The best time of the year?

It may be the season to be jolly, but all of the relationship pressures of the rest of the year apply doubly at Christmas. Luckily ‘The Irish Times’ agony aunt, Kate Holmquist is here to help some of them . . .

 

Q

My wife and her mother are best buddies, allies and confidants, in a way that has always made me feel uncomfortable. Last Christmas between the relaxed mood, and perhaps the free-flowing wine, my wife and I ended up having an unusually successful and passionate encounter one night. It’s never been plain sailing between us sexually - I’ve struggled with persistent arousal issues. So I felt great about it until the next evening, when after a good few bottles of wine had been consumed, my mother-in-law made some tipsy comments about how glad she was that things had finally taken a turn for the better “down there”.

It became obvious that she had been getting regular, highly detailed updates about my shortcomings. I didn’t make a fuss of it at the time. But boy, was I offended! With another family Christmas planned for tomorrow, I just can’t get the feeling of intrusion out of my mind.

Almost every time we’ve tried to be intimate since, the image of my mother-in-law getting a detailed postmortem pops into my mind and kills the mood for me. I’ve gone from being able to perform maybe half the time, down to almost never. I’ve told my wife that I hope she isn’t talking about our sex life with her mother, but she laughs it off.

A

You are right to feel offended. If your wife can’t see how bizarre it is for her mother to raise your erectile dysfunction issues at Christmas or at any time at all, and what a serious blow this is to your relationship, then you both should sign up for marriage counselling in the new year.

“Making love requires a huge level of trust and your letter tells me that level of trust has gone,” says Tony Moore, psychotherapist with Relationships Ireland. Your wife relies on her mother too much for emotional support, while you’re being frozen out and even laughed at. Moore believes that your marital relationship needs to be rebalanced so that instead of your wife confiding everything in her mother, and you writing to me, you can re-establish unconditional trust with your wife. “Your mother-in-law won’t like it, so your wife will need support,” he says.

Q

I’m dreading Christmas Day dinner at my father’s house, and want to go to my friend’s family instead. I’m afraid to disappoint my father, but his refusal to stand up for his children is infuriating.

After my mother died four years ago, my father remarried. Last year was his first Christmas together with his new wife and they live with her children in my father and mother’s old house, which is almost as my mother left it. Last Christmas, my “stepmother” set the big formal dining table for 12 with my mother’s beautiful china, crystal and silver and this is where my brother and I would always sit with our parents and relations.

But then she set up a portable “kids table” with ordinary dishes and insulted my brother and me by ordering us to sit there, instead of at the dining table where we always sit at Christmas. We were speechless. My father just went along with it, even though he could see my brother and I feeling left out. I can’t deal with this again this year. Do I have to?

A

The short answer is no, you don’t. “Nobody has to do anything just to avoid upsetting other people,” says Bernadette Ryan, psychotherapist with Relationships Ireland. This is such a sad situation. Your lives have changed a lot in a relatively short time and Christmas is a natural time to grieve, but it also highlighted your father’s insensitive handling of introducing his new wife and her children to your life.

“Last Christmas may have been the culmination of unspoken resentments and bad feeling on all sides,” suggests Ryan. “Your father may be employing the ostrich tactic and hoping it will all just sort itself out. Certainly last Christmas wasn’t handled very well. I’m sure no one meant to be offensive or insensitive but that was the result,” says Ryan.

You need to have a long talk with your father, though Christmas is not the time.

You need to consult your brother, though, rather than just not showing up and leaving him on his own in that situation.

You are young, but in the future you will be able to make your own Christmases. Your mother’s treasured belongings really should have been offered to you, so that a reminder of her will be part of your celebrations in future.

Q

My boyfriend wants me to join him at his parents’ house some distance away on Stephen’s Day, though he and I both know his outwardly decorous mother hates me. (We’re both spending Christmas individually with our own families.) I’ve bent over backwards to get this woman to warm to me, but my boyfriend eventually admitted that his mother thinks I’m “too sophisticated”. I don’t want to spend the 26th in the tension she creates when I could be with my own (usually) lovely and relaxed family.

A

This is probably “nobody is good enough for my son” syndrome, and the only flaw she can pin on you is “too sophisticated”, which could mean anything. It’s positive that your boyfriend accepts there’s a problem and she hasn’t managed to worm her negativity into your relationship just yet.

“Parents, especially mothers can often have difficulty accepting that their child has met someone equally important to them and can react in a way that hurts everyone including their relationship with their son and/or daughter,” says Pat Grange, therapist, Relationships Ireland. You should each do your own thing over Christmas so you’re not letting his mother come between you, whether it be conscious or unconscious on her part. “After all, Christmas is only a short period in the grand scheme of a relationship,” he advises. In January, you can have a heart-to-heart about managing the situation in future. “This may include your boyfriend confronting his mother about how her behaviour and attitude is hurting him and his relationship,” Grange advises. But don’t have it out at Christmas-time!


QUICK QUERIES


Does Santa really exist?
Yes of course – silly question!


It’s Christmas and my only love interest is chocolate
Don’t buy into the fantasy that you’re a lonely loser if not being given – while kissing under the mistletoe, as cherubs flutter overhead sprinkling fairy dust – the gift of a tiny beautifully wrapped box (preferably blue) by a sexual partner. It is perfectly all right to be given a little blue box by anyone at all – even your mother. (Or yourself!) A boyfriend/girlfriend is not just for Christmas, you know.


Why do we end up fighting at Christmas?
Cabin fever, stuffing oneself and alcohol. Families are thrust together for several days with forced smiles masking hidden resentments, often in noisy overcrowded rooms with squabbling children who ’ve been up since dawn and had chocolate for breakfast.

Commercial messages around Christmas set up the expectation that on that day we’re all going to wake up full of bonhomie with relationship conflicts and life stresses resolved just because it’s the 25th.

Even if we know THERE ARE NO HAPPY FAMILIES, we’re meant to be one big loving, glowing, Christmas-jumpered multi-generational bubble of happiness on that day “because it’s Christmas”. Then we drink too much “because it’s Christmas”, with the resuilting disinhibition , depression and hang-overs, and expect everyone to get along just fine.

Madness.


Am I wrong to hate Christmas?
No, there are so many reasons to hate it: feelings of loss when loved ones have died, memories of bad childhood Christmases, feeling homesick if you’re away from your family, feeling inadequate if you weren’t able financially to meet everyone’s high expectations or even your own expectations of producing the perfect day. Simplify your Christmas by cutting back on everything - the food, the alcohol, the presents, the visiting - light a Christmas candle and think quietly about what you have to be grateful for, no matter how small.


I’m jealous he/she is playing happy families with their new partner
I’ll say it again THERE ARE NO HAPPY FAMILIES (someone should put it on a Christmas jumper next year). You may still imagine that your ex has somehow managed it. You need to love the ones you’re with, but instead you build up resentment for the absent ex and fantasise that somehow they’ve got off scotfree, leaving you with the emotional detritus. You’re probably feeling this a lot, with the resentment accentuated by Christmas, so make a resolution to sort out your issues in the New Year and to stop defining yourself by your ex, even in his or her absence.


My wife wants us to forgive and forget at Christmas. Is that possible?
Many people call a truce at Christmas and it can work. Little acts of kindness go a long way, as does imagining yourself in the other person’s shoes. Treat others as you would like to be treated, recognise when you’re being selfish and learn to apologise.

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