I see couples every day who are trying to figure out how to enjoy the holidays. For some there is a feeling of sadness, as holiday time is an annual reminder of what’s been lost or changed over time. For others, there is a sense of hope and excitement in coming together with family and friends.
In this blog, I’ll share:
- Specific challenges couples can face during the holidays.
- Strategies to use to improve the state of your union.
- Holiday stories from couples.
#1 – Heightened Expectations.
People have high expectations of the holidays that don’t always match reality. People put pressure on themselves and also on their significant others to make Holidays special. This can create a lot of tension!
#2 – Emotional Baggage.
Holiday time can be a reminder of family fights, loss, disappointment and traumas. Holidays can also stir up longings to feel safe and loved, and people are often feeling ‘opened up’ and vulnerable during this time of year.
#3 – Changing Traditions.
Though the passage of time and melding of families, traditions shift and change. People need to know that there is some sense of continuity, even as times change.
#4 – Underappreciated And Overworked.
I see couples all-year round who feel unappreciated and sometimes enraged about unfair distribution of responsibilities in their relationships. Whether it’s chores, money, or time management, it’s easy for people to feel last on the list, misunderstood, and uncared for by their significant others.
The everyday conflicts that couples grapple with are often exacerbated by the holiday season. Here is a story of an actual couple navigating the holidays:
Flavia and Edward’s Story
Flavia and Edward had different ideas about how to decorate the house. Flavia wanted a wreath on the door and lights all around, and she wanted Edward’s participation. Edward did not respond favorably. He said, “Here we go again. We fight about this every year. You order me around and expect me to spend the whole weekend at your beck-and-call with the ladder and drill ready.”
To Flavia, a holiday isn’t complete without house decorations, and she cannot understand Edward’s resistance.
Edward goes on to recall the previous years of decorating with distain, “It’s never good enough. You complain the whole time the lights are hanging too low or too high.” He ends with a 15-minute rant.
Flavia is wounded.
She says, “It’s Christmas, don’t you want it to look nice?”
As a therapist, I see this as familiar territory but this time it’s about holiday decorations. Other times of year, it can be about anything from setting the table or folding clothes or living room decor. This is the same fight — the same feelings of resentment — that are there all year. Only the details change and can be heightened because of extra holiday pressures.
Holiday Solutions For Couples:
#1 – Active Listening.
I ask couples to practice active listening. This means: slow down and take a moment to hear what’s important to one another without attacking or adding commentary.
Here’s how active listening worked for Edward and Flavia. When they committed to true listening, this is what they learned.
When Edward looked into Flavia’s eyes ready to listen, she was already almost to tears.
For Flavia, the holiday time is tinted with loss. It is the time of year when her parents had their last bitter argument, and her father left the home — for good.
Prior to her father’s abrupt departure, her childhood holidays were always the happiest time in their home. It was when the house glowed with warmth. Flavia remembers coming together as a family around the dinner table. After her parents’ divorce, the house was dark and brimming with quiet pain.
Flavia wanted to set it right now — with Edward.
On Edward’s side, he remembers his parents criticizing one another and a feeling of cold loneliness while the house looked beautiful on the outside. Edward resented putting on a show. He wanted to focus on authenticity.
“Why do we have to spend so much time decorating? Don’t you love me just as I am? Do we have to focus on appearances?” he pleaded.As Edward and Flavia took turns speaking and listening, their tone softened. They shifted from demanding, rigid positions to sharing their feelings. The fact that each person felt understood each other had a calming effect. They were able to agree to disagree.
#2 – Embrace Shared Values. Establish Shared Holiday Rituals.
Couples often hold different sets of expectations around money, family time, and traditions. As a therapist, one of my aims is to help couples establish holiday rituals that embrace their shared values.
Here are some of the questions I ask couples that are helpful for you to figure out with your partner:
- What is working between the two of you?
- What values do you share?
- What keeps you together?
- What keeps you fighting for change when you feel so bruised and hopeless?
- What worked for you in the past?
- What did you hope for when you came together as a couple?
Even remembering a moment when there was a flicker of hope, can help people look for ways to reconnect and create a holiday that moves toward peace, love and joy.
It’s painful for couples and retreat to isolation, feeling like they have to go it alone. Research shows that families feel a sense of closeness when they participate in rituals together.
Over time, holiday activities take on meaning and familiarity, sometimes healing earlier wounds and stimulating fond memories. Taking time to talk through values and traditions helps couples find compassion.
When people feel understood and valued, they are more likely to compromise and work together to make new rituals.
#3 – Look For The Positive.
We have a choice to focus on positives — large and small. Or, we can highlight what is wrong, complain and attack each other. You can’t control your partner, but you can make a choice to look for ways to appreciate what you each bring.
Dr. Sue Johnson, who created Emotionally Focused Therapy, says that moments of emotional bonding help regulate the nervous system, stimulate the happy hormone, and make room for the possibility of love.
Couples may disagree on what to do. Again, couples who practice active listening are usually more positive towards each other.
Agree to make decisions after practicing active listening. Hear one another out, weigh both perspectives, talk together about compromises. Ponder questions such as?
- Will you go to services alone?
- Will we have a menorah?
- Should we decorate a tree?
- How do we handle questions about Santa?
- How do we balance visiting both sides of the family on the holiday?
#4 – Set Your Family Navigation Plan.
Sometimes couples get better, only to be derailed by family members.
For example, when back in her childhood home, Flavia lashes out at Edward when he doesn’t help set the holiday table. At that point, Edward becomes just another man who is deserting her. To add to the stress, Flavia’s mother notices Edward’s aloofness and aligns with her daughter.
Edward sees his mother-in-law’s phony smile and downs several more drinks. He can barely get through the night.
For many couples, the scene is predictable and it is helpful to talk ahead of time about what to be prepared for.
- What are the challenges that arise every year?
- What behaviors from other family members make them uncomfortable?
- How would they like to react?
- What support do they need from each other to make the best of a challenging situation?
Edward would like Flavia to remember how uncomfortable he feels around her mother. Flavia needs to be reminded that Edward is committed and isn’t going anywhere (unlike her father).
#5 – Develop a Secret Signal.
Often its helpful for couples to come up with a physical signal to remind one another of what each one needs.
For Flavia and Edward it was: looking into one anothers’ eyes.
When things got tense, they searched for and held one anothers’ gaze for a split second, offering a reminder that they are known and loved. This small act draws an imaginary circle around the two of them buffering them from current and past hurts.
#6 – Model Grown-Up Behavior.
When kids are in to the holiday mix there is added complexity. Here is a snippet of Martha and Will’s story.
Sometimes, Will feels controlled by Martha who is a full-time, stay-at-home mother. To Will, Martha has an unspoken alliance with the kids, getting them to do things her way, completely ignoring his values. Often Martha feels at her wits end, since she does all the housework and childcare.
Martha wonders, “Who is he to parachute in at holiday time and exert his will?”
They are deadlocked in resentment and rage. The kids are like road kill, exposed to fighting and sometimes pulled into impossible loyalty binds.
When this is the case for couples, I remind them that as parents they have to be the grown ups. We don’t expect kids to be quiet and allow bullies to have their way. Nor, do we teach kids to strike out or humiliate with hateful words.
We have to look at ourselves — are we modeling for the kids the relational values we are trying to instill in them?
#7 – Come Up With A Shared Mantra.
Couples often find that coming up with a shared mantra, to recite together, is helpful.
Take Shari and Janyene for example. Together they felt hopeless but both agree that they love son — more than any words can express.
A son they fought through years of fertility treatment to bring into the world against all odds. They carry scars, physical and emotional, from years of failed attempts, family members who judged rather than supported them, and finally the memories of ways they hurt each other in the process.
Shari felt that Janyene, who is the birth mother, is competitive and leaving Shari on the outside. Janyene feels she is the one who has to do all the discipline of their high need son. They are almost always at odds.
For the holidays, they are locked in a battle about how to celebrate. Shari wants simplicity. Janyene likes big, over-the-top celebrations. Their holiday “tradition” has become one of utter chaos and despair. Unfortunately, their son acts in accordance with ‘chaos’ making the situation a complete holiday horror show.
For this couple, setting a mantra has the following benefits.
First, it helps the couple to be on the same team, de-triangulating their child.
Now, Shari and Janyene have a shared vision, translated into words. A mantra of: We both love our son. We choose to let in the holiday light to guide us hand-in-hand in song.
They feel united, and their 8-year-old son feels safe, loved and secure.
Second, a mantra, re-affirms for the couple what they hope to co-create together.
A mantra focuses on the positives. It states what they both can agree on and helps calm nerves. Research shows calming the nervous system helps couples model better communication and behavior to each other and their children.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, a mantra conjures forth something bigger then just the two people in the couple.
In reciting a mantra, it can remind us that we are part of a larger world, filled with resources. We are all in search of love and connection.
Even though holidays are often overwhelming, it is also an opportunity:
- Reset and be more of the person you wish to be.
- Do more for the people you love the most.
- Feel good about it.
I hope that I have helped shed light on how to have a better holiday season as part of a couple. There will always be challenges but knowing tips and strategies can help you find happiness during your holiday season (and in life).
If you would like to contact me, call 212.335.2100 to talk or schedule an appointment.
Margaret (Markie) Sallick, LCSW, is Union Square Practice’s expert on all things couples, with over 25 years of experience. Her approach to therapy is collaborative, active, and empathetic. Markie uses a system that decreases blame and helps people move from overwhelming feelings of despair, anger, anxiety, and jealousy to the possibility of experiencing love and compassion.