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I can do a ‘spot-the-difference’ exercise along the annual timeline and things with R have definitely improved

The holiday is over and I sort of miss it. All the festive food has been eaten, the undressed tree has been slung out, and the children and I are preparing once more to wake up in the dark for early school starts. Esther Greenwood, the protagonist in Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, said: “I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day after Christmas, as if whatever it was the pine boughs and the candles and the silver and gilt-ribboned presents and the birch-log fires and the Christmas turkey and the carols at the piano promised never came to pass.” I usually strongly relate to this feeling, but after a relatively happy Christmas, I have an out-of-character, unseasonal optimism for the fresh year ahead.

I have now had ample time to digest the whole of Christmas, and am safely on the other side: I can say with certainty that it went well. In the past, Christmas has been a dangerous time for big family dramas; all the ripest arguments and deepest resentments would somehow emerge during the festive period.

There was, for example, the year my father decided to chop firewood at the bottom of our garden for the whole of Christmas Day because my mother had called him a grumpy old sod, and the time my younger brother lobbed a roast potato at my head because he thought I had more turkey on my plate than he had. Or the Christmas when my senile, cantankerous grandfather brought an air rifle to the table and threatened to kill us all, in between mouthfuls of cheese and biscuits. At the time, I was two so don’t remember, but apparently we all crept out of the house and into the car, leaving my grandfather to recall who and where he was.

There were no such disputes or scenes this year, and I think, on reflection, it was by far my most calm Christmas ever. I left my fighty past behind me for once and took a break from the role of aggressor or perpetrator where arguments were concerned. Of course, I still allowed myself a fair bit of sotto voce swearing, but I refrained from heated, unresolvable rows.

It has been a refreshing change. Christmas or not, I used to be frequently at loggerheads with R. We would save up all our bile for bombastic slanging matches, usually just as we had just set out for a “nice” walk or sat down to a “pleasant” dinner together. We would say mean things that were hard to retract, things that, in the moment, we thought we believed, but later understood to be knee-jerk reactions to the other’s spiteful outbursts.

And Christmas Day always used to end with a fight, usually instigated by me because I wanted R to know that he had failed yet again to control his drinking – or if he was controlling his drinking, it was to the detriment of everyone else’s good mood, because he would be in a fiercely uptight mood. Last Christmas, I’m sure our day ended with me spouting: “I’m right, you’re drunk, shut up.”

I am ashamed of how often we would enter into these fights, but I don’t let the guilt consume me: I realise that last year we were in a grim place. R was in denial and drinking, albeit in fits and bursts, betwixt short periods of abstinence where he was struggling to maintain his sobriety.

I played the role of capable controlling partner, the busy martyr doing everything that needed to be done at Christmas because I considered R incapable. I felt lonely and out of control and so did he. We were in a very unhealthy relationship, and the New Year brought, in my mind, less hope and more trouble.

Fast forward to this year and things have certainly improved. Progress, however slow, has been made: having the punctuation of important dates in the calendar to remind me of this is handy. I can do a “spot the difference” exercise along an annual timeline. Whereas last year, R would have been lolling by the fruit machine in his favourite pub every evening of his Christmas holiday – most certainly drinking pints with double whisky chasers – this year he has been far more present for the children. He does not come near us when he is drunk.

And things are better now that we are not living together. Yes, I miss R like mad at times, but until I am sure that we can rub along in the same house together relatively peacefully, separate is how I want us to remain.

The Christmas break was a fine time to kill bad habits, and a rare opportunity to spend precious time together as a family. I want to go forward with less fighting and hopefully more loving. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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