Holiday Survival Tips For Couples

As a therapist who enjoys providing marriage and couples therapy, I've made the observation that partners struggle to work as a team during the busy, stress-filled and conflict-ridden holiday season. Feeling torn with competing interests such as family needs, travel and extra demands on time and energy can bring many to exasperation and exhaustion. If you tend to suffer because of your "people pleasing" nature and an inability to say NO, protecting your boundaries or creating healthy boundaries for yourself (perhaps you're new at this?) can be a real challenge. Many couples and partners enter marriage and family counseling after the holidays because they feel disconnected, hurt and misunderstood, in addition to a range of other experiences, including once-enjoyed intimacy. Being in the company of family and friends can trigger feelings of resentment, reignite old wounds as well as family of origin issues--leaving even high-functioning couples feeling de-skilled and in need of support.  

So, how do you reconnect after fighting, communication problems and hurt feelings? Having some simple couples tools at your ready can help you avoid the downward spiral. What follows are relationship skills that successful, connected couples practice regularly:

  • Be extra kind to yourself if you are prone to becoming depressed and anxious during the holiday season. It's the season and time of year for increased mood and anxiety problems, and for many reasons! Acknowledge and accept your losses and loneliness. It can be a lonely time and also a reminder of people who are no longer with us as well as other endings such as break-ups, broken families and the lost hopes and dreams that accompany these changes. Find a compassionate and understanding person to share your feelings with, so that you feel less alone. It is likely that others are experiencing similar feelings. It can be really painful forcing smiles through the pain.
  • It's a time for people who struggle with alcohol and drug abuse to feel triggered and to fall off the wagon or up their use. Alcohol and many drugs actually make depression worse. Attend meetings such as AA if this is a helpful solution for you, or reach out to a trusted buddy or trusted family member to support you.
  • Not everything needs your attention. Sorry to say. Slack off where you can to reduce your stress and anxiety. Ask for help! This may not be your identity, or a style that you naturally default to, but consider making small changes.
  • Prepare in advance for the difficult people. They are what they are and likely haven't changed. So greet them with the awareness of what is, and be open to whatever may be. Roll with it and avoid defensiveness or getting "sucked in" to their drama. Don't engage, walk away if necessary, find some compassion and empathy and don't let them bring you down. Be the one who rises above the noise. If you're an adult, you may find it better for YOU to avoid these people altogether or make other plans. Try something different.
  • Good spirit may include laughter. This helps, and lots of it! Look for the humor in the predictable or even new situations. 
  • Watch distorted thinking during the holidays. Some top of the list favorites are: All or nothing thinking, mind reading, overgeneralization, jumping to conclusions and I "should" be doing this or that.
  • Do something for someone else. Acts of kindness can ease your own misery.
  • If you've overwhelmed yourself, take a break and pause--just breathe. The super simple four part breath can be done anytime and anywhere. Inhale for a count of 4, pause for 4 counts, exhale for a count of 4 then rest for 4 counts. Remove yourself from a situation and breathe. This strategy helps even if you do it for minutes at a time. It will help remove holiday stress toxins and help you feel centered (or more centered).
  • Check-in with your partner. A simple "how are you doing" can help you reconnect and convey love and care. Gestures such as touching can offer support as well. Have a "time out" hug.

Compassion and empathy, even when tempers flair, can help you stay aligned with your partner during the holidays. Successful couples learn to consistently practice teamwork.  Remember: It's not a time to storm out during a heated moment--this leaves your partner feeling abandoned and will create additional problems later. Already sensitive as a result of other stressors, abandonment can be difficult to repair during times of stress, so be mindful. It's also not the time to try to "win" an argument or exercise your need to be "right." I hope you have an easy and compassion-filled holiday.