Most common holiday arguments—and how to avoid them
It may be “the most wonderful time of the year,” as the song says, but it’s also the most expensive. Add up the cost of holiday gifts, entertaining guests and traveling to see family, and the size of your mounting bills is likely to be exceeded only by the size of the conflict they cause in your relationship.
Advice: It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the holidays can turn into a financial black hole if you let them. So don’t let them. Face the issue honestly together, set a sensible holiday spending limit, and save a little each month throughout the year so that you don’t have to cover all of those extra expenses with current income. Make a game of supporting each other and sticking to your budget by shopping the sales, opting for do-it-yourself decorating ideas, and finding low- or no-cost holiday entertainment such as a potluck caroling party with friends.
There’s an old saying that we don’t get to choose our relatives. That also applies to in-laws. By the time you fall in love with your partner, it’s usually too late to back out because of an overbearing mother or a know-it-all uncle. Yet even among the most delightful extended families, it seems there are always one or two people you can count on to be judgmental, opinionated or downright aggravating.
Advice: Before you start listing everyone’s faults, keep in mind that what you find annoying about his relatives, your partner may find endearing. Even if he agrees with you in principle, you’re still criticizing his family (or he’s taking aim at yours), so tread softly. Try asking questions about the offending relative’s behavior without offering any judgments of your own. If your partner makes it clear that he’s no fan, sympathize and ask if he would like to explore how the two of you might limit your contact with that person. If he doesn’t see a problem, gently explain that you’re uncomfortable with some of things his relative says or does, and ask if he will help you find a way to deal with that.
The bedroom is fertile ground for couple disputes at the best of times. Pile on the extra stress, fatigue and demands of the holidays, and your partner may be ready to put sex on the back burner just when you want to feel close, which can make the season frustrating for both of you.
Advice: Before the holiday frenzy begins, talk about your mutual need for intimacy, make a joint effort to keep your holiday schedules less-than-exhausting, and then book some special time just for the two of you.
Division of labor
With so many extra chores and errands around the holidays, it’s easy for one or both of you to start feeling as though you’re carrying too much of the load, a situation that can quickly become explosive.
Advice: At the start of the holiday season, make a list of what has to be done and decide who is going to be responsible for each item. Schedule a weekly meeting to assess your progress, modify the list as needed, and discuss how you’re both feeling. If either of you feels that the workload is out of balance, talk things out and make adjustments.
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It may be more blessed to give than to receive, but gift-giving can become a hotbed of couple controversy during the holidays—from deciding which of your friends and relatives really “deserve” gifts to agreeing on when to open your presents (if your family tradition says Christmas morning and his says Christmas Eve).
Advice: The keys to avoiding conflict over holiday gifts are honest communication and not making assumptions about other people’s expectations. Talk this out ahead of time and decide together which of your family and friends should receive gifts and how much you can spend. If you have a large family or a wide circle of friends and money is tight, suggest drawing names so that each person only gives and receives one gift, or propose an exchange of holiday cookies or recipes.
If your family traditions clash, talk about what you each like most about both traditions, and then start a new one. On the question of when to open gifts, you might consider opening one or more gifts on Christmas Eve and the rest on Christmas morning, which allows you to honor both traditions without eliminating either.
In Frank Capra’s classic holiday film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” protagonist George Bailey (played by James Stewart) comes home from high-stress day at work to a house full of noisy children on Christmas Eve. After attempting to confide in his wife over the bedlam, he finally barks, “You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?”
Advice: Every parent has been there. You want to make the holidays a wonderful time for your children, but how can you accomplish that without letting your kids drive you crazy and spark arguments with your spouse? While your kids are out of school, their routine and yours will be disrupted, and the stress of that change will be supercharged by holiday excitement. Think ahead, be realistic about how much holiday fun your family can endure without a meltdown, and plan accordingly. Alternate a few big holiday activities such as visiting Santa or going to a Christmas tree farm to choose a tree with quiet evenings at home where you play games or bake cookies as a family. After all, the best thing you can give your kids during the holidays is your time.
Schedules that are already full get even harder to manage during the holidays, and couples’ tempers can flare as commitments are missed, promises are forgotten or dates are double-booked.
Advice: Scheduling conflicts are inevitable during the holidays. The trick is to keep them confined to your calendars without letting them spill over into your relationship. Start by remembering that the holidays are a stressful time for both you and your partner. If the conflict is your fault, apologize quickly and sincerely, and find a way to resolve it. If your partner is to blame, forgive easily and suggest a couple of possible solutions.
Religion is at the heart of most holiday celebrations, but it may still lead to clashes between couples who hold different religious views or come from different traditions. Couples in interfaith relationships, or in which one partner is religious and the other is not, may end up arguing over questions of whether to attend religious services, have a Christmas tree, take the kids to see Santa, or even serve traditional holiday foods.
Advice: In a perfect world, couples would settle questions of religion before they married or started living together, but very few actually do. If religion suddenly has become a relationship issue for you and your partner, try to agree on a compromise that you both can live with this year, and postpone the discussion of the larger religious questions until the holidays are behind you and are no longer overheating the issue
One of the most common sources of holiday conflict among couples is the disappointment that comes from unmet expectations: the gift your partner gave you shows that he really doesn’t know you at all, or the special evening he was anticipating turned out to be less-than-magical.
Advice: Most couples’ unmet expectations start out as unspoken expectations. As much as we like to think that our partners can read our minds, it isn’t true and we shouldn’t expect it. To avoid such disappointments as well as the hurt and anger they cause, be as clear as possible about what you would like your partner to do to help put the joy in your holiday. You’ll both feel better when you know what’s expected—and what to expect.
Holidays are a time for celebrating with family and friends. Unfortunately, all those parties, dinners and sporting events can be a good excuse for bad behavior—overindulging in alcohol.
Advice: When you’re both sober and in the mood to talk about this important subject, agree ahead of time how much you’ll drink at parties and who will be the designated driver (to be fair, take turns). Then support each other in keeping your promises.