Keeping Your Marriage Intact Over the Holidays


Expert Advice Just in Time for the Holidays

Couple wrapped in Christmas lights

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The holidays are upon us again. With that comes a lot of fun, but also some stress. The holidays can cause friction in even the strongest marriages! Money, family members, and traveling are some of the top challenges you as a couple will deal with over the holidays.

So, that being said, the experts have some superb advice for tackling the challenges of this time of year! 


Overspending, Budgeting and Gift-Giving

Couple with shopping bags

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Fighting over money happens at some point in every marriage. In fact, some couples fight over this regularly. Therefore, it’s no surprise that holiday time puts an excessive amount of stress on a couple

David Routt, a licensed professional counselor in Idaho, suggests getting together as a family to write up how much you are willing to spend on that special day. Furthermore, he says to “divide up the sum as needed. Then, to top it all off, have everyone in the family sign the budget if you can. There should be some kind of agreement about what the repercussions of not following through with the budget will be.” Canadian psychologist, Dr. Ganz Ferrance takes this a step further. He suggests, “allocate amounts for certain purchases or activities. Put these amounts in envelopes. Once the cash runs out of the envelope, the shopping experience is over.”

Los Angeles-based psychologist, Dr. Gretchen Kubacky, also has some useful budgeting tips. She says to “look at holiday shopping in the context of an overall annual budget, and be realistic about what percentage of your budget you want to allocate to gift-giving, being mindful that the year will also be full of birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and baby showers.” She also recommends deciding who will be responsible for doing the shopping. She believes, “This will stave off fights, ‘you did what?!’ comments, and budget overruns that carry through to the new year.” Another suggestion Dr. Kubacky has is to discuss gift-giving plans early on with other family members and friends. For example, “eliminating gift giving if you can't afford it or you don't want to accumulate a pile of junk you don't really want or need.” 

Dr. Ferrance thinks that there is a lot of pressure to get it right with the kids, however, “money doesn't equal memories.” He also notices, “a lot of parents put really unrealistic expectations and demands on themselves to provide certain experiences for their kids.

Your presence, time, attention, and joy are what your kids are going to feel and remember.

”Michelene Wasil, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Diego echoes these sentiments. She wants parents to ask themselves, “Have you tried to give to charity in lieu of gifts to each other? That can alleviate the pressure of shopping.” She also suggests spending more time together instead of just spending money. Wasil’s other ideas, for instance, are to “volunteer as a family at community events or choose a family in need and give.”


Family Relationships

Family at a holiday dinner table

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Then there's family. Some you love, some you hate and some you love to hate. Regardless of how you feel about them, you will cope better knowing you and your spouse have each other's back.

Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a licensed professional counselor and couples’ therapist in Maryland has some excellent advice on setting boundaries with toxic family members. He suggests articulating your feelings with love and respect. He also believes it’s okay to remind your parents that you are both adults capable of making your own decisions. “Unfortunately, we all know of parents who have a hard time respecting boundaries. In those cases, you may need to be a little more firm until they get the message” says Rabbi Slatkin. He goes on to say that “an open dialogue with each other about your fears and expectations” around holiday plans will give couples the opportunity to discuss strategies to deal with potential conflict. “Presenting that united front will yield better results and reduce marital stress,” states Rabbi Slatkin.

John Livesay, a.k.a. “The Pitch Whisperer has a few outside the box tips for dealing with difficult or dysfunctional family members. The first is to “tell a tale.” By that, they mean to share a positive story to facilitate a family bond. They advise coming up with one as a couple to kick off the conversation. “Stories can be family lore, such as ‘remember the time Granddad put Grandma's blouses in the oven to dry them?’ or they can be new stories that reinforce the very best of what the family represents,” says Livesay. He emphasizes that the stories should contain three steps: problem to overcome, solution, and resolution. 

Livesay also advises preparing for the “button pushing” questions and have an answer prepared in advance. “You know they will ask. They do it every time you see them. When are you going to start a family? Have you heard of this great new diet? Are you going to get a better job soon? Prepare and agree together, as a couple, on your responses, and stick to them.” He goes on to say, “Getting defensive is not the answer. Assume they are coming from a good place - and remember, different generations have different expectations about one's life and career.”

Psychologist and psychology professor, Dr. Ramani Durvasula is well aware that toxic people and family members can make holidays very trying and can test even healthy relationships. She believes the best strategies can come from “managing expectations.” Dr. Durvasula says, “Don't act surprised when family members act as they do every year.” Her recommendation is to “cut them a wide berth” by having an easy list of superficial topics to talk about like the weather, sports, or the movies). Furthermore, she says to “have some graceful excuses to use to slide away from these folks.” 

Like Dr. Durvasula, Livesay, also says to prepare an exit strategy ahead of time. “If you know that you're likely to ‘lose it’ before dessert is served, make an excuse to leave. You'll want to make it clear from the beginning of the gathering that ‘unfortunately, we'll have to duck out a little early,' so it doesn't seem like a reaction to a conversation or certain person.” If you're not able to physically leave for some reason, Livesay says to “make sure you have a sanctuary space someplace in the house or outside where you can go to cool down.” 

Wasil concurs with this advice, but she strongly emphasizes that couples must “have each other's back!” For example, she suggests using an emergency signal to your partner to use if needed. “If you know Aunt Eleanor is a total antagonizer- make sure your partner is mindful if you get stuck in a corner with her! Maybe create a "help me" word or phrase, like, ‘I really like mangoes,’ lets your partner know you're in need so they can then interject and steer you away. Even a simple look across the room to signal your distress can help with feeling cornered and gives your partner a chance to come to your rescue,” explains Wasil.

All of the experts agree to try to keep the holidays fun and focused on the kids. “Remember how when you were a child you could spend the entire day playing with your new tinker toy set?” asks Dr. Duvasula. She says you should also get down and play with the kids as “it really is about them anyhow.” Playing and having fun can bring people together. “Sometimes even pull a bit of sting out of even the most cantankerous family members,” says Dr. Duvasula.  



Woman handing over airplane tickets

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How many times have you sat in an airport during the holiday season and thought, "what was I thinking?!" Traveling during the busiest time of the year can bring out the worst in you both.

Here's How to Make the Best of It

An expert on expatriate families, Julia Simens, knows just how to handle holiday travel. She asserts that “spending money on a hotel room is often money well spent!” She comments that “even if the family home has plenty of space, it is a good idea to build in some personal space to save the holiday. Stay in a hotel to get over jet lag or to have a quiet place to go to during the long all day event.” She recommends getting a place close enough that you can take the kids there for an hour if you need to re-group. “If you are just traveling with your spouse, leave one person with the family and let the other person have time to re-charge. Then change positions,” states Simens. 

Before traveling, Dr. Ferrance notices that people “work until the last minute, jump in the car or get the ‘red eye’ out of town.” He explains, “You're way more likely to fight when you're tired, hungry or stressed. Do yourselves (and everyone you come into contact with) a favor—rest and eat before you head out.” He also advises people to automatically factor in around 25% extra time for delays and incidentals to reduce stress and frustration around what is likely to happen anyway. On the back end of your travel, Dr. Durvasula advises people to not “hit the ground running the day after you return” either. Instead, “build I time for self-care such as exercise, meditation, time with non-family friends in order to not let the interpersonal demands take a toll,” she says.  


You Will Survive

Dad holding daughter to put star on top of Christmas tree

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Wasil points out, "Remember, you survived last year and you will again this year." 

Whether it’s spending money, traveling, or dealing with family, couples seem to bring upon a lot of unnecessary pressure upon themselves during the holiday season. The experts have offered up some sound advice for staying sane when it comes to the challenges this time of year brings. And Dr. Durvasua has one final thought: “Your life does not need to be a lifestyle magazine photo spread. Simple is better, and we often remember the quaint fails with more warmth than the pristine table.” 

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