Navigating Holiday Stress: A Guide for Couples
Laura Gossin, MS, LMFT
Yet another holiday season is upon us. Just as we finish washing the Thanksgiving dishes, it’s time to start the holiday shopping and string those lights. Many people look forward to the holiday season – the familiar traditions, delicious holiday treats, and much anticipated time with family and friends.
Great expectations awaken. Parents set a course for a magical holiday experience for their children. Grandparents look forward to ushering the new generations of family into historic traditions. And children can barely contain themselves thinking of Santa’s soon to arrive gifts.
Yet underneath the anticipation and excitement is a reality: the holiday season can deliver a major dose of stress. And while couples, too, hope to share the special season together, this added stress makes it one of the most trying times of the year for partner relationships.
Causes of Stress
With mounting commitments and competing expectations, patience begins to run thin and this added stress may push couples to turn on one another. There are numerous sources:
Money: One spouse may be convinced that the holidays are unaffordable. He or she may feel stressed-out by the cost of gifts and entertainment.
Workplace Commitments: Another spouse may experience the stress of workplace demands that arise at the end of the year and rarely accommodate a family’s overcrowded holiday schedule.
Scheduling: Some couples are stressed out when confronted with managing the competing demands and schedules of two extended families. How do we find ways to celebrate with two sets of grandparents, in different locations, who have a whole host of expectations?
Unexpected Realities: Just because the holidays arrive does not mean families get a free pass on the realities of life – children still get sick and require care, bills may mount, expensive house repairs may be necessary, the weather can get bad for travelers.
Managing the Stress
It’s likely stress will continue, but there are important strategies couples can consider to remain connected, avoid high conflict, and work together as they navigate the impending challenges.
Think of each year as an opportunity to evaluate how holiday plans and traditions are working for you. Couples are often pulled to fully participate in the events and traditions of each side of their family. There is often a pull between partners to experience the holidays the way they each did growing up and a resulting guilt when they do not.
It is important that couples take the time to engage in a conversation regarding what holiday experience they want to have together. Couples often fail to ask what are our traditions and our desires for the holiday season as a separate family. There is a great opportunity to get creative, keep what you enjoy from the past, and add new traditions that reflect your family.
Importantly, couples should also feel permission to create these traditions as partners. Often times children become the catalyst for a shift in family orientation and many couples wait until they have children to assert their own preferences. The couple relationship is just as important and deserves the same priority and care.
Couples must learn to say “no” and invest in experiences they value without over scheduling themselves and their families. Couples often end up running themselves ragged and resenting each other when they try too hard to accommodate every opportunity they are offered during the holiday season. Families fear missing out, disappointing others, and not living up to the expectations for the season.
Couples must discuss and set priorities together, decide what’s feasible and communicate clear and firm boundaries. There’s a myth that setting boundaries means you must be aggressive or rude. That’s one way to handle it, but couples can also communicate their decisions by being compassionate and kind. Setting boundaries can be applied within the couple or externally with family and friends. It can be applied to discussions about money, logistics, or the uncertainties that arise. The goal is to be realistic with what is possible, be direct, and accept that others may be disappointed along the way.
Work as a Team:
Couples who experience a healthy intimate relationship protect and take care of each other. They don’t avoid important issues, but instead confront them head on and work as team. The holidays and resulting stress often surface these issues and trigger vulnerabilities. For example, one partner may experience high conflict with one of their parents. Spending increased time with that parent and the resulting stress may trigger depressive feelings and anxiety.
When these vulnerabilities are exposed one partner may pull away from and turn against the other in fear. One partner may minimize the issue or feel frustrated in response to the reoccurring issue. Couples should discuss these challenging areas and work as a team to protect one other from these hurtful interactions and stress. For example, couples should discuss how much time they want to spend with the high conflict family, determine how they will respond when their boundaries are pressured, and encourage one another when the anticipated tensions arise.
The goal is to for couples to be patient with each other. It can be tempting to blame one’s partner when they are stressed. Instead couples should cut each other a bit of slack and stay connected as a united team. While the holidays are bound to bring added stress, any storm weathered together is most often manageable and less lonely too!