The holidays are notoriously stressful times, even though they are touted as being joyous occasions. Indeed, the expectations are that they should be full of happiness and meaning. But the holidays can be a time of loss (if someone is no longer with us to celebrate), conflict (with family members we may otherwise avoid), and dashed expectations. In some cases, someone may struggle with substance use, which can tilt events into chaos when folks have had a bit too much. So, what to do? Here are some things to consider:
- Have a conversation about the holidays in this way: Choose a holiday or tradition and have a conversation about how it should be celebrated. Discuss these questions: 1) What is meaningful about this for you? 2) When will this be done? 3) How often will it be done? 4) How long should it last each time? 5) Who will initiate it? 6) What will happen next? 7) How will it end? 8) How can we integrate this into our lives so we can count on it? These questions are useful for discussing any ritual of connection—these are events (daily, weekly, or annual) that connect you as a couple or family. Rituals of connection span things like how we say goodbye, bedtime, what happens when someone is sick, or dinner parties. Bill Doherty’s book, The Intentional Family, is an excellent resource on this topic. Once you have such a conversation as a couple, then the next tip may already be on its way.
- Set limits and expectations. Around the holidays, this is a must, both for ourselves and with others. If you are hosting an event in your home, consider setting clear expectations around allowable topics of conversation (leave politics at the door, for example). Choose a menu that limits problem areas and/or choose seating arrangements that may limit conflictual interactions. If you are someone else’s guest, have an exit plan in place. Agree ahead of time with your partner when, or under what circumstances, it would be best to say goodbye and leave; this could be very important. Also, have a conversation about the kind of support you want to provide one another. For example, “When your mother says , please say/do [be as specific as possible] to show you support me.” Or, “I need you to call me to another room when you see getting on my nerves.” You can also agree to take a break (the bathroom is a great option) of at least 20 minutes if needed (see 3 Ways to Keep Calm When Your Partner is Driving You Nuts!).
- Have ways of managing stress as a couple. One study found that couples who can buffer each other from the stresses of life do better over time. So, having conversations with your partner that allow you to vent (about things outside the relationship), or release stress, is essential. Be aware: problem-solving, in this case, is counterproductive; you need to slow things down and taking a break from problem-solving. It is hard to shift out of this mindset, particularly for men, who are generally socialized to be more comfortable solving problems (versus talking about feelings). Instead of problem-solving, focus on active listening (see A Simple Listening Exercise to Help You Become a Great Listener). Make sure to avoid the Four Horsemen (see Contempt, the Battery Acid and How to Get Rid of Criticism and Defensiveness). Listen intensely and offer support; more than anything else, show your partner that you are there for them. And only provide problem-solving tips (aka advice) to your partner if they ask you to. Take turns listening to one another for 10 minutes each. I recommend doing this as often as you experience stress outside your relationship—sounds like the holidays, right? Better yet, make this kind of conversation a daily ritual and take turns listening to one another year-round!