Keeping Icy Relationships from Freezing Over Your Own Relationship

As we plan our holiday visits, it is not uncommon to have a sense of unease or even dread about being around certain family members.  Perhaps you could handle that family member for a few hours on holidays but what becomes very difficult to walk through is the tension that seeps into our relationship as one or both people in a couple start to think about an upcoming visit with family.

Days and even weeks before an event couples often start to experience frustration and distance in their own relationship. While it is normal to be tense and uneasy when thinking about seeing someone with whom you or your spouse have a strained relationship, it is also possible to keep that tension from erupting into frustration or distance between you and your partner. A few ideas to keep the tension between you and your spouse at bay.


Talk about the tension. For some of us, our first tendency is to avoid talking about anything tense. This is especially tricky if the strained relationship is between you and an in-law.  The old rule still applies, I can say anything about my family but you cannot. However, starting a conversation with your spouse, letting them know your intent is to avoid frustration and distance between you is often a welcome gesture.

Make a commitment to be respectful. If you plan to bring up the tension or not, always be respectful of your spouse’s family. Never make any disparaging remakes no matter how justified they may be. It does not serve anyone, especially not you and your partner. This is your spouse’s family so avoid any hurtful, disrespectful, negative, or disparaging comments.  Keep that to yourself. Vent to someone other than your spouse.  Your husband or wife will likely shut down and stop listening to what you have to say or get defensive. Either way they will not be able to hear you. A conversation that could in any way be helpful becomes less and less likely. Be respectful when speaking of the family member.


Ask your partner what they need.  Try putting yourself in their shoes and empathizing with how they may feel when thinking about facing this family member. There may be more to the story then what they present on the outside. Considering and asking your partner what they may need in a potentially tense gathering will go a long way. They will likely feel your genuine care and concern and know you are just as thoughtful about them and their feelings in this situation as yourself.

Make a plan together.  One or both of you may need a break or to limit the time spent with anyone with whom you have a strained relationship. Try letting your partner know what you need or hope for at the family gathering. For example, ask how your partner would feel about leaving at a certain time.  If you just need a break, offer to go out and get something. (Don’t forget to come back.) If you talk about it ahead of time, leaving early or taking a break is less likely to cause friction between you and your spouse. Also be prepared to hear no and consider how you will respond.


Give each other grace and the benefit of the doubt. When we are facing something difficult our spouse can start to look like the enemy instead of the solution, especially if you are not seeing eye to eye.  Even though your spouse has their own set of feelings about this person and how to respond to them, they love and care about you. They care about you being happy and comfortable, just as you do them. These foundational needs can be lost in moments of tension between couples. We start to react to each other as if we do not care about each other or want the other to be happy. Try to remember it is just the tension talking and you both still care about each other and want to be there for each other.


I hope you have relaxing and enjoyable visits with family this holiday season. Stand with your partner and attempt to tackle the tension together.


Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!


Michelle Puster M.Ed., LPC

Katy Couples & Wellness Counseling

Helping couples grow close

Couples, Marriage, & Individual Counseling Serving Katy | West Houston


This blog is brought to you by Hold Me Tight. Hold Me Tight is a couple’s workshop developed by Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. It is currently presented around the country. We are very pleased to have the opportunity to present the Hold Me Tight Workshop here in the Houston area. Please click here for more information.