Christmas trees are going up, holiday lights are twinkling, and peace and love are filling the air everywhere…well, everywhere except in your home. The holidays are notorious for being fraught with conflict and stress, which can wreak havoc on our relationships. Marriages are particularly under fire. You’ve likely experienced arguments about which family traditions to uphold, where the holidays will be spent, and stress that comes with in-laws and shopping. Research shows that divorces are shown to increase in the months following the holidays. I believe that relates to the conflict and strife that arises out of this season of the year.
How can you actively work to combat the potential devastation the holidays can bring to your marriage?
Discuss and plan traditions in your family.
As John Gottman likes to say, regardless of where we were born, we each bring our own cultures into the marriage: the culture of our family growing up. We raised with traditions around the holidays, and you have likely tried to implement some of these within your current marriage. However, some of these rituals can clash.
Talk with your spouse and ask about their favorite holiday traditions. Pay attention to traditions they love now, favorite traditions of childhood, and what they wish you’d do together. Talk about your best and worst experiences of the holidays growing up as a way of identifying common factors to implement and avoid. Talk about your favorite holiday memories together as a couple and seek to put into practice similar moments.
If you come from families that didn’t have a lot of traditions, it might be helpful to implement some new practices, or rituals of connection, with your family. Rituals of connection are practices infused with meaning that family members do in order to create connection, intimacy, and security in who you are as a family unit. These rituals are an important factor in creating a new sense of family within your marriage.
Identify your own triggers and those of your spouse during the holidays.
While the holidays often carry special and joyful memories, they can also be overshadowed by trauma or pain. If a loved one who has recently passed away played a major role in holiday festivities, the signs of the season may bring on fresh waves of grief. Sit down with your spouse and children and talk about ways to honor the memory of those who won’t be celebrating with you this year.
Holidays also often involve time with family, which can sometimes be distressing. Family dynamics can be their worst at the holidays, as stress makes our negative qualities more prominent. Have a plan ahead of time for how to navigate those triggers together as a couple.
Sometimes even just lowering your expectations for the holidays can help. It’s often the moments when you’re most trying to make the holiday perfect for someone else that you end up steamrolling over your spouse’s emotions.
Practice damage control when (not if) you fight.
If you know you and your spouse have the same argument every holiday season, take some time to plan ahead and talk through the potential fight earlier. Use Gottman’s Aftermath of a Fight discussion as a tool to process past fights, identify sensitivities or triggers you may have, and plan for how to approach those arguments in the future.
And when you inevitably find yourself in the argument, try to understand your spouse’s perspective and practice empathy. Look for an opportunity to come to a place of compromise so that you can have a win-win situation, rather than trying to come out on top.
Inject some fun into your holiday celebrations.
Holidays are stressful. (Have I said that enough?) There are a multitude of events and schedules to juggle, between children’s schooling, work parties, and travel to visit family. Take some time aside with your spouse to slow down and just have fun together.
Go see the Christmas lights at Greenfield Village. Spend a day cuddled up under the blankets with hot cocoa having a Christmas movie marathon. Drive around your neighborhood to see the lights and choose a favorite house. If you have a hard time thinking of something, or you worry about having fun on a budget, Google some ideas and pick one or two that sound fun or inexpensive!
Budget together for Christmas shopping.
Finances are one of the top areas that couples tend to fight over, and the holidays are the season when it's easiest to overspend. Buying gifts for friends and family, shopping the hot Black Friday deals, or going out for celebratory holiday meals can lead to greater spending than anticipated.
As a couple, set some limits on spending for the holidays. Talk through how much you’d like to spend on your children, family members, and friends. If this means you have to have hard conversations with your children or your extended family about your financial limits, seek to do so united as a couple.
The old adage about Christmas says that we ought to be more cheerful about giving than receiving. However, that sentiment can easily get lost in all of the hustle and bustle. Slowing down to notice opportunities to give back this time of year can help your family to connect to gratitude for the blessings you have and a larger purpose for the season.
Find an activity you can do with just your spouse, or bring your children into it as well. Donate your time at a food kitchen. Hand out blankets, food, and hygiene kits to the homeless. Help out at a children’s Christmas party in an impoverished part of the city. Ring a bell for the Salvation Army.
I believe taking one of the items above and putting in into practice could radically transform your marriage this holiday season. Give it a try – you never know how one little shift could change your Christmas.
Are you looking forward to the holiday season with a sense of dread rather than joy? Do you promise to scale back during next year’s holidays every year, just to forget that promise? Are you tired of always fighting about money during the Christmas season? At Restored Hope, I know this time of year can take a major toll on marriages, family, and stress levels. I’d love to support you through one-on-one or marriage counseling services at my Ann Arbor location. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 today or fill out my form here to find out more about how I can help you thrive during the holidays.