the 20th time, it can be stressful. How much time is too much time with in-laws? How do you set boundaries with a family you might not know very well or feel comfortable with? The stakes feel particularly heightened when you're trying to make a good first impression or please a partner.

Madison says it’s important to prioritize self-care in this situation to keep calm.

“Express your emotions or concerns to your partner so they can set boundaries and speak up to their family as well,” advises Madison. “It would also be helpful to have a phrase or a gesture with your partner that signals connection or that you two need a moment or some reassurance.”

If You Can’t Be Your Authentic Self Around Your Family:

As humans we want to feel chosen and seen — we want to belong. If you feel upset that your family doesn’t accept you, your reaction is valid. It’s a complicated and hurtful situation, no matter how much you prepare yourself for it.

“It's OK to make the choice to go for a short time, to make a self-care menu of how you can nurture, to bring a safe person along, a friend or partner who will validate your truth, or to choose not to go,” says Avellino. “This is hard at any time, but especially, this year when many of us may be reintegrating with our family for the first time since the pandemic.”

When it feels safe to do so, it’s important to stand up for yourself. Be assertive and let your family know you would like to be your authentic self with them rather than pretending to be someone you’re not.

"Maybe recite affirmations that remind you that there is nothing wrong with who you are,” recommends Madison. “Look in the mirror and tell yourself ‘I love you’ and ask those you trust to affirm you if needed.”

If You’re Family Is Unvaccinated:

In the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, there is still some distrust around vaccination and vaccine mandates. According to the CDC, 68 percent  of adults in the United States have received at least one dose — meaning 32 percent haven’t received their first dose. If your family members haven’t gotten vaccinated, there are a few ways to approach the situation.

First and foremost, set your boundaries and communicate them to the people you’re going to see or spend time with.

“Boundaries are less about the other person and more about an ownership and expression of our wants and needs,” says Avellino. “We can’t control other people, but we can express what we need to feel comfortable — and be prepared that our needs may not align.”

If you’re planning on spending time with others, planning is essential. Agree ahead of time on a protocol everyone feels comfortable with. For example, can you eat outside with heaters on? Can you have your holiday outside of a restaurant? Once you decide on your plans, stick to them to avoid conflict.

"Avoid comparing this holiday to previous years,” she says. “Focus on what it is, not on what it isn’t."

The key here is to avoid comparison, Fitzpatrick says. “Avoid comparing this holiday to previous years,” she says. “Focus on what it is, not on what it isn’t.”

If you’d like to ask your family members to get vaccinated, frame it in the context of your feelings.

“Try being vulnerable about your experience instead,” suggests Avellino. “For example, express how distressing it feels to make a decision not to see family because of vaccine status.”

It can be difficult to set these kinds of boundaries during the holiday season, but prioritizing your own comfort is important.

“Your feelings are valid and your fear and concern around the pandemic is understandable,” says Madison. “If you don't feel like you can skip out on the festivities, do your best to make sure you feel safe — maybe that looks like buying air purifiers, keeping windows open for fresh air or even adding extra vitamins to your routine to boost your immune system.”

Keep in mind that these are extreme circumstances. While it may be difficult to pass on the holidays with your family, you’re allowed to do whatever makes you feel safest. If that means you skip the holiday gatherings this year, that’s perfectly acceptable. Be as respectful as possible when communicating your decision and see if you can celebrate on Zoom or the phone instead.

Maddy is a health and wellness writer based in Los Angeles. She has written for Insider, Bustle, Real Simple, The Knot, and Apartment Therapy, focusing on health, wellness, and beauty. She has her BS in Magazine Journalism and MS in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting—both from Northwestern University. When she's not writing, you can find her paddle boarding on the ocean, sweating it out at spin class, or cooking a new vegan recipe.

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