The Holidays Can Be A War Zone For Relationships. Here's How To Come Out Stronger As A Couple

Photo by BONNINSTUDIO / Stocksy / Stocksy

'Tis the season to be jolly…or heartbroken. Divorce lawyers actually get very busy in January. Facebook sees a disproportionate amount of relationship status changes around the holidays, and Match.com says 76 percent of their singles indicate their relationship dissolved before, during, or after the holiday season. Turns out that this time of year is especially difficult for relationships.

Some of the stress comes from the pressure we may feel to be happy. There is so much hype around the season, and if we're not feeling joyous, it can feel like something's wrong with us. There is also increased financial pressure at this time of year. Big meals, gifts, and celebrations require funds we may not have or that we have to negotiate with our partner. It's also a prime time to get sucked back into dysfunctional family dynamics. Most of us don't fully escape the orbit of our families of origin, so interacting with Mom, Dad, big brother, Uncle Joe, and others can leave us drained and triggered.

We know that most people experience increased stress at this time of year. We also know that our communication and coping skills deteriorate when we're under stress. This puts strain on your relationship just when you need it the most to sustain you. But there are things you can do to maintain and even improve your relationship through these challenges.

Anticipate stress, specifically the stress the two of you will likely face.

Give some thought to what's likely to be the most challenging for you. Thinking ahead about what your stresses will be can prevent you from being surprised by them later and allows you to prepare for them in advance. Which family relationships are the most difficult for you? What financial stresses are you likely to feel this year? What's going on in your life or your partner's life that may make this year more difficult?

Plan your "cope-aheads."

Once you've identified the most likely pitfalls, devise strategies to navigate them. If your challenges are financial, develop a realistic budget right now and stick to it. Get creative with your partner and offer gifts with a lot of heart but not much of a price tag. If family dynamics are likely to trip you up, determine where you need to set boundaries with which people. Identify a code word you and your partner can use to either take a break or pick up and leave early. For every obstacle you can anticipate, create a corresponding strategy to minimize its impact.

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Commit to spending time as just a couple.

Don't get sucked into the crazy, frenetic energy of the season and neglect your primary relationship. Insist on some couple time and plan some dates. Even if you don't have as much time as usual, make sure you at least get in some private walks or coffee time. Use that time for connection and replenishment. Put off any heavy decisions or conversations that can wait until the new year. Use this time, instead, as a respite from the stresses.

Create and maintain a holiday tradition for the two of you (and your kids if you wish).

You can create an anchor for you and your partner by devising your own tradition(s) around the holidays rather than being exclusively tied to whatever traditions your family has had in the past. Make something new together and return to it each year. This is a step in creating your own family life, separate from the ones you were raised in.

Be forgiving and flexible.

Give each other the benefit of the doubt. Extend each other a little more latitude than you might at other times of the year. Knowing that the holidays are stressful, be forgiving if your partner struggles and has a bad day. If you are as supportive as possible for each other, the difficulties don't have to escalate to a larger conflict.

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Don't neglect your intimate relationship.

With busy lives, it's hard enough to nurture your sex life during most times of the year. Make an extra effort to get intimate and sexual time together during the holidays. Sex is connecting, but it's also a stress reliever—making it a great antidote for the pressures you may feel in these next couple of months. Investing in your intimate relationship pays off, so avoid the temptation to decide "it can wait."

Keep your sense of humor.

One of the best tools for dealing with stress is laughter. See if you can find the humor in your family of origin. Take each other a little less seriously. When things get hard, let it go with grace. And if you can keep some lightness around the stresses you'll face, that will help your partner do the same.

Holidays are a paradox, anticipated with eagerness and with trepidation. Make sure that this year, you and your partner come out stronger than you went in.

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