Many of us hold a fantasy of what the holiday season will bring and how it will make us feel. We want for this to be a time when our whole family comes together – healing old wounds by each giving generously with their time, gifts and forgiveness. The dream is that our partner will surprise us with the perfect gift; you will give amazing presents that delight your kids, who will of course behave wonderfully; and your extended family will praise your abilities as a daughter, a son, a parent and a bread-winner. For some out there this is not a fantasy – they will have this holiday.
But for many of us, we will instead, have a holiday that is mediocre or just OK – or perhaps it will be stressful or filled with conflict. Old arguments will arise; there will be too many political discussions; we will have to travel during a time of mass shootings and bombings; and there is a new freedom we feel to disclose past sexual harassment or molestation. Added to this is a bit too much sugar and alcohol and less sleep than we need. All of these things result in us feeling stressed and therefore, not acting as a loving and patient spouse. We lean-in to old family patterns of anger, sarcasm, spending too much, drinking too much or maybe withdrawing. In couples this usually results in arguments so bad that they urgently schedule an appointment with a couples counselor in January.
I know this because my schedule has been consistently bursting every January – filled with couples who feel as if the holiday season broke their marriage. After seeing this pattern year after year, I now actively work with my couples on devising a holiday plan. I have come up with a list of 5 things that you need to negotiate with your spouse before the Holiday Season is in full swing. This will help lower your stress levels and as a result will have you feeling closer and more connected by the time 2018 rolls around.
You need to set a budget for your holiday spending – even if money is not a worry in your family. Maybe this is a total budget for all the gifts or a per-person limit, but either way you need to be talking about money with your spouse. Feeling a lack security or safety is a big trigger for stress and there is nothing that can set off panic like seeing your bank account suddenly at zero or finding a credit card bill that is 3 times what you expected. This needs to be done early so that you both know how much you have to spend – on each other and on gifts and events.
Create a family plan
Talk with your spouse about your expectations of how much time will be spent with family. You need to negotiate attendance at important family outings and activities. Is there the expectation that everyone attends every event or are there some that you can skip? If your expectations differ, you will need a way to negotiate around this. This is why talking through these expectation before holiday stress descends is so important. You need time and space to think through your reactions and feelings so that you can come to an agreement that you both feel OK about. Once you have privately decided on your plan you can jointly share it with family members. They may have reactions to your decision for one or both of you to skip certain events and it is important that your unified voice is heard.
Create an escape plan
Time together with family and friends is wonderful. But December can sometimes feel like a marathon of wonderful events that slowly exhausts the participants. Between wanting to be a good host and not wanting to disappoint family we sometimes forget to take time for ourselves. I usually get some push back when I encourage my clients to plan time away from their families but I think that having a bit of time to recharge is important.
You need to set your plans and expectations before the family is all together in order to avoid hurt feelings. Now, that said, not all of our families want to hear “I am planning an hour on my own on Tuesday afternoon because you all are just too much.” Instead, I encourage you to fib a bit and let your family know (soon) that you have an online class, a work phone call or just a last-minute piece of paperwork due at work that will take you away for 30 minutes or maybe 2 hours.
Set the times and dates of these “get-aways” before everyone arrives. You can always cancel but it is important to have these “pressure release valves” in place before you feel stressed. You can use this time to grab a coffee, watch Netflix, call a friend, or simply do nothing. Think through how many of these you might need. Discuss with your partner if there is a need to sneak away together. I think that the time you spend together is better for everyone if you are feeling centered and calm.
Plan for gentle self-care
Holiday schedules are crazy and when we are stressed we sometimes let our self-care routines slip. It is important to think through what makes you feel grounded and calm when your house is full, your schedule is packed or you are traveling. Once you identify these things, begin to imagine where you can gently put these in your holiday schedule. I use the word “gentle self-care” because the goal is not to be perfect, ridged or extreme with taking care of yourself. Your goal is to find a few ways to be kind to yourself and perhaps even to your spouse over a very busy time of year.
A few examples I give my clients might be taking 5 or 10 minutes to stretch, journal or just breathe deeply before engaging with your family each day. I have one client who put a coffee maker in her bathroom so she and her husband could have a cup of coffee by themselves every morning. I have another client who told her family that she was watching her neighbor’s cat while they were away but actually negotiated with her neighbor to use their guest room to nap each afternoon. You need to make sure that your self-care is not something that causes additional stress; it needs to bring you energy.
When you are taking care of yourself you also might find that your patience with your spouse goes up exponentially. Along with your calm energy and patience comes generosity and perhaps even some curiosity about your partner’s stress levels and reactions. I believe that great marriages are filled with generosity and curiosity – and your ability to have these over a busy holiday season will go way up if you are actively taking care of yourself.
Lower your expectations
There are so many expectations that we put on ourselves, our spouse and our family during the holidays – and with high expectations come many disappointments. When we are operating at minimal stress levels we can usually talk with our spouse about feeling disappointed and negotiate a repair. However, when we are already stressed (remember that the holidays in 2017 = family stress, politics gone nuts, fear of terrorism/acts of violence, “me too” feelings, travel as well as a busy schedule) we tend to overreact to disappointments. One solution is to lower your expectations.
Lowering your expectations does not mean that you have no expectations or standards. It means that you actively choose the areas of your holiday on which you want to spend your time and energy and then actively let go of the others without guilt. For some, this lowering of expectations means that they allow themselves to purchase ready-made foods or go out to eat. For others this might mean that they give themselves permission not to purchase gifts for family members or neighbors, or perhaps they decide not to send holiday cards.
When you allow your holiday to just be OK instead of perfect it also means that the holiday itself does not have to produce overwhelming feelings of love and joy. Can you give yourself permission to just feel good or OK during the parties and meals instead of fully connected, loved and valued? Many times, it is our own expectations of how we should be feeling that sabotages us.
In our marriage, our expectations of our partner also go up during this emotional time. We expect them to save us from our family drama, give exceptional gifts, look fabulous and sometimes even to be a punching bag for us when we are overwhelmed. While it might sound difficult, it is important to vocalize our expectations of our partner – to ask for what we want.
You can’t begin too early mapping out your holiday plans with your partner – some items may need extensive thought or negotiations. I encourage my clients to be as transparent as possible with each other around expectations and disappointments but I realize that there are times when finding the language is difficult. If you are having a tough time talking through planning please consider finding a counselor to help. Counseling provides a holding space to express emotions and begin to find the steps toward feeling connected through busy times.
Ashley Seeger, LCSW is an experienced couples counselor practicing out of her sunny office in South Boulder, CO. Learn more about couples counseling with Ashley.