Karen Gless, Ph.D., LMFT, RN
The holidays are upon us, but what should be a happy time can often be very stress filled and emotionally draining for couples. A big source of upset is that we tend to have very strong expectations of ourselves and our partner about what should happen during the holidays.
In my practice I have found that there are three main areas where there can be conflict and tension: sharing the preparation work, handling family traditions and buying presents. The reality is that when two people come together they bring their family histories and traditions together as well. Sometimes these traditions combine seamlessly, but at other times there can be quite a bit of conflict.
Getting Ready for the Feast
A big issue these days is dealing with housework and childcare fairly. Despite agreements, much of the work of getting ready for the holidays tends to fall on “the woman of the house.” Now for me and my husband, Lee, that isn’t a problem. He likes to do most of the cooking, probably because his grandfather was the major cook in his household. And it is easy for me to make this work because my father was the major holiday cook as I grew up.
Like a lot of men, Lee also likes to watch football during the holidays, so he combines the two. He sets up a folding table in the living room, brings out the ingredients and sets to work putting everything together while watching a game on TV. There are plenty of commercials so he has time to take things out and put them on the stove or in the oven. Still, it is kind of funny watching him stuff and sew up a turkey while cheering on the home team.
Often my job is keeping an eye on things and making sure they don’t burn while he’s in the living room mixing up the next dish. This arrangement works very smoothly for us, but I know plenty of couples who have difficulty in this area.
When the holiday is at your place, one approach is to honestly deal with your expectations. It may be time to decide that you don’t need a grand, traditional holiday dinner. You can buy practically everything precooked and just heat it up. Another approach is to eat out. Lots of restaurants are now offering reasonably priced holiday dinners.
This can give your partner a choice. We can go with a simple prepared meal or you can help out getting things ready. It may not meet the traditional expectations of the perfect family dinner, but it sure beats getting stressed out upset and arguing instead of having a good time.
Which Family to Visit
Another area of potential conflict has to do with family traditions. Sometimes one partner will say, “We have to have dinner with my parents,” and they just won’t compromise on the issue. One couple I worked with had this problem and I made a simple suggestion. I said, “There isn’t any law that says the two of you have to be together for dinner at your parents. After all, you each ate dinner on the holidays separately before you met.”
They had two sons and a daughter so I told him that he could take the sons to his parents’ dinner and she could take the daughter to her parents for dinner. Then I added, “Or you could think of something else. I don’t know what.”
I admit I was playing the role of Solomon and suggesting a really terrible solution. They talked it over and came up with a good solution of their own. They would have holiday dinners with each set of parents on separate days and alternate which one to go to on the actual holiday each year. This actually worked for them and they followed the agreement because they didn’t like the alternative of splitting up on the holidays.
I Give to You and You Give to Me
Finally there’s the issue of presents. It used to be that people went shopping on the holidays with a smile on their faces and a warm feeling in their hearts. But the stress of shopping has become so intense that drivers get aggressive going to the stores and there’s a lot of pushiness once people get there.
Then there’s the expectation that you should know what to buy for your partner. Women especially tend to think that men should know what they want. Unfortunately a lot of men are really clueless when it comes to figuring out what to buy for a woman.
One solution I’ve given to a few clients who have this problem is to have them write a letter to Santa. It can be fun, bring up a sense of childlike joy and give their partner some good ideas about what to get. This can be extended to birthdays as well. Since we already have the tradition of the tooth fairy, I’ve made up a new tradition, the birthday fairy. You write a letter starting with, “Dear Birthday Fairy….” And you list the presents you would like to get. Again, it takes the tension out of the situation and creates a sense of fun and playfulness.
Let Go and Have Fun
There are two basic guidelines to handling these situations and other sources of holiday tension. First be willing to let go of the expectations your family had about the holidays. The two of you get to create your own life together. Second, have a sense of fun and playfulness instead of taking everything so seriously.
Of course, if these approaches don’t work for you it may be time to take a deeper look at what’s going on so you can work things through. That’s why I wrote my book and why I have included special relaxation mp3s in my courses.