Halloween is almost here, which means Thanksgiving and Christmas are just around the corner. Let the festivities begin!
Many of you take time off work to spend with family and celebrate together. Often times family members come into town and you put them up in extra rooms. You eat meals together, go on outings, buy presents for one another and in general take a break from your daily and weekly routines. Together you may watch old movies or reminisce about the past. If you have children you know how much of a joy this time of year is for them, and how much their grandparents enjoy that time together.
As good as this sounds, it’s also no secret that the holiday season is often stressful and can easily put a strain on your marriage or relationship. Although you expect this time of year to be fun, relaxing and celebratory, it’s almost as if the demands and expectations increase tenfold, and you more often experience disappointment and exasperation rather than joy and happiness.
Many families experience an increased financial burden during this time of the year, which in turn increases your emotional and relational stress. As fun as it is to have family in town it does take a lot more time and work on top of everything else you have going on.
At the same time there are some of you that simply dread the holidays. This time of year can conjure up plenty of negative memories, especially when your own childhood experiences come to mind. Or maybe you experienced a crisis during this season that is triggering, or you are currently in a crisis, or coming out of one, and wondering how to navigate the next couple of months.
As a couples counselor working in Denver, this is the time of year I start to have an additional conversation with most of my clients to compliment the ongoing work we are doing together. It usually starts with a simple statement that goes something like this, “So you know we are approaching that time of the year that can be really challenging, and we need to talk about how you two will navigate the next couple of months together. Which means we need to put together two plans: proactive and reactive.” This is an important conversation to have, not only for couples who are struggling, but for any couple, because even if you are in a good place together, the holidays can be stressful and tiring.
If you are reading this, and you find yourself resonating with this reality, and wondering how you will make it through the next couple of months, you will most likely benefit from putting together a proactive plan. And in part 2 of this series I’ll talk about putting together a reactive plan for when things don’t go well.
Six Proactive Conversations to Have for Relationship Harmony During the Holidays
Once the holiday season is in full swing it’s really difficult to find the time to sit down and have in depth conversations about how you want these two months to look. So if possible, take some time over the next couple of weeks and together talk through the following topics.
Few things have the ability to cause stress and tension between two people like talking about money. This is compounded by the fact that most families stress out about money the most during the months leading up to Christmas because they find themselves spending more than they expected.
The first proactive conversation to have together is to set clear expectations around your budget for the holiday season. This includes gifts for children, family members and one another. It also includes planning for meals with family, travel to see family, or expenses incurred by hosting family at your house or in town. All of these little things add up and can leave you stressed out and anxious over a larger than normal credit card bill or a lower than normal checking account balance.
Although you might not be able to address all of the budget items this year, having the conversation now will influence how you plan for next year. I suggest keeping tabs on your expenses over the next couple of months, and then in January circle back and put together a plan for next year.
Unmet expectations can flood you with disappointment. The unfortunate reality is that you often don’t know what your expectations are until they aren’t met. The good news is that as an adult you have already been through a few iterations of the holiday season and you have a good handle on what it has been like, what has and hasn’t worked for you and what you would like to see happen.
Similar to the conversation around the budget, there are some specific areas to consider this time of year and what your expectations are.
Everyone differs in their values placed on gifts. Some people like to be surprised, others like to get things they want. But this conversation goes beyond the two of you. What are the expectations around gifts for your kids, if you have them? How about other family members and friends? Grandchildren? Spouses of children? Parents? Relationships that are strained? Talking through this together can help avoid little arguments that come up when differing values are expressed.
For those of you with standard 9-5 jobs, what does time off look like this time of year? If you have a more flexible job with hours that vary or aren’t set, how do you ensure that you do take time off to be present and aren’t constantly working?
In either situation, it’s important to discuss your expectations around taking time off your regular schedules to be present as a family and couple.
Travel or Hosting
Many of you have family members spread all over the country, or even the world, and the holidays bring up that question of do you stay here or go there? Although it might be too late to make that decision this year, it is something to consider further in future years and plan for ahead.
Things to consider when making this decision are the needs and resources of your family, as well as the values you hold. We will put time, energy and money into what is important to us. However, conflict often arises when two people hold differing values. This might be a non-issue for you two, but if it is consider having the conversation at a different level. Before you decide what to do, talk about why one option or the other is important to you, or why it is an issue for you. Make sure you understand one another’s perspective before together making a decision.
Time with Family Members
Families are complicated today, and the definition of family is not as clear as it once was. This often involves parents who are divorced or remarried, or navigating relationships that are strained and challenging. Juggling differing relationships and their dynamics can be really stressful for individuals and couples, especially when you have different emotions around them.
One place to begin is to first talk about what you two need and what your immediate family needs, before moving onto the needs and desires of everyone else. Clarifying what is important to you two will provide the foundation with which to interact with the other members of your families.
Your relationship also has needs for this time of year, do you know what those are? Many people forget that at the core of a family is a marriage, and that marriage needs time too. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it is important to discuss how you prioritize you two this season.
We are constantly presented with images of what the holidays should look like, and those images elicit emotions in us. What are those emotions? They tell you something about your expectations – you would like to feel this way during the holiday season. The question to ask yourself, and discuss with your partner, is what would help you feel a certain way, or experience a certain thing this time of year?
Understanding that reality is rarely picture perfect and we all have constraints to work within is the first step to avoiding disappointment. The second step is to clarify what would meet those emotional and experiential needs of yours.
We all grew up with family traditions, even if they weren’t explicitly stated or carried out. One of the conversations I love to have with younger couples is around what kinds of traditions would they like to have for their relationship and family. It can be fun to talk together about what you enjoyed doing during this time of year growing up in your family, and also what you didn’t like. The two of you will find that you share certain values and experiences and also have different ones.
Start by considering your relationship and family culture today and talk about what you specifically want your family to be about, experience together and what traditions you would like to begin and grow over time.
If you are older and your family is more established, it might be time to start talking about some of the changes that have happened or are happening, and consider what you would like to see happen moving forward.
We often think of traditions as being static, set in stone once established, but this doesn’t have to be true. The essence of the tradition is often more important than the tradition itself. Intentional conversation about why you do what you do can really clarify what you two value and how you would like to see those values lived out.
4. Predictable Issues and Triggers
Every relationship has it’s own set of issues, and every family has its own system and culture. The holiday season tends to highlight those specific issues and bring them to the surface. As individuals we also have our own triggers outside of our relationships and families.
Some of you might be going through an especially tough time together this year. Or this time of year might trigger things from the past, such as losses and other struggles. Maybe you are forced to interact with a difficult family member, or navigate a relationship that is strained.
You might also be rounding your year of “firsts.” The first holiday season without a certain person in your life. The first Christmas after a loved one passed away. The first November and December since you found out about the affair. The first Thanksgiving since your divorce. Unlike many of the triggers and issues we face in life that we can’t see coming, these are all predictable issues and triggers that you can address before they happen.
Having the conversation today might change and help how you will feel during this season, but it will certainly help you two navigate those feelings and emotions when they come up. It’s always better to be prepared and proactive than have to react in the moment.
Start by taking out the calendar and looking at the dates. Do any stand out to you? What emotions come up when you look through the next two months? This will help identify potential triggers and the emotions they elicit. Then talk through how you want to handle those days and dates, and how you will work through feelings when they are triggered.
5. General Stress and Pressure
Regardless of all the other things going on in your life, November and December tend to illicit a generally higher degree of stress and pressure in some people. If you find yourself in that camp it’s worth noting and paying attention to.
Have the conversation together about what could be causing that stress. Where is the pressure coming from? Is it a sign of one of the issues mentioned in points one through four? Is it something else?
Maybe this time of year provides you the space you need to finally relax and decompress, and the stress and pressure of daily life all come flooding in when you slow down. If that’s the case, consider how you will work on relaxing and really resting this time of year. What can you do that is life giving? Where can you get a little time for yourself?
6. Coping Mechanisms that Help
Considering all the above points, ultimately the two of you need to talk through how you will cope and deal with whatever issue or issues you find on your plates. Simply having these conversations is a great starting point and is helpful to begin dealing with this season and bringing you two closer together.
Depending on the issue, there are a number of great coping mechanisms out there.
If you struggle with stress and pressure it’s worth practicing deep breathing and relaxation techniques. The same would go if this season brings up anxiety or even depression.
When it comes to navigating difficult relationships it would be helpful to read more about boundaries, what they are, how to apply them and who to apply them with.
Identifying core needs and values can help work through expectations, being ones that are unmet or figuring out how to realistically meet them.
Maybe what you most need is space and time alone. How will you know when you need it and how will you get it? Talking through that today and putting a plan together will help you two navigate those situations well when they come up.
Although there is a lot you can do to talk through things ahead of time and make the best predictions possible, none of us know exactly what will happen, and in spite of best laid plans we often find ourselves stuck in situations where our plans haven’t worked and we don’t know what to do. This is why you two need to have a seventh conversation together – what is your reactionary plan for when things don’t go well? In the next post I’ll walk you through the process of developing this kind of plan and how to actually put it in place when you need it.
If you find yourself struggling to have these conversations, or figure out some of these issues, you would benefit from inviting a third party into the process. An experienced couples counselor can help you pinpoint the areas that need to be addressed, provide guidance on what to do and set you two up for success during the holiday season. I would love to see you two navigate this time of year well, and not only stay relationally healthy through it but actually thrive and grow closer together.
Ready to figure out your plan? I invite you to call me and we can talk through what it would look like for you two to navigate the holidays well and grow closer together (720-588-2005). Or you can schedule an appointment online today.