Four Tips for Safeguarding your Relationship this Holiday Season
For many couples, the holiday season represents a time of togetherness, joy, and laughter- at least, that’s what many of us hope for and envision. Although most couples attempt to minimize conflict, plan ahead, and compromise, the holidays can still get messy.
We’ve all experienced a not-so-merry December and it’s clear that relational stress, rigid ideals around holiday planning and functions, and family conflict (inside and outside of a union) can threaten even the most secure and solid relationships.
So why is “holiday terrain” so tough for couples to navigate? Is it because every relationship has a unique set of challenges and/or hot-spots (an Achilles heel, if you will) that get triggered as a result of the added holiday pressure? Is it because couples have different expectations and ideas around holiday traditions, plans, and gatherings? Or could it be that families often engage in a game of tug-of-war between partners? Regardless of the specific issue, it is vital that couples learn how to manage conflict in a way that is productive, safe, and supportive.
Here are four tips for safeguarding your relationship this holiday season...
1) Avoid pushing matters “under the rug”
Conflict during the holidays can be overwhelming for many couples. The hustle and bustle of the season can bring out the best in us, but it can also bring out the worst. We are often overworked and exhausted- and as such, it can be tough to make space for even the most merry of tasks. Because the season can be taxing, many people feel as if they do not have the energy or resources to discuss difficult topics with their partner. As a result, many couples table their issues.
What happens when we are unable to address important matters with our partner- when we avoid or “stuff” our emotions? When relational issues are ignored, couples often struggle to maintain a secure connection with one another. This is an issue because partners who do not feel securely attached are at risk of falling into one of three negative patterns (e.g., criticize-defend; attack-attack; or withdraw-withdraw). Bottom line: all three of these cycles can leave couples feeling stuck, hopeless, unhappy, and disconnected. Further, when a negative cycle takes over a relationship, repairing becomes difficult, escalation and reactivity can increase, and there is often a decrease in productivity in terms of finding amicable solutions.
2) Make space for your partner’s emotions
You may not understand your partner’s feelings, ideas, or perspective, but try to remember that their experience is still valid (as is yours). It’s not your job to judge, evaluate, attack, or defend. Your primary goal is to try to understand their emotions without discounting or minimizing their experience. Ask questions and be curious- reflect back what you hear and try to create a safe place for them to share. Many people just want to feel heard. Thus, before you try to “fix-it,” ask your loved one how you can best support them. Chances are, they just want you to listen.
3) Stop defending or explaining a family member’s position
Do not explain, justify, or defend other people’s behaviors to your spouse- especially when it comes to your family. You are not doing your relationship any favors. When we become defensive or when we try to justify certain behaviors, we are often dismissing our partner’s experience (whether we intend to or not). As a result, your spouse may struggle to feel supported, heard, or valued in the relationship. Therefore, tread lightly. Your intent should always be to listen without defending.
4) Nurture your bond
The merging of two families can be difficult. Every family has their own set of traditions and schedules, as well as unique and special ways of enjoying the holiday season. Bottom line: you’re not going to please everyone and you (most likely) will not be able to attend every holiday gathering. Work together with your spouse to develop a schedule that works for both of you.
Find time to nurture your relationship and look for new ways of building a stronger bond. Spend quality time as a unit and engage in activities and traditions that make the TWO of you happy. You may even find that you and your partner want to create your own traditions this holiday season. The sky is the limit, here. Get creative, think outside of the box, and try new experiences with your spouse (e.g. let “Groupon” inspire you).
Looking for new ways to create connection with your spouse? Check out John Gottman’s “Love Map” cards. https://www.gottman.com/product/love-map-cards-for-couples/