What It Takes to Stop Bickering and Stay Connected Through the Holidays The holidays can be tough for couples. We offer tips on sidestepping seasonal land mines and forging a stronger relationship. BY DR. BRENT BRADLEY AND DR. JAMES FURROW
Use these tips to stay connected during the frantic holiday season.
“ Being aware of your emotions and sharing them initially can keep you on track—like an emotional GPS.”
Do you and your spouse clash more than usual during December? If so, you’re not alone. Some couples find Christmas and Hanukkah to be festive minefields that explode into arguments sometimes followed by icy silences.
Paul resents Sandra for spending too much on the kids, again. Chloe is upset over Jeff’s insistence on spending Christmas Day at his mother’s—once more. Ann doesn’t understand why David finds the holidays hard. She gets impatient when he is sullen and withdrawn during times that she wants to celebrate and enjoy with others.
It’s true that the holidays can be tough on couples. Yet it’s important to note that most holiday issues are rarely just about the holidays. They tend to be symptoms—signs of unmet needs or unresolved relationship issues. And once the two of you begin to realize the arguments and bad feelings are signaling deeper misfires between you, the sooner you can start to address them together.
One reason couples can feel blindsided by holiday blow-ups is that this time of year is "supposed" to be all colored lights, childlike wonder, love, and gratitude. This is, of course, setting yourselves up for failure. Depending on your holiday expectations, they can bring a unique set of pressures—forced family togetherness (with those you’d rather not be together with), ramped-up financial pressures, and jam-packed schedules just to name a few (fill in your own).
These pressures can bring predictable conflict patterns roaring to the surface. For example:
Holiday Trap #1: Extended family drama. There are many differences in people’s needs and expectations: Who will we see? How long will we stay? How will we give "fair" time to both families? These differences trigger couple conflict patterns. Plus, old relationship patterns refine with age, so dysfunctional ties with siblings or parents can add to the turmoil.
Holiday Trap #2: Finance friction. Couples can have different values about money. For one party, an expensive gift is a sign of affection and sacrifice, a way of communicating value. But if the other party sees money as a form of security, such a gift is imprudent and wasteful, seen not as a token of love but as a financial threat.
Holiday Trap #3: Busyness. Between work parties, social gatherings, school events, family visits, and shopping demands, the holidays can create a frenetic pace. It can be tough to prioritize events and manage time. Couples need to coordinate and work together. In a relationship that may already be time-starved, competing needs can be stressful.
Partners have different needs and expectations. Often one person feels more responsible for organizing events and plans. The pressure falls disproportionately on them, and the inevitable stresses play themselves out between the couple. Partners can slip into predictable roles that heighten the tension when a sense of fairness is lost. Little things become symbolic, like how Susan seems to be with her sister 24/7 while Chris can’t get her to answer his calls. This emotional tension can conflict with the expectations of holiday joy.
Whatever types of situations the holidays may bring to your household, there are things you can apply to your marriage in the meantime to help squash events that may arise. Try these tips:
Be real about what you feel. This will allow you to head off recurring holiday issues. Most people can predict their partner’s problematic behaviors based on past experience. This year, instead of biting your tongue and then blowing up after the fact, speak up. Not only can you prevent the issue from occurring, you’re taking a step toward a healthier relationship.
If your spouse goes overboard on spending, exerting pressure on you to do the same, it’s okay to say, "When we spend this much, I get anxious." "I can’t enjoy Christmas when I’m worried about the credit card bills that are coming. I want to enjoy the season with you, and I don’t want this to spoil that."
This opens the door to partners’ being more emotionally real with each other. Perhaps creating a budget would help. Maybe you’ll decide to cut spending on the kids and set a limit on purchases for each other. Regardless of the solution you come up with, "emotional realness" is foundational.
Honor differences in experience. Face differences together. Talk about them. Don’t dismiss your partner’s feelings or try to lecture them on how they shouldn’t feel that way.
If your partner says, "After my dad left when I was a kid, we had skimpy Christmases and that made me feel unloved. I want to make sure no one in my family feels that way."
You might be tempted to respond, "That’s ridiculous! How loved will the kids feel if we get tossed out on the street?" Instead, respond with empathy and compassion. She is showing her vulnerability, which is a gift. It can open the door to intimacy. So try something simple, such as: "Wow. I can see how you’d want it to be special after having gone through that. Maybe we can come together and temper our spending so everyone is happy."
Identify your limits. Watch out for over-scheduling. Make choices together about where to invest your energy and your time. Figure out which events mean the most and let some things go. Otherwise you are sure to spend all of your time stressed, resentful, and snapping at your spouse.
How you choose to spend your time really matters. It sends a very clear signal about where they fall in the grand scheme of things. If your entire holiday season revolves around your family, your friends, and your coworkers, of course your spouse will feel that they are your last priority!
Look for rituals that have lost their meaning and eliminate them. Ask yourself, Where are we just going through the motions? Maybe you’ve always driven partway across the country for the holidays because that’s where your partner’s parents live, but if you’re approaching the visit with a sense of dread rather than anticipation and joy, why not change it? You can always visit them mid-summer instead.
The difference between ritual and routine is the meaning you give to the activities. Couples go to ridiculous lengths and spend large amounts of money on events and activities that they don’t really want to do. Sit down and discuss the subject with an open mind and you might be shocked to find that your partner doesn’t really enjoy the ritual anymore either! It has become a routine, or worse, a dreaded obligation.
Make plans to do something together as a couple—just the two of you. There are more than enough mandatory events around the holidays. If at all possible, plan an outing—just the two of you—to show each other that your couple time is a priority. Take a short road trip to a special out-of-town restaurant that you both love, or go to the best neighborhoods around for looking at Christmas lights.
In fact, if you have a great time, you might make this an annual holiday ritual. Strong relationships thrive on rituals—as long as they remain meaningful.
Recognize the warning signs. Emotional reactions often serve as an alarm to important issues in relationships. Watch out for warning signs like these in yourself or your spouse:
* Increased "volume" in conversations—i.e., more intensity than normal, little conversations become big ones.
* Doing more for your partner in hopes that it will change their experience.
* Pulling away and not sharing issues you have concerns about.
* Keeping your distance physically and emotionally.
* Pushing or prodding your partner to do something after you have already asked them.
* Not asking directly for your needs or not naming your expectations for fear of your partner’s response.
Failing to take heed by ignoring or minimizing signals of relationship distress will increase the likelihood of having to face more significant problems in the future.
Being aware of your emotions and sharing them initially can keep you on track—like an emotional GPS. Small corrections may be needed to navigate the increased expectations and demands couples face at this time of year. Taking the initiative to stop a destructive pattern before it takes hold—to invite a partner to share previously buried emotions in a way that’s safe—is a true act of love.
Look for chances to make an emotional connection. Letting your spouse know that you notice them during the holidays can go a long way toward averting negativity and helping you stay connected. We offer two simple tips:
1. Show interest in what your spouse is doing or thinking. For example, ask what’s going on at work, in the family, or regarding holiday expectations, and keep the conversation focused on them (i.e., don’t talk about yourself at all). Nodding in response to them is not enough—talk. "Sounds like you have a lot on your plate, but you seem excited about it. I like seeing you happy."
2. Find something specific your partner does really well and point it out: "Molly, I’ve noticed you have a gift for making people feel at ease. Just tonight you approached the woman who was sitting alone and got her talking. I thought that was a really kind thing to do. You notice others. You care. I like that about you."
Five minutes of this can light a fire you didn’t realize was there. These are small but powerful gestures that many couples simply do not employ. They can turn your partner straight back toward appreciating you and your care for them. This goes a long way toward holiday harmony between you.
The holidays really do not have to be a time of angst for couples; they can also be a time of appreciation and renewal. Once you understand the power of emotion in your relationship, you can start making this transition. It is truly amazing how just a few simple practices can help you mend the complex issues in your relationship and truly find lasting love.
Brent Bradley, PhD, and James Furrow, PhD, are co-authors of "Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy For Dummies." Dr. Bradley is president of The Couple Zone (www.couplezone.org), a center for counseling, counselor training, and research in Houston. He is a former tenured associate professor of family therapy and a published scholar/researcher in emotionally focused couple therapy. Dr. Furrow is professor of marital and family therapy at the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology. He is executive director of the Los Angeles Center for EFT and a certified emotionally focused couple therapist, supervisor, and trainer.