The holidays are full of excitement, from festive parties to visiting loved ones you haven’t seen in a while, including those of your significant other. But what happens when you’re not a fan of their relatives? You may wonder how to survive the holidays with your partner’s challenging family. Whether they prefer yelling to talking, talking about themselves and not asking anyone else questions, or are just Debbie Downers, there are a myriad of reasons they may not be your favorite people. But you love your partner. So now what?
Cynthia Eddings, therapist and author of the book The Narcissism Recovery Journal: Prompts and Practices for Healing from Emotional Abuse, has some ideas on how to make these potentially tumultuous visits more bearable. “Family are the people that you are supposed to feel safe with, a source of love and connection,” she tells TZR in an email. “So if you want to motivate yourself to hang out with people that trigger you to feel like you are 10-years-old and powerless, make sure you have the skills to respond differently this time.” This could mean waiting before responding to something they say that is triggering or feels condescending, not getting angry back, or simply getting up and taking a time-out (like going out for some air). Below, Eddings and a few other mental health experts share some specific ways to survive the holidays with your partner’s challenging family.
Listen To Your Instincts
When it comes to whether or not you want to interact with your partner’s challenging family this year, look to your instincts for guidance. That’s what Andrea Wachter, a psychotherapist, author, and Insight Timer teacher, suggests. “We all have an inner voice inside of us that knows what our deepest truth is — we are not even responsible for what this inner voice says,” she tells TZR in an email. “We simply like what we like. We love what we love. We are drawn to some people and not drawn to others. Once we hear our inner wisdom, we do have the option to override it, or go against it, but nevertheless, it is inside of us. It’s our internal GPS.”
Family-wise, sometimes we might get an invite and our internal guidance gives us a green light — we want to accept the invitation, no questions asked, Wachter explains. Other times, it’s a yellow light and we’re not sure. “Perhaps there are pros and cons we can evaluate or needs we can assess,” she says. “And, sometimes, it’s a red light and we would truly be going against ourselves if we attend. That would be a time to gather our courage and respectfully decline.”
If you do get an internal yellow light (not a hard yes or no), it’s fine to compromise on occasion, as long as you’re not compromising your own values and needs, says Wachter. “If you are really unsure about attending a family event, you can try imagining going and see what comes up inside your body and mind,” she adds. “Then imagine not going and see what comes up. Oftentimes, one choice will feel a bit more relieving (or a bit less bad!).”
Anticipate Challenging Dynamics & Situations That May Come Up
When it comes to seeing your partner’s challenging family, the more you can plan for it, the better, explains Tina B. Tessina, PhD, (aka “Dr. Romance”) psychotherapist and author of How to Be Happy Partners: Working It Out Together. “In your imagination, go through past family gatherings, identify the challenging dynamics and situations, and decide the best way to handle it,” she tells TZR in an email. “You don’t have to respond to nasty quips or criticisms, and you don’t have to stick around if things get difficult.” Beforehand, talk to your partner about any family foibles. “Let each other know what to expect from your less-than-perfect families and work strategies out together for handling uncomfortable situations,” she says. “For example, you can come up with some surefire ways of diverting the conversation if it gets difficult and develop a signal between you to say, ‘I need some help here.’ Knowing in advance what to do will give you the confidence to try new ways of dealing with any challenges that arise.”
Liza Colpa, a meditation teacher who’s created meditations on attracting love and manifesting boundaries, also says it’s necessary to assess the kind of conflicts that may come up. “It’s important to ask yourself: ‘Will the family dynamics be a danger to my emotional, physical, and mental health?’” she tells TZR in an email. If it’s not a true danger, is it more of an uncomfortable holiday gathering — where your partner’s uncle asks super personal questions or his mother consistently questions your life decisions? “In this case, the important thing to remember is that someone can always serve you poison, but it’s your choice whether you will drink it. For example, if someone were to ask you and your partner ‘Why aren’t you two married yet?’ you could easily drink the poison of the inappropriate question — especially if it triggers you — and react. You could get angry, cry in the bathroom, and lash out at them.” On the other hand, Colpa says you can react differently and observe the feelings of being annoyed, frustrated, and triggered. “Take a breath, and choose to see them as things that need to be healed within yourself,” she says. “Let’s be real. These things wouldn’t bother us if we didn’t feel a certain way about the subjects.”
She adds that observing your feelings means taking a moment to really allow what comes up, to come up, and then choose to answer from a place where you are not taking it personally. “Recognize that the question has to do with that family member’s issues, not yours,” she says. And another tactic is to turn the question back on the family member, Colpa explains. “With the marriage question, you can ask, ‘How do you feel about marriage? Do you consider yourself a romantic?’ I love answering awkward questions with another one. And you would be surprised how rarely they will notice. Instead, they may love the fact that you are taking interest.” In any case, she says you will learn a lot more about the person delivering any poison, and a lot more about yourself — and possible unhealthy narratives among your partner’s family — that you may need to work on. “It’s all about using your emotions and reactions as tools for self-development, without taking on anyone else’s issues,” she notes.
Recite Positive Affirmations Beforehand
Another way to survive potentially uncomfortable holiday gatherings is to say affirmations beforehand, Colpa suggests. And the best part is, you can do them anywhere: at home, in the car, in the bathroom, while taking a break from the holiday gathering and stepping outside, you get the picture.
Colpa says you can recite affirmation phrases like:
- “I choose to take pleasure in the smallest holiday moments.”
- “I am worthy of healthy relationships.”
- “I choose to not take things personally.”
- “I free myself with forgiveness.”
- “I choose to set boundaries from a place of love.”
And, speaking of boundaries...
Create Boundaries & Enact Them
Tessina says that many couples learn to accept and appreciate each other’s holiday celebrations, even if they’re difficult. “One family may think being loving is exactly what the other family sees as terribly intrusive,” she says. “Or one may value sharing and intimacy while the other may value respect and privacy. Blending these styles is not easy, but the rewards are great. Learning to blend your families and developing strategies for handling difficulties will make gatherings easier.” So one important step is to be in clear agreement with your partner about the boundaries you're going to set around their family.
“Be a grownup, whether they are acting like one or not,” she says. “If you have to treat them as misbehaving children, so be it — just don't let them drag you into bad behavior of your own. If they are difficult, learn to treat them as members of someone else's family: with whom you'd not react to obnoxious things, but just politely ignore what they're doing or saying, and maintain a pleasant demeanor.” You can also give "adult time-outs" to them if they behave badly or pressure you. In other words, withdraw to extremely polite, but distant, relating: no personal interchanges, but no rudeness, she explains. You can also try some bonding techniques. “Find out what they like most, and try to do some of that,” says Tessina. “If your partner’s mother or father is a good cook, ask them to teach you some of your partner’s favorite recipes. Sharing informal, productive activities is very bonding, as is allowing others to mentor you.”
Practice Doing Things Differently
Eddings says that it can help if you think of the experience as a laboratory experiment. “Practice doing things differently, like staying in your own place (like a hotel or Airbnb), which provides a buffer zone where you have time to think and feel and do what you want to do,” she says. While this might bring on some guilt, see if you can survive the feeling. “Better yet, ask yourself if you have done anything ‘wrong,’ then inwardly smile, knowing you are not ‘bad’ for having your own needs and prioritizing them.” Most importantly, Eddings says that if you feel disrespected, practice removing yourself from the situation. “It’s even okay to leave early if you are really miserable,” she says. “Just make sure you are not stranded without a way to leave when you want to.”
Wachter, too, says there are ways to attend a trying family event while still taking care of yourself and your mental health. She says you might leave early, keep the visit short, or look to your partner for added safety and support (similar to what Tessina suggested above about having a plan in place beforehand). “If you are someone who resonates with spiritual tools, you can imagine a protective bubble or shield and see the family members on the outside of it,” says Wachter. “You can also bring a comforting item with you to hold or keep in your pocket to help you stay grounded and remember that you are separate from these people.”
Bookend The Visit With Support
Eddings says that one way to face the challenging situation head-on is to bookend the visit with support. “Meet with your therapist or safe confidant before the visit and strategize how to handle the situations you know will trigger you,” she says. “Then, soon after you are home, meet with your support person again to debrief to shake off the numbness, tension, and residue of the familiar destructive family patterns that got stuck in your head.”
It’s OK To Pass
Of course, if you really don’t want to spend the holidays with challenging people, it’s OK to pass. You may be a people-pleaser, so your pattern is to put the needs of others above your own well-being — but this only leads to burnout and resentment, Eddings explains. “You can do something else when you understand you are choosing to not put yourself in a situation where you will feel resentful — before, during, and after,” she says. “If your bossy inner critic is telling you that you are a ‘bad person’ if you don’t dutifully spend your precious holiday time with people that cause you to feel depressed, angry, invisible, or like hiding in a pint of ice cream, and that is why you keep saying, ‘I should go, but I don’t want to…’ your life is passing you by. You are an adult and can choose how you want to spend your time and resources.”
Colpa seconds Eddings, saying “Guilt is not a good reason to put yourself in a situation you don’t need to be a part of. Your guilt won’t make people behave better or change the situation. If anything, it’s just an excuse to ignore your needs.” She adds that if you’d rather skip seeing your partner’s challenging family this holiday, know exactly why and stick to that decision. “Know that when you see them at the next gathering — even if they’re annoyed now — they will have moved on, and you won’t feel any resentment for having done what was best for you.”