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  • Writer's pictureCrystin Rice

Couple Stress During the Holidays

Updated: 6 hours ago

Heading into the holidays can be a stressful time for partners, and this can often lead to arguments that put a damper on the holiday spirit.

Here are some tips for managing some of the common struggles that partners face this time of year.


Money is a touchy subject in many relationships, and long-standing disagreement can come to a head in this season of gift-buying, outings with friends/family, and travel. This can be a whole subject to tackle on its own (maybe when there is less additional stress), but you can try to keep conflict in check by talking ahead of time about major purchases. Have each partner make a list of the costs that are most important to each of you this season and prioritize them. It's important to find ways to support each other's biggest goals, so look for ways that each partner can keep something that is important to them on their list. Then talk about how much money you, as a couple, can devote to the remaining things.

Compromise is hard, especially when it involves giving up something you want. Sometimes it helps to remember the bigger picture by comparing your short-term goal of certain holiday traditions with your longer term financial goals. You can also soften the blow by making an effort to show support for the top item that each partner kept from their list. This helps each partner feel valued throughout the process. Then find ways to get creative in meeting those other wishes in less expensive ways.

Time with Family

Couples frequently also feel stressed about how to divide up time with various family members. They may feel pressured by others to come to specific events. While part of the joy of Christmas can be time spent with loved ones, sometimes we find ourselves rushing from event to event, which can negatively affect our joy and sense of connection.

Look at your calendar through a different pair of lenses. "The Holidays" only includes a limited number of days. Think of it like only having a limited number of dollars to spend. What gives you the most value? Consider what you hope to achieve from each interaction.

  • Is it to create good memories with those special to you? What is the likelihood that you will achieve that goal by making sure you stop by for a glass of eggnog before heading off to the next party? Is there perhaps another time that would allow you to be more relaxed and enjoy quality time, even if it's later in January or next summer?

  • Are you going because you are trying to avoid someone's anger if you don't come? That doesn't necessarily achieve goals of creating closer connections and a sense of family. Your time is a gift. If you give it begrudgingly and only because you feel like you "have" to, it's not really a gift. Further, you end up resentful, which ultimately harms the relationship you were trying to sustain instead of helping it. A better way to support the relationship would be to set boundaries that allow you to fully give of yourself up to the point that you are capable of giving. If that doesn't meet another person's expectation of you, you can gently let them know that you want to give them the best you can, and therefore this is what you can offer. It is up to them if they accept that or not.

  • Are you in a new life stage such as celebrating your first child's Christmas? Maybe it was easier to include all of the extended family before baby made three, and now you and your partner are stressed about how to carve out time for creating your own traditions as a new family. This is another place where boundaries, compromise, and gentle communication are important. First discuss what's important to you with your partner and again prioritize items from each partner's list. Then as a couple, you can let your extended families know that they are important to you and offer ways you can stay connected with them while you develop your new family routines.

Managing Expectations

Many people have high hopes for a "perfect" Christmas season filled with all the parties and gifts and traditions they love. That's placing a pretty tall order for Santa. With so many moving parts and people/events that are out of your control, inevitably something won't go quite right.

Remember the larger picture. If this is a time for being with others, maybe the precise details aren't as important as making sure you let them know how much you care. Sure, the perfectly chosen gift with the most beautiful wrapping presented exactly at midnight Christmas Eve might be the picture in your mind, but there are many ways to show someone what's in your heart. If you find yourself having to adjust plans, just remember what you hope to ultimately achieve and think of the season like a flowing stream: is it more enjoyable to stand firm against the moving current or enjoy the float trip and discover the new destination it might take you to?

Expectations of others can lead to conflict as well - especially because we cannot control another person. If one partner feels they are overburdened with the extra tasks that come with the holiday season, it's important to take time to have an open conversation. Sit down and write out all of the tasks that need to be done and discuss ways you can split the chores more fairly. The list doesn't have to equal out at the end - it just has to be acceptable to both partners. Perhaps one task takes more time or energy than another. Perhaps one partner has a particular talent they like to use. Perhaps there's a task no one wants, and you need to take turns getting it done. Muttering under you breath as you just do it and try not to cause a fight may seem like you are keeping the peace, but allowing resentment to build just harms the relationship. You are protecting yourself but hurting the relationship. To protect the relationship, it's important to do the work of coming to compromise.

Open and non-blaming/non-criticizing communication is the key to having this conversation. Again, your ultimate goal is to strengthen your partnership in how you get these tasks done. Criticizing, giving the cold shoulder, and getting angry aren't successful approaches to that goal. A risk of avoiding open communication is that we can think to ourselves, "he/she can see that the trash can is overflowing and should just KNOW they are supposed to take it out!" Or "he/she doesn't care about me because they are always going out with friends and leaving me to do the work." When we head in the direction of assuming and mind-reading, we very quickly start to label our partner as "lazy" or "uncaring." Often when couples can sit down and talk, they find out that's not what was happening for their partner and that their partner has a completely different perspective of what was happening in the relationship. Successful couples are able to hear their partner's goals and concerns and work toward a compromise that supports each partner's needs.

If you need extra help

These skills aren't easy for many couples, especially those who may never have seen examples of compromise or boundary-setting in action. If you need a little extra help in how to use these skills in your partnership, a therapist can help guide you through the conversations.

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