The holidays can be the best of times and the worst of times for couples. The best is when we work together as a team and create warm and memorable family connections. The worst is when we polarize, become distant and cut off from each other.
Why are the holidays stressful? One reason is that the holidays confront us with more decisions than we normally have to make. For example, whose family to visit? How much money to spend? What to celebrate? Decisions bring up differences. Differences are normal; we are separate people. The problems arise when couples don’t know how to deal with differences and either avoid conflict by not talking about anything, polarize with each partner insisting that his/her way is the right way, or when one person always gives in and then harbors resentment.
This is what happened to our friends, Keith and Amy. It was a few weeks before Christmas and they got into their annual argument about where to go for the holiday. Amy wanted to be with her parents and siblings, which involved a daylong car trip. Keith was adamant about not going because he was tired from a recent business trip abroad. He wanted to stay in their own home with their 3 children. Keith also didn’t want to be with a lot of people. He needed peace and quiet this year. Amy was also adamant. Her father recently had a stroke, and she was worried his health was failing and that she might never have another Christmas with him.
They kept going back and forth about who was “right.” Both were distant and tense.
Would you like to know how Amy and Keith resolved their differences? Amy got so fed up with the distance between them she invited Keith to sit down and talk, with the intention of listening to each other, without pushing their agenda on each other. Keith agreed. He heard how much it meant to her to be with her family, considering her father’s illness. She heard how tired he was and not up to socializing. When they were able to lower their reactivity and to remember that the most important thing was for them to connect with each other, they were able to expand the possibilities of how to resolve their differences.
They came up with a plan to spend a shorter time with her family, and stay at a hotel and not at her parents’ house. She asked her sister to take the kids for an overnight, so she and Keith could have a romantic night to themselves at the hotel. They also made sure they had a day as a family in their own home before they went back to work and school. Most importantly, both felt listened to, understood, and that the other one cared about their well-being.
Below are some guidelines that come from our experience as couples therapists, and from our personal experience. By following these guidelines, you will reduce holiday stress and give yourselves the best chance to create the holidays you want.
1. Take some personal time to think about your expectations of the holidays. What would bring you satisfaction? What is most important to you? You might want to jot down your thoughts.
2. Sit down with your partner and take turns sharing your expectations. Do not interrupt your partner while he/she is speaking. Don’t ask your partner any questions until each of you has finished. Listening is a precious gift to give your partner. It is okay if you have differences. You don’t have to agree. Listen respectfully and with curiousity.
3. After each of you has had a turn, you can notice what you have in common and what is different. Don’t get discouraged if there are differences.
4. Now is the time to reconcile differences. Be creative; like Amy and Keith think outside the box. In a relationship, we don’t always get exactly what we want. Again, remember that it’s the connection between us that matters most. When we are connected and work together as a team, two heads are better than one to generate creative solutions. This may take some time. If you don’t come up with a plan that works for each of you, agree to let ideas percolate, and agree to come back together in a day or so.
5. If your partner is upset about what you are discussing, a simple and direct way you can respond is to ask: “how can I be of help right now?”
Take time during this busy season to be with each other: sit together quietly, take a walk, enjoy each other’s presence. That’s the best present you can give each other.