Ah, the holiday season — a time of celebration, togetherness, and making cherished memories with loved ones. AND a time filled with unique challenges, sometimes unrealistic expectations, and potential stressors that can strain even secure-functioning relationships.
From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, couples find themselves in conflict as they navigate complex family dynamics and try to balance time and resources.
Here PACT certified therapists explain why the holidays can be such a stressful time and offer practical strategies for you and your partner not only to survive the holidays but to find joy and connection in the midst of the chaos.
The holidays are like other special events like a birthday or anniversary, but they go on for several days or more. So, instead of a few hours, couples are figuring out how to spend several days or longer in a way that feels festive and good to not only both of them, but potentially to their extended families and children, too. It can involve travel, gifts, meals, all of which can start to get expensive, not to mention gatherings and configurations of people that can be complicated. Then, depending on how holidays have gone for them in the past, or in their families of origin, holidays can be something they really look forward to or really dread. Each of them is coming in with their own fears, expectations, needs, and ideas of how this should go or will go. So couples are understandably thinking about themselves, and hopefully each other, and all the other people that are important to them, and trying to make it work for everyone. It's a lot! ~Ellen Boeder, MA, LPC, PACT Certified
If partners have children, there can be stress related to giving their children a holiday experience that matches or exceeds their respective childhood memories. Each partner's different expectations, or high expectations related to what holidays are "supposed to be." ~Allison Howe, LMHC, PACT Certified, PACT Faculty
Couples are exquisitely vulnerable to thirds during the holidays. Situations that could tee up special challenges over the holidays are sobriety, blended families, and religious differences. There are often special challenges during the holidays for those who are sober, since many holiday festivities center around alcohol. Blended families have more family than average to attend to, so the holiday stress can increase because time is further divided. Religious differences are especially highlighted during the holidays, so treating these situations with compassion and collaboration is essential. ~Debra Campbell, LMFT, PACT Certified
Everyone has memories and associations and expectations around this time of year. Both good and bad memories can be stressors. Often it is either too much family or too little family that causes difficult memories to be activated. Loss of loved ones, loss of place and time can make this time of the year particularly stressful. Being together for extended periods of time with familiar and unfamiliar people is also generally more of a pressure cooker situation, than brief pop-ins, where everyone can contain their behavior and their reactions. ~Lee Kraemer, RP, PACT Certified
Most people have unrealistic expectations and try to do too much to make the holidays perfect. These extra tasks and scheduled activities can be exhausting, resulting in cranky moods and snarky comebacks between partners. Best to keep things simple, and slow down your pace so you have room for unexpected joys to pop up. ~Dr. Beth O’Brien, Licensed Psychologist, PACT Certified, PACT Faculty
Due to the focus on family during the holidays, there is extra pressure for spending time together, family harmony, and for things to be perfect. These pressures and expectations amplify a couples’ stress. ~Debra Campbell, LMFT, PACT Certified
Hallmark ideas of what holidays “should” look like or cultural expectations often frame couples’ beliefs and set them up for disappointment. ~Joy A. Dryer, PhD, PACT Certified, PACT Faculty
Thirds are a complicated vital part of life. Learning reciprocity and ensuring your partner feels safe at all times is the most effective way of dealing with thirds. I insist when couples are solving a problem that they focus on solving the problem in the moment and follow through. I also guide them to keep their eyes on their partner to make sure their partner is OK. ~Eda Arduman, Clinical Psychologist, MA, PACT Certified, PACT Faculty
Be realistic about what can be accomplished and be careful about overcommitting. Talk through your desires and expectations regarding the holidays around the different roles you carry in your family and community. Make all decisions together. Align on how you’re going to accomplish what you have planned and get detailed. Make sure you anticipate and troubleshoot challenges and discuss deal breakers. Actively protect each other. Protect the relationship by carving out time for each other or stealing away for just the two of you. ~Debra Campbell, LMFT, PACT Certified
Focus on each other. It can be really orienting to remember that your partner is your priority, along with your own well being and the well being of your relationship. You two matter the most. If you both are looked after well, and doing what works best for you given your options, then things will go better. ~Ellen Boeder, MA, LPC, PACT Certified
Check in with one another frequently: How’s it going? Are you getting what you need from me, from the environment? Does anything need to change? How do we work together to make this time a good memory for all of us? ~Joy A. Dryer, PhD, PACT Certified, PACT Faculty
Set aside "low demand" time each day to decompress together and check in. Make sure you’re both really listening and hearing one another. Remind yourselves what matters most to you when making holiday plans. It can help to have a slogan or statement that reminds you of your holiday intention. ~Allison Howe, LMHC, PACT Certified, PACT Faculty
Discuss first what you both want and don't want during this time, and how you can help each other with both. Think about what has worked and what hasn't, and use that to make a plan. Plan time together, away from others, to connect and process how you each are doing with all the elements and stressors. Help each other out with getting time and space alone, and/or with important friends and family, and make sure you know what is really most important to each other about this time and keep that in mind. Stay with routines that resource you, whether it is exercise, meditation, time in nature, going to bed early, a long cup of coffee each morning, or whatever helps you both feel present and connected. ~Ellen Boeder, MA, LPC, PACT Certified
Say no to at least one family request for your attendance, and schedule time for just the two of you away from the holiday gathering so you and your partner can breathe, vent, connect and have a little merriment of your own. Others will admire you, and secretly wish they were also taking some time away. ~Dr. Beth O’Brien, Licensed Psychologist, PACT Certified, PACT Faculty
Make clear agreements with each other, particularly around expectations. Agree to maintain connection by going face to face for a little while each day, agree to have each others’ backs especially when managing family and children, stick with rituals throughout the day like loving messages or notes, have clear agreements around social events particularly with situations that may be tense. Have a plan to exit stressful situations if needed that won't be noticeable to those around you. ~Melissa Ferrari, Dip. of C & C, Advanced Dip in Transactional Analysis (Psychotherapy), PACT Certified
Show love and reassurance to each other. Maintain the couple bubble during extended family time. Make sure that you are aware of your partner's well-being, and if they are struggling, give them the priority care that they require. Or simply avoid the whole situation by going on holiday just the two of you! ~Lee Kraemer, RP, PACT Certified