Your Christmas conundrums answered: A relationship coach's advice for stress-free, shouting-free festivities with a difficult family

Angry sisters in Christmas hats sitting on a couch in the living room at home - stock image
The truth of the matter is not all families are a picture-perfect portrait of unity (just look at the royal family). Photo credit: Getty Images

Although the silly season is spruiked as a time of togetherness - a holiday of family, food and festive cheer - the reality is often far from a Hallmark Christmas movie.

While many of us look forward to reuniting with loved ones over a tasty meal or gathering with friends and family for a day of fun in the sun, for others, it's hard to eat, drink and be merry when you're dreading the arrival of that relative, or are anxiously anticipating a barrage of intrusive questions, interrogatory probing, or downright rude remarks.

The truth of the matter is not all families are a picture-perfect portrait of unity - just look at the royal family. Longstanding differences in politics, religion, culture, beliefs and values can cause deep divisions and rifts that are difficult to overcome, even just for a day. And let's face it, any existing grievances are likely to escalate if bubbles and other bevvies are involved.

Whether its navigating Uncle Roger and his questionable opinions, introducing a new partner into the chaos, or differences in lifestyle coming under the spotlight, Christmas can be full of conundrums. To get the lowdown on common dilemmas over the dinner table, I spoke to CDC-certified divorce-separation and relationship coach Bridgette Jackson.

Bridgette, the founder and CEO of Equal Exes, has a post-graduate qualification in dispute resolution, is a trained divorce mediator, and also an enrolled barrister and solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand - so she is well-equipped to address some of those pre-Christmas concerns.

Good luck, and God speed.  

Note: Bridgette's responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.  

Bridgette Jackson
Bridgette Jackson is here to help. Photo credit: Supplied

My extended family is coming over for Christmas, including my very conservative relatives. How do I navigate differences in political and social beliefs without ruining the festivities?   

The Christmas season is about family and extended family, and often tips for navigating Christmas Day with extended family includes advice on what topics to avoid when it comes to awkward conversations. These include politics, social agendas and money.  

If they haven't read that advice and want to share their beliefs, be open-minded when they voice their viewpoint. You can also thank them for informing you of their view.  

Remember that you cannot control their beliefs, but you can control your responses, emotions and reactions in response to their viewpoint. Internally you can also set and maintain your personal boundaries. Don't try to make situations awkward.  

My partner is meeting my extended family for the first time. How can I make sure they're comfortable and everything goes smoothly?

You can help them by giving them as much information as they can retain. It doesn't have to be 100 points, followed by a quiz. These are the top ones:  

  • Tell them about the family dynamics and who is who
  • Make sure they know the names of people in your extended family and who they can befriend
  • Prepare them for small talk topics, what your family is like, and any topics that should be off-limits - think religion, politics, money, previous relationships
  • Make sure they know the dress code for the occasion, e.g., shorts and a T-shirt or smart casual
  • Should your partner offer to help out anywhere? Does Aunty Jane love help with the washing up after lunch, or does Uncle Nick like a helping hand while cleaning the BBQ?
  • Is it a good idea for your partner to take a gift? If it would be welcomed, help them in what that should be.

Your partner has to be comfortable, so the more they know and are prepared, the more likely they can be themselves.

I follow a certain diet that my family doesn't understand. How can I make sure I'm catered for and don't feel left out at Christmas, without causing a fuss?  

You first need to know whose house you are going to and who will be organising what is on the table. Arrange to speak to them about your eating choices and offer to take a dish and anything else that will ensure you are catered for. The person responsible for the menu will want everyone to be happy and satisfied with what has been prepared, so letting them know in advance could be well received.

Be prepared to answer any questions on the day about your preferences. Remember too, that it is one day: are there any compromises you can potentially make?  

Family enjoying a Christmas meal
Arrange to speak to the host about your eating choices and offer to take a dish and anything else that will ensure you are catered for. Photo credit: Getty Images

My family don't agree with my lifestyle or lifestyle choices. How can I navigate this while still being myself?  

Good for you that you have made conscious lifestyle choices that work for you. If your family don't agree with them, it can be because it feels like a move away from their preferences, and/or they do not understand your lifestyle. Some people also look at another person's choices from their own perspective, not from the person's view. As much as you can, be empathetic to that.  

Family is an important part of our lives and often they just want to know you are thriving in your day-to-day life, seeing someone who makes you happy, doing well financially and in health, and achieving your goals.

Be open-minded to what you are hearing. Also be prepared with an answer or phrase that is non-confrontational and thank them for their thoughts and interest in your life choices. This could be, "Thank you for taking an interest in my preferences/choices, that means a lot" or "I know you care about me and want to know that I am OK, thank you for it being important to you." Try to remain polite and courteous, even if you think they are not being courteous to your choices.  

We tend to be reactive with the people who are closest to us.

If you have someone in your family who is empathetic to your situation, have them as the 'safe person' you can go to or talk to in advance. Make sure you have something you enjoy doing planned, or someone who you enjoy being with, to go to after your family celebration. 

Your family's resistance or reluctance to understand is not about you, although you might feel like it is. If your choices aren't harming anyone, often a family's resistance has nothing to do with you personally. They will usually disagree with your choices because they don't understand them, or find it hard to comprehend.

Be a glowing example that your choices and actions work for you. Not with your words, but with your actions, outlook on life, and especially your understanding of others. Show them through your actions how these choices have helped you and why they are important to you. Remember that nothing is more profound than just looking at how another person is living, as opposed to what they're preaching.  

Talk about how you feel, not about how they might feel. This is one of my favourite strategies for communication; when conversations on these topics arise, tell them how your life has changed for the better. No matter how long it takes, you can trust you are slowly but surely planting seeds.  

Another piece of advice is to listen more and react less. We tend to be reactive with the people who are closest to us. I know it can be difficult, but try to just listen. Listen to what they're saying and what they're not saying. Try to think of where their non-understanding is coming from, as to why they are questioning or not accepting your choices - is it fear, insecurity, sadness or anxiety?

Broken Christmas bauble
We tend to be reactive with the people who are closest to us. Photo credit: Getty Images

I have a racist/sexist/otherwise intolerable relative who will be at Christmas. What should I do if they start spouting their unwelcome viewpoints? 

If you have been on social media the last few years, you will have seen people get increasingly divided over their opinions. Letting comments slide can feel like a dark shadow hovering over you and speaking up doesn't always feel like a victory, especially in that moment. Unfortunately, what we allow to continue will continue, as we have silently created a space for it.  

First of all, I encourage you to think about what you can control. You can control how you communicate and control your emotions, reactions and how you respond. 

You have to know when you can constructively tell people that their viewpoints are not welcome. It does become complicated when it is family and by all means, analyse what is important to you - is it your principles, or the emotional safety of someone in your family?  

These are some points to consider before speaking up:  

  • Before anything, try to first understand if the person is even receptive to logic and reason, because trying to reason with a person who doesn't understand the concept will not go far
  • If you are still going to speak up, keep your voice firm and assertive, but not aggressive. The tone you use and how you word something makes a huge difference in how the opposite person perceives your point
  • Have a constructive conversation only with someone who is calm and open to hearing a different point of view. If they are not open, you can distance yourself from them. You don't necessarily have to cut them out of your circle entirely. Fighting extremism with extremism is not a solution
  • Attempting to change a deeply ingrained belief system is challenging. Family members whose opinions are not novel are in the company of people who either agree with them or have already given them voice, which makes them feel at ease. Anything else than those beliefs is hard to stand in this situation
  • There is a saying that being a helper is like being a lighthouse - the lighthouse stands and shines and doesn't go chasing boats to save them. I suggest you be a lighthouse in your family and shine with justice.

You also may face criticism and ridicule for stating your beliefs. Only you can determine if that's something you're willing to deal with. There is a chance your efforts will not yield anything, but there is also the chance that others may be positively influenced by your actions.

I received a present I really don't like. What's the best way to respond?  

First and foremost, gratitude is always the best practice. Your gracious receipt of a gift might be more important to the giver than what the gift is.

If you find yourself with gifts you do not need or want, here are a few ideas I would recommend on what to do with them:  

  • Donate: If the gift is a duplicate, or you simply don't need it, donate it to a non-profit or organization that can give it a good home. It may bring more joy and usefulness to someone else than it does to you
  • Recycle or repurpose: Not quite your style? DIY the item into something you will proudly keep in your home
  • Get a gift receipt: Suggest that people include a gift receipt when shopping. This way, if someone misses the mark, or you end up with two of the same item, you can exchange it for something you truly love - and it will be thanks to them
  • Re-gift: There is no shame in keeping a gift on hand for a spur-of-the-moment present for someone else, or gift it to a friend who you think would love and cherish it
  • Resell: If you find yourself with unneeded bigger ticket items, you can decide to resell them and put the money towards something special. Just be careful to do it on a site where the gifter will not be likely to see it.
Christmas gifts and decorations with money - stock image / flat-lay
Reselling an unwanted gift can sometimes be an option - if the gifter doesn't find out. Photo credit: Getty Images

I'm often the butt of the joke at family get-togethers, sometimes unfairly so. How can I stand up for myself without feeling like I'm ruining the vibe? 

I'm sorry to hear this happening to anyone. First of all, there needs to be a conversation that is started by you with those family members before the Christmas get-together. You can start it with, "This is how XXX makes me feel. This is my boundary for attending our family get-together and I would like you to respect it, so we all have a good time and enjoy our time together."  

Often people will avoid building boundaries because they are afraid about hurting the other person, even though the other person does not appear to grant them the same courtesy. Unfortunately, this is especially true when it comes to more difficult family members, but it's important to remember and remind others that your needs and wellbeing are just as important as theirs. 

When you have been the butt of jokes for a period of time, dropping hints is not going to help you. As much as it is might not be easy, you need to be direct in what is acceptable and what is not and make sure your boundaries are known. When you are polite but firm and set clear boundaries, how they respond is on them - not you. At times, their behaviour might be nothing short of manipulation or control.

Be direct in what is acceptable and what is not.

Seek out those in your family who do value and cherish you. You can talk to them beforehand and ask them to help you set boundaries with those who try to make you the butt of their jokes. 

Be firm but kind, even if you feel they are not kind to you. When you build your boundaries with those difficult family members, being kind can be a more effective approach. Becoming angry or defensive will only usually fuel their behaviour.

Lastly, your emotional wellbeing is a top priority: to be in an environment where you do not feel safe, welcomed or valued is not prioritising your own needs. To give in and attend a situation without those boundaries in place is not healthy. You need to be willing to walk away and know that if there's toxic behaviour, you do have the option to leave the situation or make alternate arrangements.

It might be in your psyche to defend yourself, but know if your family members are experts at making you look like the bad person, the best thing you can do is leave. Know that you don't have to explain yourself - sometimes silence with departure says more.

Finger art - concept of man and woman after an argument at Christmas looking in different directions - stock photo
Often people will avoid building boundaries because they are afraid about hurting the other person, even though the other person does not appear to grant them the same courtesy. Photo credit: Getty Images

With all the events of the past year, including a new Government and the cost of living crisis, how can we as a family tackle our differences without having a row over the roast chicken? 

First of all, know that despite our best efforts, there will sometimes be a row over the roast chicken. Perhaps someone is still holding a grudge or refuses to change their behaviour. The general plan might be to avoid talking about money, the cost of living and politics altogether, but this can be hard to do.  

Instead, consider the following:  

  • Manage your own stress first: Making it a priority to de-stress before and after interacting with difficult family members should be a priority. We all have different ways of managing it, whether it be through exercise, meditation, writing or spending all day on the couch with ice-cream
  • Set and maintain boundaries: Setting clear boundaries can protect you from those who may feel toxic or who are not healthy for you. Talk to your partner or significant other first to determine a plan so you can both get through the time together: this could include how long to visit for and conversation topics, such as what is off-limits and what is usually OK
  • Change your focus and practice empathy: No one is perfect, so acknowledge your family's strengths and flaws. By being aware we can also be aware of how we react. Acknowledging that people's strengths and flaws can come from insecurities or past trauma can help you to be more empathetic about why they are the way they are
  • Use conflict resolution skills: When dealing with family drama, being aware of your own emotions and how others react, as well as prioritising resolution over winning an argument, is a skill in managing stress in the moment.  

Treasure your relationships for what they are.

Otherwise, it's good to try and practice acceptance and gratitude for what you do have. Try to treasure your relationships for what they are and try to focus more on the connections that bring you and your family joy.  

'The 10 Family Relationship Rules of Engagement' can help create the trust that is the foundation of a safe environment for everyone.  

  1. I will not raise my voice
  2. I will not interrupt or talk over you
  3. I will not criticise or call you a mean name
  4. I will not issue an ultimatum in the heat of a fight
  5. I will not blame you for my own behaviour or reactions
  6. I will not walk away before agreeing on when I will talk again
  7. I will not threaten to leave when I am upset
  8. I will take ownership for the hurt I contribute to and apologise
  9. I will work to avoid being defensive or justify my actions
  10. I agree to keep the discussion focused on the topic issue.  

Lastly, we are not all made the same, so knowing what stress management tools work for you can be a process. There is no perfect way to manage stress but by being kind to yourself and acknowledging the situation is the start.  

Here are some tips I recommend that may work for you and your family:  

  • Know your own stress cues  
  • Take time to do something that is meaningful, relaxing and fun for you and your family  
  • Practice deep breathing or mindfulness  
  • Get enough sleep  
  • Accept your emotions and consider the emotional needs of your family members  
  • Conserve your energy for things you can control  
  • Develop or use your support system  
  • Laughter is the best medicine  
  • Focus on your health and the health of others in your family  
  • Get professional help.