Hey man, I’m spending Christmas with my father. We don’t have the best relationship, but how can I make it work?
Christmas is a shitter sometimes. I mentioned in a previous column the old saying of not being able to choose your family, and never does that (sleigh)bell ring more piercingly than the holiday season.
If you’ve decided to go home, I assume the situation is stable enough that it won’t put you in harm's way? If it might, places like ManKind are able to assist and if you don’t identify as male, there’s also Refuge. If any situation puts you in a real possibility of danger or harm, get out of there, call a friend, call a helpline. There will be people there for you.
But assuming we’re dealing with a stoic stand-off between father and son, where you don’t get along politically, culturally, or simply generationally, there’s plenty you can do to minimise the risk of having a shit Christmas.
Senior therapist Sally Baker says to keep in mind that “outside of abusive or neglectful relationships, often parents do the best they could. Sometimes, accepting their best is shit can be quite liberating”.
Baker also mentions that you likely have an unconditional love for this person, and them for you: “It doesn't mean we have to like them or approve of what they did, but we're learning to forgive in order to set ourselves free.”
There are plenty of ways to go about navigating your relationship over the holidays, so I’m going to go through them briefly, from making amends to treading eggshells. The most intense option is trying to directly make amends. This might be tricky, but if you’re writing in with the view of fixing and building your relationship with your dad, then having a “chat” is an important route to consider.
Perceptions of masculinity have likely changed dramatically since your dad was your age. He might feel frustrated that he can’t provide effective guidance for you, in the same way you perhaps feel he’s let you down. Realising this could be a good thing.
“That could be an opening for discussion”, says Counselling Directory psychotherapist Katerina Georgiou. Perhaps try and initiate conversation on how he is and how you are, do your best to talk openly and see if he warms up to it. It might not get you anywhere, but there’s no harm in openly asking how they’ve been over the year while sinking a beer to Only Fools and Horses.
Lee Downes, founder of DAD AF (a digital support network for dads) says striking up a conversation “based on common ground” is also useful. By exchanging music or talking about football, you may find little bits of their life philosophy and concerns seep into the conversation. This way you can learn about each other without the pressure of having an intense chat. Keeping busy is good too – men are much better at opening up when they’re distracted. Try going on a walk, cooking, or completing a jigsaw together.
But if you start to feel friction when talking about the deeper issues, Downes says it’s useful to avoid “activities that lead to addressing issues – as is ensuring your trip is fairly brief”. Baker also agrees that there’s no harm in keeping your time at home “light and superficial”.
It’s also important to make time for speaking to other people and doing your own thing while home. Georgiou says: “Seeking out other men your age that have a similar issue can be a great relief. You could arrange to meet up for a couple hours one day if you live nearby, or just exchange messages in order to provide each other with support.” There’s nothing wrong with sitting upstairs for a few hours or heading out for a while when you need space. Dad will likely welcome it too.
Obviously there’s a complex relationship between a father and son, as with a mother and daughter or any parent-child relationship that most of this advice applies to. The main thing to keep in mind though, is that there’s two sides to a relationship. Where it isn’t an abusive one, they probably have quite similar feelings on the relationship to you. They might feel like they could be a better dad, like they want to make amends but don’t know how to open up, even if this is deeply repressed and clouded by frustration. Ultimately, they are probably struggling with what it means to be a man these days. They also probably feel the same unconditional love that you do. There’s a lot to sympathise with. Keep this in mind, test the waters and put your own comfort first.
Good luck, man.
My girlfriend and I are spending the holidays with our separate families. We’ll be apart for a couple weeks. In the past she's said I'm not very good at keeping in touch when we're not together. I just find it difficult to keep up communication over the phone – I don't really enjoy it. I don't want to make her feel bad, but equally I don't want to start doing things I don’t like, and feel uncomfortable with. What do I do?
Having a relationship move online can be difficult – even if it’s just for the holidays.
Online relationships are very different to those we have in real life. They present different dynamics, routines and new forms of attention. People also have very different personal relationships with their phones – some like using them, others don’t. For these and many other reasons, it makes sense you’ve run into difficulty with this before, as I’m sure most people have (including me).
“In digital communication there's a lot more self-disclosure – they can't see you, so you have to disclose more”, says Katherine Hertlein, a professor in the couple and family therapy programme at the University of Nevada. Hertlein, who specialises in digital relationships, says this type of communication can be part of why you don’t enjoy texting all that much.
Men are notoriously bad at opening up, and that’s the core of an online relationship. Our generations sit on a strange fence between knowing to talk and having not been conditioned to do so. It means, among other things, we’re aware of what we should be doing when communicating, but don’t really do it.
If you’re somewhat earlier on in the relationship, it’s likely the other person feels insecure and needs the reassurance that you are going to be there for them – and that you won’t be distancing emotionally as well as geographically. This may subside with time, it also may not. You might be the first partner they’ve had who doesn’t use their phone much. Maybe they were ghosted prior to you. It can be a little exhausting, but if you want to be with them, it's necessary to have some form of communication over the holidays. As far as your partner is concerned, this is how you’re going to build (and maintain) intimacy in the relationship while you're away from each other.
Relationships are about compromise. That being said, compromise is a negotiation. People often like to downplay the fact that they have rules in their relationship. The fact is most relationships do have rules – they’re just implicit.
“It looks like there's an implicit rule being instigated here,” Hertlein says. “This rule is something along the lines of ‘if we're going to spend the holidays with our separate families, we need to have frequent contact’.”
Sometimes these implied rules are fine for both people, whether it’s always calling before bed, or only texting at lunchtime. But more often than not, there’s a clash because nothing has been openly stated and we’re not telepathic. Such as your case.
We need to start by learning to understand your partner's concerns. In this case, why have they previously felt like you’ve not been “very good” at this? What has it made them feel? If the issue is they feel neglected, then you have a very different conversation than if the issue is they simply need control over their routine.
When you’ve both uprooted the real issue, it should allow you to come to a solution. Using the example that they feel like you’re going to lose interest in them, perhaps a solution that suits you both is you agree not to have calls daily, but you send texts now and again updating them on what you’ve been up to; or when you’ve seen something you think they’d also like. Hertlein suggests leaving them a series of short videos from your day. By having these “asynchronistic forms of communication, they’re hearing from you daily, but you’re not interrupting your day and feeling uncomfortable in order to solve it,” she adds.
If you feel totally uncomfortable with communicating on the phone, you could send an old fashioned letter, play a video game together, or utilise many of the internet’s other features in a way that will suit you both. The fact is relationships are more intense than they ever have been, especially this year where socialising doesn’t provide the necessary breaks for you both. You have to get to the bottom of things and figure out a solution for yourselves – one that you’ve both compromised on and agree with. It’s only a few weeks, right?
Best wishes, man.