It’s not unusual for us to fall in love with people who are quite different from us. Once the initial infatuation evaporates, those differences will not only become annoying and difficult — they won't go away. When this happens, “Why aren’t you me?” is the question that underlies our annoyance. “You don’t see things the way I do; therefore, you’re wrong. You don’t like the people I like or value the experiences I care about. Even worse, you fall asleep at football games or at concerts.”
Add holiday stresses to that tension, and the situation can play out dramatically. The way we feel outside the relationship will affect the way we feel within it, and vice versa. Whether you’ve been together since last year or for decades, high-stress periods can cause you to be more reactive and defensive. We give our partner less of a break at just the time when we really need to cut them some slack.
Generosity is key here — that, and a willingness to find ways to tolerate our differences. These efforts are what will fortify a relationship, and keep yours from falling victim to holiday anxieties. Here are a few of the major points of conflict couples face this time of year, and my strategies to handle them healthily:
1. Problem: Money and Gifts
Say you’re the type of person who wants to show your love to everyone in your family by buying thoughtful and beautiful gifts. Your partner, however, thinks Christmas is a marketing scam and is already stressed out about next year’s taxes. You want two parties: one for friends and colleagues, then a festive dinner for the extended family. He, on the other hand, wants one small potluck.
Or maybe he sees gifts as objects of love, while you see them as an unnecessary strain on an already tight budget, or a surrender to commercialism. He plans on getting you a MacBook Air, while you ask, “Do you really want a present this year? You just got some new fishing equipment this summer.”
Solution: No Surprises
That’s the first essential here. Plan in advance and come up with a budget you both can agree on. Factor in gifts, travel, and entertaining, and come up with a sum that lands in the middle: It might be more than one of you wants to spend but still less than the other would like.
Your spending limit will be a difficult decision, but it will be the only one you face on this topic. Once you settle on a dollar amount, you’re done. Agree not to complain, blame, or bring up the issue again.
One of the most common reasons people don’t like giving gifts is that they don’t feel they're good at choosing something their partner will like. Let’s not view a gift as a measure of our partner’s love. Gift giving is an art. Some people are good at it; some aren’t. Or else they’ve developed so much anxiety about perfecting the selection process, they seldom get it right.
Reminder: Gifts Can Mean Everything to One Partner and Nothing to the Other
The solution is not to try to make your partner see it your way. It’s to see beyond your different points of view to the source of the pleasures that brought you together in the first place.
2. Problem: Family — His, Hers, Ours
A client of mine loves to invite over his big, expressive extended family, with five cousins and four siblings, for a New Year’s Eve spread. His wife tells me she feels like hiding under the table when they start telling bad jokes and seeing who can burp the loudest. For one partner, the happiest moment in the holiday season is when the doorbell rings and family and friends come in to make merry. For another, it’s when the last person leaves, and she can finally breathe.
Solution: Alternate Your Preferences
This is a fair way to accommodate your conflicting desires. When the calendar calls for “the more the merrier,” the more introverted of the two of you should feel free to take breaks, walk the dog, or spend a few minutes outside looking at the stars. At some point during the festivities, the two of you should meet alone for a five-minute connection, just to check in with each other on how it’s going. The one-on-one connection, even if it’s a hug and not a conversation, can give the quieter partner a morale boost as he or she copes with the social whirlwind.
Then alternate the following year and host only a small family gathering. This time the extroverted mate should be encouraged to go out and enjoy other social events during the season with friends or other family members.
Reminder: Nobody Is Wrong
To have these kinds of temperamental differences is fine and normal. The challenge is to make the effort to accommodate each other’s feelings and needs.
3. Problem: Traditions
Let’s say you want to keep the traditions of your family, or of your religious or cultural history, which are meaningful to you at this time of year. Your partner, however, would rather watch movies all day or play games with the kids. You love the music of the season and a big tree dressed with ornaments — the kind you decorated throughout your childhood. He remembers holidays as miserable and just wants to get through them with as little acknowledgement as possible. Or maybe he loves Christmas carols, Solstice parties, or Hanukkah candles, while you find these customs all a pointless hassle.
Solution: Take the Time to Hear Each Other
Then ask yourself this question: “What could I do to make my partner happy?” Empathy and kindness are important here, because this is the way to make room for both of you.
Reminder: Your Differences Are an Opportunity to Create New Traditions
You can combine the things you love to build memories designed by and for the two of you. You might even agree to adopt some elements from the season’s varied festivities to build a holiday celebration of your own. Take a walk in the snow, visit the zoo, have a candlelit dinner, just the two of you, and exchange cards.Every couple has intractable differences. Most couples face conflict on a host of universal issues: money, sex, holidays, gifts, families, housework, etc. The most effective response is to decide that your partner isn’t wrong simply because he or she is different from you. Instead, look for ways to collaborate. Care more about meeting their needs than your own.
This attitude of goodwill is guaranteed to put you far along the road toward a deeply happy marriage and partnership. The holidays are an opportunity to practice strategies and skills that will help your relationship thrive all year. The difference between couples who fail and those who succeed is less about the quality or number of conflicts they face and more about how they respond to them.
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