Relationships at Christmas

Navigating the stormy seas of festive family relationships...
23 December 2018

Interview with 

Caitlin Hitchcock, Cambridge University


For many of us, Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year. But being in a confined space with your family for days on end can occasionally lead to bust ups. To help us navigate the stormy seas of festive family relationships, Cambridge University clinical psychologist Caitlin Hitchcock spoke to Katie Haylor and Chris Smith. First up, Katie asked Caitlin if it's really true that more arguments happen at Christmas...

Caitlin - Well Christmas can be associated with a number of different things that do actually result in heightened argument. So for example as you mentioned we spend a lot of time with people that we may not see much of during the year, so there can be tensions that have been carried and that have been successfully avoided during the year which are harder to do away with when we’re in close spaces.

But people also tend to drink alcohol and things a bit more which can reduce our inhibitions, perhaps you’re more likely to say things that perhaps we should leave alone.

Katie -  That's very tactfully put I think. Are there any sure fire ways to avoid those Christmas arguments?

Caitlin - Well I mentioned a couple of things before that might make you more likely to argue, say for example, alcohol can be something that might make each and every one of us say things that again we might usually leave alone.

Katie - Are you going to say we have to lay off the Christmas booze?

Caitlin -  Not what I'm saying at all.  I'm saying that you need to be aware of what your triggers are. So for example if you know that politics, religion and some of those various topics that were the subject of the jokes we're talking about earlier, some of these things might be likely to set off an argument, perhaps you might want to think of that.

Also recognising that if you get into certain sorts of conversations with people for example around cleaning up or your aunt asking when are you going to bring someone special home for Christmas. Good to know if that's something that's going to set you off to have a plan for how you might respond to that!

Katie - Okay so if these things do arise, if you haven't done the washing up you said you were going to, your parents get annoyed for instance. Any tips on resolving conflicts?

Caitlin - Well the first thing that you should perhaps keep in mind is to respond to the situation rather than just react. So if we react in the moment it's usually based on our emotional response which can tend to lead to over-exaggerated responses or again emotional responses. And whereas if you take a moment to collect yourself and then respond to the situation at hand, you’re more likely to kick your executive function back into gear, and  inhibits some of those things that perhaps might need to be left alone and respond in a way that's more appropriate.

Chris - And do you do this with aplomb in your house in or did you fall into all the same traits.

Caitlin - I think it's important to keep in mind that no one is perfect, we're human. We argue we have conflict. To have conflict isn't necessarily a bad thing it's how we got that resolving it. In fact there's research that demonstrates that in relationships a conflict can actually make your relationship stronger if you're able to resolve that conflict.

Chris - What about though, say you have all the rellies round and it reaches that time of day when quite frankly you’ve had enough. How do you diplomatically get rid of them?

Caitlin - Well I think if you're of the mindset that your family might be one of those families that sticks around a bit long, see if you can set an expectation earlier.

Chris -  Turn the lights off?

Caitlin - You can start before people get there by letting them know in advance what time you'll be hosting to and you can try diplomatic responses such as “I'm going to start cleaning up” or “it's getting late I am feeling a bit tired”.

Chris - Being more serious for a second though, when we get to the times of the year when everyone's celebrating, everyone appears to be having fun. If you're not one of them it can be quite isolating can’t it? So what should you do if you find yourself in that position so you don’t end up sort of succumbing to the woes of “Oh dear I feel a bit down because you know friends are having fun and Im not”?

Caitlin - Yeah that’s a really important thing to point out that Christmas isn’t always a fun and fantastic time. And in fact we can place a lot of pressure on ourselves and we see a lot of that in advertisements and things to be able to have the perfect Christmas. So if you are not spending time with people this year, make sure that you have a plan it doesn’t need to be a lonely time of year. There are lots of charities and things we can go and get involved and connect with other people.

If there are people you’d like to connect with, send Christmas cards or messages or phone calls if you’re away from loved ones. If you are going to be spending Christmas by yourself it’s important to have a plan so for example know what you can do for the day, will you cook yourself a nice meal, perhaps plan a film that you’d watch, just to make sure that you don’t end up not having an idea of what you’d like to do, because that cause that can sometimes be the loneliest.

Chris - And memory of your biggest Christmas row?

Caitlin - Mine all tend to be over games that we seem to play. Someone usually flips the Monopoly board or something.


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