Family Stress at Christmastime

By Erin Smalley
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If you and your spouse look for unexpected gifts in your life this Christmas, you just may find a blessing in working together to manage family dynamics during the holiday season.

Eight years ago I lost my mom to lung cancer. What I didn’t expect was how difficult the first Christmas without her would be. My mom celebrated Christmas to the extreme. She baked dozens of gourmet cookies, decorated the house to the nth degree, selected perfect and thoughtful gifts for everyone. (She even bought my husband better gifts than I did!) And she passionately celebrated the real reason for the season. It was her special time of the year.

The holidays are approaching — it’s the most wonderful time of the year! Or is it?

For many of us, the holiday excitement, the family gatherings and the celebration of the birth of Christ can all create a mixed bag of emotions that may include everything from grief and sadness to anxiousness and stress, even depression. Maybe this past year held some pain for you so your enthusiasm about the holiday season has been diminished. Maybe you’re like me and you’ve had a family member pass away. Or maybe you’ve experienced a broken relationship, you’re dreading the family dynamics of the in-law gathering or the to-do list is about to push you over the edge.

Maybe your mix of emotions is related to your marriage and the stress the holiday season can bring to your relationship. Maybe you and your spouse typically disagree over how to handle the family dynamics, which family members you’ll spend the holidays with, or how much money you’ll spend on gifts. Whether the dynamics impact you individually or they affect you as a couple, the undercurrents can often lead to dread over the approaching holiday season.

Although the range of emotions you’re experiencing may be broad, I’ve learned through experience there are often special gifts we can unwrap amid the pain and difficulties. We may just have to look a little harder to find them this year.

My holiday stress

My mom passed away in April that year, and a few months later I went home to help my dad clean out some of her personal belongings. In the corner of the guest bedroom I opened an unmarked box, and as I pulled off the lid, my heart sank. I knew immediately what was in the package.

“Of course, doesn’t everyone start buying Christmas gifts in February?” I exclaimed.

One by one, I took each precious unwrapped item out of the box and knew immediately whom each gift was for. Amazingly, my mom had left our family with gifts for the first Christmas we would celebrate without her. Mom’s unexpected gifts meant the world to each one of us.

As I’ve moved through my grief, I’ve learned to embrace the many gifts my mom left for me that went beyond unwrapped boxes — the memories, the traditions, her passion and love for the holiday season.

Your holiday stress

So, what’s the mixed bag of emotions for you and your spouse this holiday season? The following tips just might help you find your own unwrapped packages as you prepare for Christmas.

If you’re dealing with a loss, take some time to look for the figurative unwrapped gifts your loved one may have left for you. Remember: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4).

If you have experienced a broken relationship, look for the gift of what you learned from that person as a result of the relationship. Remember: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2, NIV).

If your stress level has you near the breaking point, look for a moment of peace in which you can take a deep breath, put your feet up and enjoy a hot drink. Strategize with your mate on how you can share the load with each other. Remember: “The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, NIV).

If you’re dreading the family gathering, view your spouse as an ally as you face difficult family circumstances. After all, King Solomon encouraged teamwork many years ago when he wrote in Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 (NIV), “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help him up.”

Sharing the stress

The stress of individual hurts can add stress to your marriage during the holidays, so utilize your spouse as your teammate and work together to:

  • Plan ahead. Sit down with your spouse and come up with a game plan to survive the season together.
  • Listen to and maybe even laugh with each other. Be clear with your spouse about what you want in the moment — a listening ear or a bit of laughter may be all you need to ease the tension.
  • Set appropriate expectations and boundaries. Talk with your spouse about your expectations and boundaries, and when necessary, rely on each other for reinforcement.
  • Recognize the fact that you can only change yourself. It’s easy to think you can change crazy Uncle Bill, but the truth is that you cannot! Employ your spouse to help recognize what you can do to adjust your behavior when interacting with difficult people in difficult situations.

I encourage you and your spouse to look for the unexpected gifts in your life this holiday season. As a married couple, one of the greatest gifts God has given you is your spouse. Who knows? You just may find an unexpected blessing in working together to manage family dynamics during this holiday season.

Erin Smalley serves in the Marriage and Family Formation department at Focus on the Family. Erin is a coauthor of The Wholehearted Wife.

Copyright © 2015 Focus on the Family. From the Focus on the Family website at

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About the Author

Erin Smalley

Erin Smalley serves as the Marriage Strategic Spokesperson for Focus on the Family’s marriage ministry and develops content for the marriage department. In addition to her work at Focus, Smalley is a conference speaker. She presents with her husband, Dr. Greg Smalley, at marriage enrichment seminars where they guide husbands and wives in taking steps toward enjoying deeply satisfying marriages. …

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