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How to survive the holidays as a married couple

Happy Couple


Chloe Langr - published on 12/20/17

Tips from five married couples who have been through the holidays a time or two.

Christmas is a season of lights, music, food and family. This month is filled with beautiful liturgies at church, and quality time with family and friends. And who can forget ugly Christmas sweater parties and white elephant gift exchanges? But for some of us, navigating the holiday season can lead to stress and tension in our marriages and with our families. It can be hard to sing “Joy to the World” when your communication about the holidays with your spouse is anything but joy-filled.

Celebrating and sharing the holiday season as a couple can be challenging — but it can be a lot easier if you follow these quick tips from five married couples who have been through the holidays a time or two. This year, be ready to face challenges and the joys of the holiday season together as husband and wife!

Affirm your marriage

In the middle of the business of the holiday season, it can be easy to lose sight of what matters. So take time to affirm your spouse and your marriage before even discussing what the holidays are going to look like this year. Affirmation simply means saying things that are true, and telling your spouse how much they mean to you.

“Before we dive into the holiday season, we sit down and affirm our marriage,” Sterling Jaquith recommended. She and her husband have been married for seven years, and she recently wrote a book about the holidays, A Catholic Guide to Be Merry: How to Avoid Anxiety and Depression During the Holidays. “Tel your spouse, ‘I love you and you’re the most important person in my life.’ You have to start things off as a team!”

Communicate your holiday expectations

Before the holiday season gets here, sit down with your spouse and talk about your expectations for the holidays. What food are you going to eat? What will you wear to holiday parties and Christmas Mass? How will you signal to each other that something is going wrong, or when you’re not being heard? By vocalizing what you expect the holidays to look like, your spouse will have a better picture of what the holidays mean to you. After all, we don’t get anywhere in marriage when we base things off of assumptions.

“The hardest holiday experience my husband and I had was definitely our first Christmas,” Sterling Jaquith remembers. She and her husband have learned to be clear with each other about what they expect the holidays to look like. “I don’t know why we didn’t think to talk about the holiday beforehand. We both woke up expecting to have the perfect Christmas without explaining to each other what our idea of a perfect Christmas was! A day that we thought would go down in the memory books as a magical first Christmas, quickly devolved into hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and sulking in our own corners. We came to discover that our idea of Christmas breakfast, Christmas presents, Christmas family gatherings, and even what we would wear throughout the day was very different!” After shedding some tears and cooling off, they were able to come together and talk about expectations. They both compromised and communicated to create a Christmas day that was pleasant for both of them.

Sterling and her husband weren’t the only couple to mention strong emotions about holiday expectations. “Emotions run high on these topics so it’s really important to realize the underpinnings of each spouse’s attachment to ways of doing things at holidays before you even attempt to discuss doing things a different way,” Leslie Sholly advised. She’s been married to her husband John for 28 years. “Just because your family did it one way doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do it!”

Learn to say “no”

When Amy Thomas married her husband over 16 years ago, they alternated whose family they spent the holidays with. One year they’d spend Thanksgiving with his parents, and Christmas with her family. But when they moved to Florida plane tickets became more expensive and plans had to change. “We’ve learned that when we go home we can’t do it all. My entire family lives in Kansas and we were stressing ourselves out by trying to see everyone and do everything,” Amy explained. “We always felt overwhelmed. So, we learned to say no to somethings and be reasonable in our expectations. Quality time is more important than quantity times.”

Even though you may want to be at every single holiday gathering, it’s not worth stretching yourself too thin. If you are always checking your clock to see when you have to dash off to the next gathering, you miss out on quality time with those gathered around you in the present moment.

Life (and the holidays) aren’t always fair

Despite your best efforts, things won’t always be fair for everyone involved in your holiday celebrations. You’ll have to set boundaries, and those healthy boundaries may take others a little while to get used to.

“Get over the idealization of  ‘fairness.’ Your time will never be perfectly equal among all parties, and any distribution will need to adapt to the changing needs of your relationship,” Kirby Hoberg said. She’s been married to her husband, Matt, for six years. “It’s okay to prioritize your little family’s needs and remember that this can be a just-for-this-year decision. This is the first year we will not be traveling to family for any of the major holidays. As sad as it is not to be physically present with our extended family for the holidays, it is also an exciting opportunity for our little family to stand on our own and make the best of our time together.”

Budget for the holidays together

Most of us grew up with Christmas gifts underneath the tree. But behind those wrapped goodies can be long stories of frustration and disagreements. How much should you spend on your family? Who should you buy gifts for? For Tracy and Anthony Smith, who have been married for 20 years, being on the same page about gifts for family and friends is crucial. “To approach the holidays as a team, we try to work as a team with budgeting for the holidays by communicating our ideas openly with one another,” Tracy explained. “We set clear expectations for who we will buy gifts for and the amount we can spend on each gift.” Tracy encouraged others to not be afraid to share expectations for gifts with extended family, too. “We try to encourage family members to not spend a lot of money on gifts for our children and for the most part, they listen to our desires.”

But what happens when your family doesn’t follow your wishes for holiday gift exchanges? “Gift-giving was tricky in the beginning not so much because we weren’t on the same page but because his family had very different ideas about gift-giving,” Leslie Sholly remembered. “Our family was giving gifts to more people than I wanted to and spending more than I thought was appropriate. We tried talking to John’s mother about our expectations with no success at all. It was just too important to her to give lots and lots of gifts. It took our almost-five-year-old refusing to open any more gifts and declaring, ‘That’s enough!’ to turn things around. Since then, we’ve been sent money to buy the gifts ourselves!”

Create your own family traditions 

When you are married, you get the chance to start family traditions of your own. Especially when kids enter the picture, it’s important to communicate with your spouse what traditions you’d like to carry on from your family of origin, and ideas that you have for new, unique traditions. “All questions about holidays ramped up once kids entered the picture,” Kirby Hoberg said. “There was suddenly a lot more emotional investment, from others and within ourselves, in our decisions about how much time to spend traveling to visit family over the holidays and which holiday traditions to observe. Learning to address all the issues around holidays as an honest offering of ourselves, instead of try-and-keep-everyone-happy, removed a lot of the emotional barriers to resolving conflicts.”

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