Avoid Yuletide Tension: Talk About Expectations

Rebecca Gibbon

Couples often have unspoken expectations about the Christmas season — and that's where the problems begin. Unfortunately, each person might think his or her way of celebrating the holidays is "right."

It was supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. I was a new bride, and my heart was full of anticipation as I looked forward to celebrating our first Christmas together as a married couple. But the holiday season turned out to be anything but peace on earth and goodwill toward my man.

Yes, Ben and I had plenty of love for each other, but we also had plenty of unspoken expectations about the Christmas season — and that is where our problems began. I came from a family that believed in frugality, tradition and fine china for all holiday gatherings. Gift-giving was minimal, and presents were calmly distributed on Christmas morning. We always dressed up for Christmas dinner as a sign of respect for the occasion and for the people who spent many hours preparing the holiday meal. You can imagine, then, my shock when I found myself celebrating with my husband’s family in east Tennessee. I arrived at his parents’ home to find card tables, casual dining and college football playing as the background noise of the season. Then when we entered the living room, I was surprised to discover a sea of packages filling the room from one end to the other. Ben jumped right into the frenzy, and I sat watching from the periphery as paper ripped and people squealed. The entire atmosphere felt more like a circus than a holiday celebration.

That evening we headed home in silence as I tried to process all that was different in our definitions of Christmas. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that my way of celebrating the holidays wasn’t the “right” way — it was simply all I knew from childhood.

I wish I could say that Ben and I went straight to a coffee shop to talk about the day’s events. But we didn’t. Nor did we discuss our expectations for the Christmas season. Instead, we started a long pattern of disconnect and disappointment that defined our holiday memories for far too many years.

Each December, our differing expectations collided, and conflict inevitably ensued. I ended up stressed and snappy while my wounded husband tried to stay out of my way. The sad truth is that by the time the decorations were packed away, Ben and I had to work at thawing the ice that had formed between us. I was angry, he was silent, and our marriage had once again suffered because we didn’t have the courage to communicate about all that was hurting us.

Breaking the pattern

Gradually, over several years, we grew tired of that unhealthy pattern and began to talk honestly about what needed to change. Our goal was to stay connected in spite of the holiday stressors. And the first area in need of negotiation was gift-giving and personal finances. So Ben and I sat down together and worked out a holiday budget. We decided how much we could spend on each friend and family member without breaking the bank. We agreed to avoid extravagance while at the same time we wanted to be known as people who gave generously.

Next, we tackled the differences in our family traditions. How does a city girl from Toronto merge holiday traditions with a country boy from Tennessee? We had to value our marriage above our personal preferences — and believe me, that was easier said than done. We shared childhood memories of Christmastime, agreeing to continue those things that were good and let go of traditions that didn’t feel like “us.” Settling the “Who are we?” question proved to be essential to deciding what we wanted to do. We decided there would be Christmas music in our home but there would also be football on TV. The dinner table would be set with linens and china, but the mood would still be casual and festive.

All in the family

And then there was the matter of extended family — doesn’t everybody have that one sibling, parent or crazy uncle who can so easily set the tone for family get-togethers? And doesn’t it somehow feel easier to keep the peace rather than address the issue?
Ben’s sister was married to a man who didn’t appreciate my way of doing things, and when her husband, Gary, added alcohol to his angst, it only proved to embolden him. Ben and I had to come up with a plan. We agreed on a few simple boundaries, like not giving Gary an opportunity to be alone in a room with me where he could launch into an alcohol-infused rant, and not allowing him to be a part of our Christmas feast if he had been drinking. Ben and I also agreed it would be best to avoid group conversations about politics, religion or money — especially at our holiday gatherings.

Yes, we’ve had to re-evaluate and negotiate our Christmas expectations throughout the years. But the stress of the holiday season has also provided plenty of opportunity for us to learn about mutual respect, forgiveness, communication and conflict resolution — all skills that are essential to a healthy marriage. And I’m grateful for the man in my life who gives me grace and enjoys the holidays no matter how I decide to set the table.

Talk about it

When the holidays arrive, unspoken expectations often turn into arguments. This year, discuss your expectations with your spouse before the usual holiday conflicts arise. Your conversation might include these topics:


Talk about how much you want to spend on gifts and other holiday expenses. Negotiate a budget and stick to it. Next year, don’t wait until the holidays. Get together in January to agree on your Christmas budget. Then shop a little at a time throughout the year, or save a portion of each paycheck for Christmas shopping in December.

Extended family

Discuss the family dynamics that you see in your families of origin. If necessary, include a third party in your discussion and agree on the interpersonal boundaries that will help maintain family peace.


Take time apart to create a list of holiday traditions and preferences that you think are important. Then meet and share your lists. Discuss traditions that you think are essential, negotiable and maybe even unrealistic. Decide which traditions you can let go of and which ones you want to build into your new family story.

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