The holiday season is the time of year when many of us go home and spend much-needed quality time with our families. While nobody’s family is picture-perfect, some have to deal with family dynamics that are less than ideal. If your partner comes from a toxic family, this season may be pretty unpleasant, so knowing how to support them during the holidays is important.
The phrase “toxic family” can mean many things. It might be that your mom is always subtly putting you down or diminishing your accomplishments. Or maybe your sibling likes to comment on your weight or the types of people you prefer to date. Or perhaps someone in your family has physically or sexually abused you in your lifetime, but they’re still invited to the holiday dinner. It’s all awful, no matter the details.
It’s one thing to deal with toxicity in your own family, but it’s another to deal with someone else’s toxic family.
When that someone else is your significant other, it’s hard to sit back and not do or say anything. Seeing someone you love upset or hurt can make you feel upset and hurt, too. You can’t help but take things personally, even if it’s not directly happening to you.
At the same time, it’s their family. Not yours. When it comes to someone’s family, there are just some lines you shouldn’t cross no matter how toxic they might be. That’s why Silvia M. Dutchevici, president and founder of the Critical Therapy Center, tells HelloGiggles that knowing your role in all of this is super important.
“Be supportive and don’t take on the conflict as your own,” Dutchevici says. “Be mindful that you can’t fight battles for a loved one. Maintaining healthy boundaries as a couple is more important than resorting to codependent tendencies like trying to solve the conflict or ‘fight’ for your partner.”
In short, the key here is to be supportive. Sometimes, though, that’s easier said than done. So here are the best ways you can support your partner around their toxic family this holiday season, according to experts:
1 Ask your partner what they need from you first and come up with a game plan
“I encourage my patients to sit down with their partners before heading home to make a solid plan,” psychotherapist Lauren Canonico tells HelloGiggles. “Find out what your partner anticipates, and most importantly what they are looking for from you should this occur.”
The thing is, we’re all different. The kind of support you need may not be what your partner needs from you. For instance, some people like it when their partner stands up for them when others are putting them down. Others may just need to see their partner’s face across the room in the moment and will vent out their frustrations later on in private. It’s important to know beforehand what you can expect and what your partner needs you to do.
2 Agree on a signal to use when things become too overwhelming
According to Canonico, it’s not a bad idea to discuss a good exit strategy. If things get too overwhelming for your partner, come up with a gesture or a certain phrase that signals it’s time to go.
3 Listen to your partner and be understanding
Some families have mastered the art of playing nice and hiding their unhealthy dynamics when other people are present. But even if you can’t see anything wrong on the surface, it’s still super important to listen to your partner and how they feel.
“When people come from toxic families, they need people to validate their emotional experiences,” therapist Michael J. Salas tells HelloGiggles. “Rather than sharing what you think, it’s most helpful to share your understanding of what your partner is feeling.”
For example, if your partner is venting about how their mom is always so critical of them, it’s best to just listen. Save the, “But I like your mom, she seems sweet,” for another time. You may mean it innocently, but it’s probably not be the type of comment your partner wants to hear right now.
4 Use humor if you can, but follow your partner’s lead
Many people who come from toxic families cope by using humor, Salas says. If your partner uses humor to cope, it’s okay to follow their lead. Don’t try to push them into a deep, serious conversation about how they really feel. It’s possible to be both goofy and supportive at the same time. When they’re ready to have a serious conversation about their feelings, you’ll know.
5 Tell your partner how much you appreciate them
“When people reflect on their own toxic families, it can make them feel isolated and alone,” Salas says. So let your partner know that you’re grateful for them and that you love them—it can help them stay grounded. It will also remind them that they’re valuable and worthy of love, no matter how much their family makes them feel otherwise.
6 Don’t lose yourself in the drama
Your partner’s family drama can take a toll on your well-being whether you realize it or not. So don’t be afraid to take some quiet moments for yourself, Canonico says. It’s important to honor your own self-care.
The holidays can be tough, especially if there’s a toxic family somewhere in the mix. But don’t let it ruin your holiday season. If anything, you and your partner will come out a much stronger couple because of it.