As magical and heartwarming as the holiday season can be, it can also be pretty stressful — especially if you're dealing with toxic family members at your holiday gatherings. And, while you might have become adept at handling your own family issues over the years, things are a little trickier when it's your partner's family that's problematic. But what exactly makes a family member 'toxic' as opposed to merely unpleasant?
"A toxic family member is anyone related by blood or marriage who creates an environment that feels harmful to your physical, emotional, and/or mental health," MaryBeth Hyland, generational relationship expert and couples alignment coach, tells Bustle.
To put it simply, someone can be described as toxic if their presence or behavior makes you feel uneasy, upset, uncomfortable, or, worst of all, unsafe. And when there's someone like that in your own or your partner's family, it can be complicated to cut them out, especially during the holiday season when lots of family issues are swept under the rug for the sake of "having the whole family together."
"It's often difficult to push past societal norms to avoid family and many people feel forced to spend time exposed to those who drain them," Hyland says. "[The holidays are] often a time where people also have hope for that 'hallmark-like' experience and give it another try for the sake of family but leave disappointed and sad when nothing changes for the better."
Although you might be able to exercise more control over who you spend time with at your own family gatherings, avoiding toxic people at your partner's holiday parties can be a little more complicated. The key? Making sure you're both on the same page about how to handle less-than-jolly interactions. Here's how to talk to your partner about their family history, forming a united front, and tackling toxic family members as a team.
Start A Conversation About Family Dynamics
Whether it's your first holiday season with your partner and you're just meeting their extended family for the first time, or whether you're already considered part of the fam, it's always a good idea to spend some time talking to your partner about their family dynamic — and any potential issues — before you start making the rounds at all the holiday-related events.
"You always want to start from a place of compassionate curiosity," Dr. Rebekah Montgomery, clinical psychologist and couples therapist, tells Bustle. "Your partner has been navigating their family their whole life. They have insider knowledge, and have developed their own way to deal — that's an asset for you."
To start the conversation off on a positive note, first ask your partner to share some good things about their family, like who they're especially close to or any cherished holiday memories they have. Then, gently ask them if they have any family members who they don't get along with, and why.
"First ask about their experience/impression of their family member," Montgomery says. "Share your own and explore how it might be the same or how your life experience makes it different. Ask about how they cope with it — and what they would recommend knowing your personality and feelings."
If you and your partner feel exactly the same way about a particular family member, it's not that difficult to feel united and prepared to deal with their bad behavior as a team. However, there's always the chance that your experience with a certain person in your partner's family is totally different than theirs... but even if you and your partner have differing perspectives, that doesn't mean your partner shouldn't have your back and support you in the face of a conflict.
Form A United Front With Your Partner
Even as a fully fledged adult, the thought of standing up to a family member can be anxiety-inducing. After all, our family is the first "team" we're part of in life, and going against their wishes can leave you guilt-ridden and confused. But once you're in a relationship, your partner and their feelings should take priority, even if that means potentially creating a rift in your family.
"You want to feel like a team going into the situation," Montgomery says. "Providing emotional support before you arrive is great, developing a game plan (maybe you have a signal for when you want to leave or need a break), Stepping into conversations to deflect or protect you establishes a great precedent. It's not on you to handle the family member and you present a unified front to the family. Providing support after is vital too — chat about how it went, did the plan work?"
It's not easy, but it's crucial that one partner doesn't undermine or invalidate the other just to save face with their family. If someone is making you feel uncomfortable, your partner shouldn't hesitate to take your side and support you in whatever way you need, even if they don't necessarily agree with you about the specifics of the conflict. In the moment, though, it's important to present a united front and make it clear that any conflict will be dealt with by the both of you as a unit.
And, in the event that there's any fallout from a negative experience or argument during the holidays, your partner should be proactive about dealing with their own family, instead of putting the onus totally on you to "patch things up."
Build A Healthy Relationship With Your Partner's Family
So if you're going into the holiday season anticipating some conflict or other, how can you make sure that your relationships with your partner's *non*-toxic family members stay intact? The first step is remembering that, as unpleasant as it may be to experience, someone else's toxic behavior isn't your fault, nor is it necessarily the fault of their other family members.
"Toxic behavior aimed at you is more about the person doing it than you," Montgomery says. "Choose your battles carefully. It’s not OK to be belittled or attacked but it’s also not helpful to teach a lesson or prove a point — particularly over holiday dinner. Participate in your partner's family in way that exemplifies how you want the family you build with your partner to be — compassionate, accepting, supportive. You can disengage, take breaks, return negative behavior with kindness. Stay above the fray, tare care of yourself, and set boundaries."
Even if you and your partner develop an amazing strategy for avoiding or mitigating family conflict, things don't always go according to plan. It's important to remember that if a situation is making you upset or uncomfortable and things are getting heated, it's totally OK to just walk away.
"If the moment allows and everyone has a clear mind, you may be able to have conversation," Dr. Sonja Stribling, divorce and life coach and relationship recovery expert, tells Bustle. "If it gets to a violent/confrontational place... most of the time it’s best that you leave to avoid further confrontation."
You should never feel guilty for "ruining" a holiday gathering by disengaging or leaving with your partner, nor should you let your partner or their family make you feel guilty for doing so. When bad behavior occurs, it's solely the responsibility of the toxic person to own their actions; it's not up to you to reach out with an apology just to smooth things over.
As nice as it would be if every family were perfect, that's simply not the case. If you want the holiday season to go as smoothly as possible, talking to your partner about how you plan to tackle tough family situations as a team is the most useful holiday prep work you can do. Plus, coming up with a dealing-with-family game plan together is a great way to strengthen your relationship and reaffirm your commitment to each other — and what could be a better holiday gift for your relationship?