8 Reasons Relationship Problems Spike During the Holidays (and How to Manage Them)
While the February holiday puts pressure on people to feel blissfully romantic even when they don’t, the November-December-January string of holidays puts pressure on people to feel warm and wonderful about everyone — romantic partners and family members — at this “most wonderful time of the year.” The fact is, not everyone feels like “jingle-belling” during this “happiest season of all.”
“Everyone wants to be optimistic about the holidays, believing that our partners and relatives are going to be on their best behavior, but family gatherings are charged,” says David Sack, MD, chief medical officer at Elements Behavioral Health. “People remember when they were disrespected by a sibling, a fight they had when they were 6, how Mom liked them best, or some other issue that happened in the past, and that creates tension.”
This is one reason why winter holidays are the worst time of the year for many people — often because the season means annual visits with family members or in-laws we find difficult or don’t get along with, and those visits can revive old hurts and exacerbate depression and family dysfunction. The hectic flurry of holiday activities further jangles nerves and strains relationships.
The Holidays Can Spell Disaster for Relationships and Recovery
For a recovering addict, the tensions and temptations of the season present a unique set of challenges, adding even more agitation. The added stress is most likely to show up in intimate relationships, for both the addicted loved one and their partner. People in recovery must take extra measures to manage triggers that crop up over the holiday season. For example, there are more alcohol drinks like spiked punch and coffees, and even alcohol-infused treats like fruitcake and bread pudding. There may be reunions with people who are still drinking or using or otherwise problematic. Inform your partner that you’ll need to augment your recovery plan with strategies like bringing relapse-proof beverages and treats to any shindigs, and avoiding any people, places and situations that trigger you. Solicit their support for this plan.
“The period between Thanksgiving and the new year tends to be hard on relationships because it is a time of heightened stress for everyone,” says Dr. Sack. “Holidays involve so many different kinds of stressors — financial, interpersonal and feelings of loss and sad memories of those who are no longer with you — that it’s a hard time for all family members.”
Everyone, whether they are in recovery or not, can help prevent relationship ruin during the holidays by considering the eight common reasons relationship problems spike during the holidays and take action to manage problems before (or as) they arise.
Reason #1: Longer periods of time spent with partners.
For some of us, the holidays mean spending extended time with our partners and family members. This is a major reason why the holidays are hard on relationships. Let’s face it, some people are difficult to be around for extended lengths of time. If one’s partner normally travels or works long hours away from home, we are not accustomed to having them around the house. If they aren’t used to it either, they may become irritable, bored and at loose ends, watching TV all day and/or drinking too much to distract themselves and fill the time.
Action: Speak with your partner about the extra time you’ll be spending together during the holidays and how little things might add up to more stress for you. Ask if they can limit their drinking and plan some healthier activities (perhaps outdoors) to keep themselves busy. Request that they watch the TV on a tablet with earbuds or in another room where you won’t hear the noise. If they are unsure of alternative activities to pursue, you can help by planning some errands or activities they can do with the kids or friends to keep busy (and out of the house).
Reason #2: Visits with family (yours and your in-laws, as well as the kids).
Your partner may look forward to the extra time they get to spend with their family over the holidays, but those same visits may drive you up the wall. People have different temperaments, and not everyone is merry in a crowd, relaxed in high-noise environments or comfortable being around in-laws. Also, you or your partner may not feel relaxed spending more time around children, who are excited to be out of school and more hyped-up than usual at this time of year.
Action: Let your partner know if visits with your in-laws make you tense. Propose to plan shorter visits or alternate visits each year — maybe your family one year and their family the next. Let your partner know that when the in-laws are around, you may step outside to walk the dog, get some fresh air or call your family, any of which will give you a quiet break. If time around the kids is causing problems, arrange play dates for them at a friend’s house or organize excursions for them at venues that help them burn some of their extra energy (i.e., the local ice skating rink or jungle gym) so they are more manageable at home.
Reason #3: Differing traditions and holiday activities not everyone enjoys.
Things like shopping, entertaining, playing games, watching sports on TV or going to religious events that are more commonly done during the holidays are not enjoyed by everyone. You and your partner may have differing notions about which traditions are important, particularly if you come from different cultures or religions. You may need to find a way to work with your partner and “divide and conquer” as a way to get along through the holiday season.
Action: If you know certain activities (or visitors) will put you in a bad mood, talk to your partner in advance about divvying up activities to help each other avoid the things that cause stress. Cooperative scheduling allows both of you to enjoy your favorite holiday traditions without resenting each other. For example, if you love to trim the tree and your partner hates it and would rather attend a religious event, you can trim the tree while your partner attends the event. Maybe your partner can visit friends whose company you don’t particularly enjoy while you take care of the gift-shopping your partner hates. Try to reconnect in between by planning a few low-stress activities you can enjoy doing together, such as taking a walk in the snow or a quiet drive to see the winter trees or holiday lights.
Reason #4: Being unrealistic about your relationship.
The pressure to make imperfect relationships perfect at the holidays — or more serious than they really are — can blow small problems out of proportion. Familial and romantic relationships aren’t always perfectly wonderful, and that is normal, but the holidays can sometimes make this truth harder to handle. We may feel worse about our partner and relationship issues around the holidays because we are looking at the relationship in the context of the season, which is different from our everyday lives. If the new context reveals things are less than rosy, we may blame ourselves or our partner, focusing on their faults.
Action: Rather than caving in to the pressure of the holidays and having unrealistic expectations for relationships, accept imperfection. Work with your partner to compromise on the areas they have trouble with and figure out how to make this time of year easier on both of you. If they are not good at hanging out with your mother, don’t press them into doing that. Schedule other events while your mom is in town to give your partner breaks. Maybe arrange for your partner to take the kids to the zoo, or explain that your partner is busy with other obligations. If the holidays bring the realization that this relationship isn’t as serious as you’d hoped, try to accept that reality and let go, rather than getting upset and trying to make it something it isn’t.
Reason #5: Hosting guests at your place.
Having guests at your home is a lot of work — the shopping, cooking, cleaning and accommodating involved can put a strain on any relationship. The potential for problems rises exponentially if you will be hosting a difficult guest or perhaps meeting a future in-law for the first time.
Action: Talk about the difficulty of playing host before your guests arrive and discuss how you might help each other deal with the added stress and your reactions to things. Try to keep your sense of humor about the situation and agree on ways to signal that you need a stress-relief break, such as, “I need to run to the store for something,” or, “I need to walk the dog.”
Reason #6: Financial concerns over spending on gifts and other holiday expenses.
The end of the year often means maxing out your budget. Money is a source of stress for many people. Couples can also experience conflict when one partner has unrealistic expectations about receiving pricey gifts that the other feels too strapped to purchase.
Action: An honest discussion about finances in advance of the holiday is usually a good way to understand financial limitations, lower unrealistic expectations about gifts and head off disappointment. Work with your partner to plan out your holiday budget so there are no surprises that upset either of you. Discuss how much you can spend (consider giving gifts to the kids in the family and just exchanging cards with the adults). Also factor in holiday expenditures like travel and entertainment, and come up with a total budget that seems reasonable to both of you. Advance-planning the holiday budget, allowing for some compromise, and sticking to agreed-upon limits may not be easy, but can prevent surprise costs that lead to arguments.
Reason #7: Fatigue from pre-holiday pressures at school or work.
Heavy workloads due to end-of-year deadlines or exams can stress people out and exhaust them before the holidays even begin. This means that by the first day of vacation, people are not at their best. They want to catch up on rest, not expend extra energy managing rambunctious kids or entertaining guests. Also, days free of work or school and a sudden lack of routine leads many people to think more about their troubles — another reason people aren’t at their best during the holidays.
Action: If you know you’re going to feel tired at the holidays, plan for a few days of rest at the beginning, before you jump into visiting, traveling or shopping. This will allow you to recharge your batteries a bit before the holiday chaos. You can’t do anything about crowded airports and train stations, traffic snarls or bad road conditions, but you can make sure you and your partner are rested before you tackle those challenges.
Reason #8: The approach of New Year’s Eve and the prospect of making resolutions for the new year cause stress for people who don’t like change or who anticipate making relationship changes.
As the winter holidays move along and New Year’s Eve approaches, people actually tend to become more stressed than they were at the beginning of the winter break. This is often due to the increased time spent with partners and family and difficult interactions. According to For You By You, a U.K. charity that provides mental health support and resources, the number of hits to its website, live chat sessions and call center volume increase by 9% to 13% in the week after the holidays compared to the week at the start of the season. The charity believes this may be due to concerns about returning to school or work, as well as concerns about making changes to relationships in the new year.
Action: Take a look at your significant relationship in advance of the holidays and make some healthy decisions early. Be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling and seek professional counseling if you think an external perspective will help. If you are considering a break-up or another major change to your relationship, try having an honest conversation with your partner first, and consider couples counseling. Take a slow and cautious approach to making decisions that will affect your family life. You might want to discuss things before the holidays to clear the air and ease tension, but plan for counseling or other changes to take place after the new year.
Advance preparation can help you avoid potential relationship problems during the holidays, but accepting that the holidays are inevitably a stressful time goes a long way to helping you manage your reactions to the various scenarios that come up. Further, by talking things over with your partner in advance, you can help each other respond to things in more constructive ways. If you are recovering from addiction or supporting someone who is, the manner in which you handle holiday events and triggers can help your loved one cope during this challenging time of the year.
By Christa Nuber
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Relationship Problems to Look Out for During the Holidays. Eileen Bailey. Health Central, 2011.
The 3 Biggest Problems Couples Face During The Holidays (And How To Deal With Them). Linda Carroll. Mind Body Green, 2015.
5 Ways to Save Your Relationship From Holiday Hell. Health, 2012. http://www.health.com/health/article/0,,20412109,00.html