Difficult Relationships at Christmas 


Christmas brings a rich sense of joy and wonder, but for many it also represents a time of managing difficult relationships and revisting family networks that can feel awkward or bring feelings of sadness, loneliness or anxiety.   In the last post I spoke about how Christmas is an idealised season, and that there is pressure to remain positive despite any pain or sadness that arises around the holiday.  In this post I focus more on the relationships we experience at Christmas that may be especially difficult or confusing.  I will identify two features to the season.  The first is the child-focused nature of the holiday and the second is the complex relationships within families that are experienced (often only once per year) over the Christmas period.  I will offer a few tools that may help in understanding the dynamics of Christmas relating.

The Child-like Draw of Christmas

Christmas is a nostalgic time that gets us in touch with many childhood feelings such as wonder, inhibition, and simple joy. In the Christmas specials it is always the innocent child that teaches the adults about how to embrace and enjoy the season.  For Christians, at the centre of Christmas is a perfect baby and his special mother.    The songs that are sung about them speak to the contentment, serenity, and beauty of the scene.  The Carollers sing: ‘no crying he makes’, ‘All is calm, All is bright.’
With the season so child focused, feelings associated with being a child can often arise, as well as patterns one knew in childhood or past pains and sibling rivalries that one may have felt back then.  It can feel delightful to inhabit this childish space, however a person may also feel overly-influenced by these childhood themes or controlled by those who take up more parent-like roles.

Parent, Adult, Child

The field of counselling called Transactional Analysis offers a number of helpful models for healthy relating.  One of these models involves looking at the roles of Parent, Adult or Child. The idea is that a person will assume an ‘ego-state’ or particular way of being in a given circumstance.  They may act like a Parent (in charge, critical, instructive), an Adult (exercising self-control and taking responsibility for their decisions and development) or a child (being directed, not exercising control over emotions or decisions made).  Many therapists will identify the value and nuance of each of these states, but when Transactional Analysis is used in fields such as life-coaching, the Adult mode is encouraged.     
Christmas can bolster the ‘Child’ ego state, where life 'happens' to a person without their ability to exercise any control.  Many adults attest to going back to their family home at Christmas and suddenly finding themselves (though 25-45) reverting back to their 10 year old self. 
 At Christmas it may be useful to identify settings and relationships where a person falls into the various states of Parent, Adult and Child.  A personal goal might be to embrace Child-like wonder without losing adult perspective.

Thinking about Thinking

Peter Fonagy is a psychotherapist who encourages something called ‘Mentalisation’ or ‘Thinking about Thinking’.  The idea is that instead of simply reacting to our feelings we consider where they may be coming from, and also the possible feelings of others in a given setting.  This ability to ‘take a step back’ internally can allow for a bit more perspective and meaning to be applied to situations that seem hard to understand. 
At Christmas one can be confronted with many emotions which are only experienced once a year.  This may involve relational dynamics with people who are difficult, or hard to love.  Christmas conversations may make someone aware of conflicts within a family that are unresolved or losses (deaths, divorces, financial loss) that have not been properly addressed and worked through.  All these feelings within a ‘happy’ season can be entirely overwhelming and many will defend themselves against the anxiety of the holidays through too much alcohol and/or limiting the time they see certain loved ones.   
Mentalisation may help to make better sense of the holidays or at least reveal the more complex nature of various relationships, to then think about afterwards. 
Before particular Christmas gatherings one might consider the sorts of the feelings that might come up and the reasons why these might be.  During the Christmas festivities it might be helpful to stay in touch with one's own thinking, and engage the mind towards reflections like: ‘I wonder why this has just happened', 'What caused me to have acted in this way' or 'What might that person be thinking about this situation, as they seem withdrawn.’ It may be helpful to record a ‘thought diary’ to type into a phone or notebook when there are surprising thoughts or behavours.  

It is unlikely that a social gathering is the best environment to fully process complex family emotions.  Afterwards these can be addressed with a counsellor or trusted mentor.  Working through the feelings that are experienced during in the intensity of the holidays can help make sense of both present relationships towards family members, and future gatherings when the relations come back together.    

A Theological Perspective

For the Christian, the perfect embrace of Mary with child under an angelic canopy is a kind of picture of earth receiving heaven, and heaven penetrating earth.  The new gift of Jesus that is received on earth is offered to all (from poor local shepherds to rich foreign Magi).  In this scene, the feelings of dependency and trust associated with childhood are matched with Divine provision and faithfulness. 
It can be the case that a person sees something lovely, such as this angelic scene, and feels bitter or ashamed because it is not an experience they have known and was never truly offered to them.  It may be that the arrival of Jesus as light shining out from the darkness, as the Gospel of John puts it, acts to expose what a person doesn’t have in terms of their personal experience or relationships.  However the Christian story is clear that the purpose of the light (and of the person of Jesus) is not to shame, humiliate or embarrass the ‘have nots’ but rather to receive the light and find comfort, fulfilment and contentment therein.   Oftentimes it is necessary to face into and grieve what one did not receive within certain relationships in order to truly accept the love and intimacy offered by others in new relationships.  Meditating on the core message and the values of the season may be a strength and encouragement as one faces the more sorrowful or complicated feelings that Christmas can bring.  And it might be the case that those confident of the Christian values that Christmas contains can feel more equipped to act in a manner different to what they have known before; to pave a new way in situations that have consistently been difficult and to bring more acceptance, kindness and light into historically challenging relationships.             
 -Ron Bushyager- http://www.fftherapy.co.uk/

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