Achieve holiday harmony with or without family

Local residents share tips for a stressless season, from skipping gifts to getting away

The holidays are supposed to be filled with cheer, but for many, December brings additional stress related to money, time, family and intimate relationships.

To reduce stress during the festive season and help you achieve greater relationship harmony, I’ve gathered insights from fellow Torontonians who say they’ve found solutions to holiday hiccups.

Conflicting feelings about the holidays are common. Cultural messages suggest that we should take comfort in spending time with our families, but not everyone shares this experience.

“My dad cut me off when I came out of the closet in my late teens, so my family is a chosen one,” explains Maurice, who lives downtown.

“It’s common for us queers to have a chosen family. I don’t know why straight folks are so hung up on blood relationships.”

It’s true, and we can all learn from this lesson. 

If we planned quality time around how we feel in one another’s company instead of doing so around DNA, we’d likely see a reduction in holiday stress levels — and happier relationships.

Other Torontonians take a more casual approach. Candice, who grew up in the Beaches and now lives in High Park, says her attitude changed at an early age.

“My dad didn’t just leave when I was eight years old. He left on Christmas Day, so I’ve never been into the holidays. It was rough, so my mom would pack us up and take us away every year. We travelled to some pretty cool places, and it was a good distraction.”

Now as an adult, Candice celebrates with friends on Christmas Eve and has brunch with her boyfriend’s family on Christmas Day. 

Finances also loom large when it comes to holiday stress.

“We’d overdo it with gifts and end up paying off our credit cards into the spring."

Uptown residents Cara and Chris used to fight about money, and they recommend a solution they refer to as a drastic measure.

“We’d overdo it with gifts and end up paying off our credit cards into the spring. He was so competitive with his ex [over spending on their kids], which is ironic since it ended up hurting our relationship,” says Cara. 

“Three years ago Chris and I stopped doing gifts — not even for the kids. We plan one volunteer event as a family, one meal out and we sponsor a family to select gifts for kids who actually need them.”

It may sound extreme to cut off all gift giving, but you don’t want to allow financial issues to set the tone for the new year, as conflict over money is a primary cause of relationship distress and divorce.

Riverdale’s Grace and Jim have had 10 years of unhappy holidays, and they’re experimenting with a new approach this year.

“My husband always ends up fighting with his family. We fight, too, because we’re exhausted, and I’ve become resentful of my siblings — they ask for gifts but never give, and they never help with hosting and cooking,” Grace explains. “I can barely get them to RSVP to a dinner to which they’re sure to show up empty-handed.”

Grace said she and Jim go up north on Boxing Day to get away, but they end up feeling so worn out that they spend the time fighting instead of connecting. 

“So this year, we’re hosting everyone — my family and his — 10 days before Christmas so that by the time we get away on the 26th we will have hopefully had time to recover and can actually enjoy each other,” she says. 

Traveling over the holidays or opting out of big family celebrations doesn’t mean you’re running away from your problems. You have to look out for your own mental and emotional health first.

If the holidays are really about spending time with loved ones, the date of a celebration may not matter, so it’s worth considering how you might rejig your schedule to make it manageable. 

“We’d prefer less tension with our families,” Grace says. “But if we can’t have it, at least we can isolate the stress to one day and hopefully fight less with each other. I want to love Christmas again!”

You should also consider your role in relationship tension. Very few unhealthy relationships are one-sided, so if you want happier relationships, you need to first look at your behaviour. If you find that many of your relationships are distressful, consider the fact that you are the common denominator. 

This doesn’t mean you’re at fault, but since you can’t change other people’s behaviour, shift your focus to what you can do differently. 

I challenge you to commit to one behavioural change. If you accept a small amount of responsibility for your relationships and change one behaviour for the better, it’s likely that your loved ones will follow suit.

So if you’re always playing the martyr, start accepting help. If your partner doesn’t share your family values, accept it. If you tend to complain about others behind their backs, stop it. 

Committing to your own behavioural changes will result in harmonious relationships over the holidays and all year long. 

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO