How to Avoid Holiday Havoc in Your Relationship

Couple sitting bycampfire in snowIsn’t this supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year”?

In a perfect world, maybe. However, life doesn’t always cooperate.

Imagine you spent the past two days preparing a spectacular holiday meal. You are finally ready, waiting for the guests to arrive.

Here are just a few of the possible events that may ensue:

  • At the last minute, your brother calls to announce he is bringing a couple of friends.
  • You find the cat licking the turkey you cooked for seven hours.
  • Then your adolescent son posts pictures of you freaking out on Facebook.
  • Your mother-in-law calls and asks you to delay dinner since she is running late.
  • One of the kids spills gravy on your new white carpeting.
  • Your uncle has too much to drink and tells you how he really feels about you (and it’s not nice).
  • Your husband thanks you for dinner and, in his usual thoughtless manner, proceeds downstairs to enjoy the football game, without offering to help clean up.

No family escapes its share of “baggage.” The only variable is the size of the “bag,” and whether you work together with your partner to cope with it.

High stress during the holidays can wreak havoc on relationships. But it can also provide an opportunity to strengthen teamwork, build communication, and deepen connection. Knowingly or unknowingly, we make that choice.

The good news is there are practical steps you can take to turn holiday havoc into holiday harmony.

Achieving harmony starts with planning in a realistic way. That means anticipating and embracing the issues that are ripe for conflict this time of year—communication, financial strain, lack of sex, family alliances, and in-law issues, to mention a few.

Let’s explore some tips and tools that will help you and your partner create a holiday season that strengthens your relationship and brings you closer:

1. Lower Expectations and Plan Ahead

Newsflash: There WILL be too much to do and not enough time. Don’t even think you will be able to get it all done the way you want to, without snags.

Sit with your partner and imagine the memories you want to make this holiday season. Write down what comes to mind. Then get real.

  • Create a master to-do list broken down by the tasks that need to get done—buying gifts, food shopping, sending cards, decorating the house.
  • Divvy up the tasks and responsibilities according to what you each do best.
  • Plan your to-do items by putting them on a calendar. Give yourself deadlines. Build in time for interruptions, a day you don’t feel well, or a day your kids or parents might unexpectedly need you.
  • When the to-do item doesn’t get done, immediately reschedule it.
  • Remember you can’t do it all. If you have to use Stove Top instead of homemade stuffing, the world will not end.

2. Communicate, Connect, and Coordinate

It’s vital to work as a team. We can’t stress this enough.

  • Check in with each other every day, even if it’s only 15 minutes. Share your stressors. Talk about how you feel. When your partner is talking, just listen. Don’t give solutions; give empathy.
  • Coordinate any action items. The to-do lists are fluid and will change over time.
  • Share a 10-second hug. It’s longer than you think, and it’s a great “quickie connection.”
  • When conflict arises over money, time, or decision making, remember everyone’s point of view is legitimate. No one is right or wrong. Hear each other out and compromise. Remember the spirit of the holiday.

3. Build in ‘Holi-Dates’

There is no substitute for uninterrupted time together.

  • Schedule some “holi-dates.” If you don’t plan, it won’t happen.
  • Have fun. Do something relaxing to get away from the stress.
  • Don’t forget about sex. You may be tired, but this is a vital connection for a healthy relationship and a great stress reliever.
  • Don’t make excuses. Remember, you WILL be too busy. Do it anyway.

4. Anticipate Family Baggage

You know it’s coming. It happens in every family in some form: drama.

  • Predict the drama that may play out. You know who is going to do what based on history. Your dad will want to argue about politics; your mother-in-law will comment on your weight; your cousin will be his usual negative self. Don’t let this catch you off guard. It’s going to happen.
  • Observe the drama that plays out. When it starts, catch it, pull back inside your head, and observe it. Tell yourself, “I knew that was going to happen.” This will prevent you from being sucked into it.
  • Plan for family situations you can anticipate together with your partner, and agree up front what you will do “if …” Create a signal for “I need to talk to you.” Support each other by listening empathically.
  • Set your intention to be respectful and kind to others and each other. Be sensitive to the fact it may hurt when you are critical of your partner’s family; “it’s OK for me to criticize my mom, but it really hurts when you do.”

5. De-Stress

Build a stress-reducing exercise into your routine, if only for 10 minutes a day. It’s as easy as listening to a short, guided meditation. It will help bring you back to your center so you can get up tomorrow and do it again. Here are some recommended mindfulness websites with free, short meditations:

These tips and tools will work to increase your joy and grow your relationship over the holidays, so take action. Share these tips with your partner and create holiday harmony.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lori Hollander LCSW-C, BCD, Relationships and Marriage Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Avi

    December 21st, 2015 at 10:39 AM

    Not sure why after all this time but my husband and I usually end up in a terrible fight every single year about where to spend the holidays. We always try to balance it out and spend just as much time with my family as we do with his, but you know, there is something about divvying up all that time that really does bring out the worst in us. Horrible I know but the honest to goodness truth. I think that one year I just want to boycott all the travel and tell everyone that they have to come see us at Christmas but then I know that would just be a different fight in our own town.

  • Melissa

    December 21st, 2015 at 4:18 PM

    wine anyone?

  • Lori Hollander

    December 21st, 2015 at 4:52 PM

    Avi, You and your husband have the power to change this. First, repair the conflict by sitting with each other at a calm time and talk about what went wrong. Ask yourselves, “What was my part of the conflict? What could I do differently?” Then, listen to and validate each other’s point of view, even if you don’t agree. Once you both feel heard, you can problem solve. Discuss: “What are the things you absolutely can’t compromise on? Where can you compromise? What can you let go of?” Don’t give up communicating. Repairing conflicts is vital to a healthy marriage. Lori

  • Calista

    December 22nd, 2015 at 2:34 PM

    I am sure that some of our most memorable moments as a family have occurred over the holidays. Notice that I did not say our best moments, just the memorable ones. And even though some of the were fights, I kind of think of it as the part of the fabric that makes up the whole family so I don’t know that I would really ever want to change any of that.

  • Avi

    December 23rd, 2015 at 5:21 AM

    Thanks for that Lori, I appreciate finally feeling like I am being heard and I know that he would feel the same way. I think that in some ways I am scared that this is the result of something much deeper than just this but again I am afraid to start digging. I know that this is a little like trying to live with my head buried in the sand but I am not sure that I am ready to discover what else may be there.

  • Lori H

    December 23rd, 2015 at 10:36 AM

    I know it is scary to start peeling away layers. You might think of it as “being afraid to not start digging.” Best, Lori

  • Lori H

    December 23rd, 2015 at 10:41 AM

    That’s a great way to look at it. I think of relationships like a quilt that is sewn together over time. The difficulties we go through with family create the richness of the quilt. Enjoy your holiday! Lori

  • Calista

    December 25th, 2015 at 8:50 AM

    Thanks Lori!

  • Sabrina

    December 26th, 2015 at 11:04 AM

    Honestly if i thought that we could all get along for more than a few minutes then i would love to spend time with my whole family over the holidays. But my past experiences indicate something otherwise and so I try to spend time with them only in short little segments. I know, there are people who will tell me that I am missing out on stuff when I do that, but believe me when I say that this is the best thing for me and my sanity. Short little visits here and there help to keep us all connected without getting too much on each other’s nerves!

  • tommy

    December 27th, 2015 at 8:37 AM

    so far so good… made it through Thanksgiving and Christmas with no major family battles… i guess if I make it through New Year’s Day without an argument we will be home free!

  • Perrin

    December 28th, 2015 at 10:35 AM

    I know it sounds pretty crazy but my mom and dad get along much better now that they are divorced than they ever did when married.
    We can all have a civil dinner with each other now which is not something that I could have said five years ago.
    For them, and for all of us, this is the best thing that they have ever done.

  • Lori Hollander

    December 28th, 2015 at 5:15 PM

    Sabrina, I appreciate your comment. Certainly, short visits that create positive feelings are better than long visits that are negative. It’s great that you found a strategy that works for you! Thanks for sharing. Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    December 28th, 2015 at 5:16 PM

    Tommy, Hope it goes well! Thanks for your comment. Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    December 28th, 2015 at 5:20 PM

    Perrin, That doesn’t sound crazy at all. Sometimes parents can be better friends than spouses. When both can do that, as in your family, that’s awesome! I wish I saw that happen with more families. So happy for you. Best, Lori

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