Plan Now to Avoid Holiday Stress on Your Marriage

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Holiday stress can turn couples away from each other, so plan now to avoid the stressors and be more connected this season.

“Whose parents will we spend Christmas Day with?” my husband asked. “Do you really need all the decorations brought down from the attic? Can’t we just put up a tree and be done?”

These were some of the common holiday stress issues that caused conflict for us in our early years of marriage.

Now as empty nesters the questions are a tad different, yet the holiday stress has returned to our marriage in a different way. In our more than 35 years of marriage, we’ve learned better ways to deal with our differences and frustrations, but the past few years have brought new questions — and stress:

  • “We can’t be two places at once, so which of the kids will we spend the holiday with?
  • “What about time with our aging parents?” 
  • “If we give up the hosting at our house, does that mean the kids won’t come home anymore for the holidays?”

Unfortunately, the holiday season can be a time that creates feelings of dread and disconnection for couples. “Tis the Season” might mean a month of increased conflict and tension. If this rings true for you and your spouse, you’re not alone.

Research clearly shows that when stressed, most people give others less benefit of the doubt, have decreased patience, and are quicker to react to frustrations with their spouses. As stress prevails, spouses tend to become more critical and negative with one another.

As demonstrated by Adam and Eve (Genesis, chapters 1- 3), when stress or discord arise in a relationship, our selfishness and defensiveness rise to the forefront. We often make poor decisions, or at our worst, pull away from one another. These reactions are part of our instinctive sin nature.

Conflict and stress have a way of turning spouses away from one another at a time when they need each other the most. But you’re not doomed to simply gut through and endure the holidays. Hope and joy can be restored between you and your spouse, whether you’re a young married couple or empty nesters.

By taking a few steps before the holiday stress begins and incorporating some healthy solutions, a couple can feel more connected and create some meaningful memories.

Stages of marriage and holiday stress 

No matter which stage your marriage is in, conflict between spouses during the holidays usually boils down to our motivations to preserve or enhance one or all of these items: time, money, or purpose. When a husband and wife differ on these issues, conflict happens. The value each spouse places on these items plays into the conflict, as well.

In my work as a licensed counselor, I’ve seen couples in all stages of marriage struggle with holiday stress. My husband and I are currently living out the empty nester stage while our children and their spouses are in the “young married” stage.

Young marrieds

Young marrieds are in the formative stages of setting the groundwork for their own holiday traditions and navigating the melding of two or more extended families. Possible areas of conflict and stress are: 

  • Their stark differences and visions of what the holidays should look like. The early years are a golden opportunity to learn more about your spouse and what made their past holidays memorable or a nightmare. (Purpose)
  • A husband, wife, or both can unknowingly be rooted in “idealistic” or unrealistic thinking. This can result in not having limits or boundaries on the financial or social commitment they make during the holidays. (Time, money, purpose)
  • The added commitments on your calendar from work parties, children’s school events, church ministries, and extended family gatherings. These can use all the spare time a couple would normally have to spend together, leaving them feeling depleted and disconnected. (Time, purpose)
  • How to handle nuclear versus extended-family time. This is often the biggest struggle for young couples. How do we create our own nuclear family traditions and also make time to celebrate extended family? The distance of extended family can add to the struggle at times. If both extended families are nearby, then the expectation may be that you’ll see both sides. That creates a busy and rushed celebration. If one is near and the other is far, then couples have to make a choice. This has its own challenges. (Time, purpose)

Empty nesters

It may seem that empty nesters in the latter stages of their marriage would have worked through holiday stress and have a plan in place. But for some empty nesters, it’s exactly the opposite.

The previous routines must be altered now that adult children no longer live at home and are building their own family traditions. Here are a few areas of conflict and stress for empty nesters:

  • Traditions built over the last several decades may have to be changed, dropped, or may not be well-attended, hence losing their purpose and meaning. (Purpose)
  • Roles change. Couples may move from being the host of the celebrations to guests in an adult child’s home. (Purpose)
  • The focus of gift giving shifts from kids to grandkids. Views on purposeful gifts for grandchildren can be a stress point. In addition, as empty nesters step into retirement, their incomes are fixed and spending may shift from being the primary source as the parent to a reduced role as the aging parent and grandparent. (Money, purpose)
  • The couple may feel stressed as they decide how to spend their holiday time. Will they spend time with adult children and grandchildren or elderly parents and aging siblings? Or empty nesters may be stressed because their adult children live far apart and they can only spend the holiday with one of their adult children. (Time, purpose)

Tips to combat holiday stress

Start talking

  • Explore with your spouse favorite and not so favorite memories of past holidays. This helps define what you and your spouse value.
  • Clarify expectations. Ask this question: If you were looking back after the holidays, what are two action verbs you would have hoped described the holiday time? For example: connecting, experiencing, rest, praise, or something else? Clients I’ve worked with said that knowing one or two key action words helped them stay focused on what their spouse desired from the holidays and took away some of the guess work as they made plans.

Define boundaries and limits

  • Discuss gift giving and set limits and budgets. Discuss gifts to each other: What is valued and expected? Our adult children have chosen to draw names and set a price limit so they can reduce their shopping times and cost for gifts to siblings. They’ve found this helped them focus on quality over quantity. None of them needs tons of gifts, and they were all happy to reduce the gift giving.
  • Talk about time spent with others and the logistics of the calendar. Decide what are priorities and choose to let go of some events if necessary. Or you may decide that time with others is what the season is all about and prepare ways to endure the busyness of an active social calendar. Explore what routine events could be missed to incorporate the added social events.

Divide and conquer

  • Discuss the holiday tasks and divide them based on preferences. My husband dislikes shopping but enjoys gift wrapping. We’ve split these tasks so we’re mostly doing what we prefer.
  • Decorating, cooking, and preparing for guests can be large task. Determine the value you each place on these items and then prioritize, simplify, and unify. 

Set aside time as a couple

  • Put your marriage on the calendar!
  • Designate a time for each other when you pause, connect, and truly see one another.
  • Decide together if you prefer to spend alone time with your spouse in the quiet of your home or if you’d rather do something together outside your home. If your spouse prefers the opposite of you, then do both! Some couples I’ve counseled have set the date after the holidays so they’re not stressed by trying to work in another event. Just remember that designated time as a couple matters!

Implementing these steps won’t eliminate all holiday stress in your marriage. When tension begins to run high, fall back on biblical wisdom: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2, NIV). 

Young marrieds, empty nesters, or “in-betweeners” can use these steps to navigate the expectations we and others place on the holiday season.

In addition, as we listen and learn about our spouse’s desires and values, we create connection and add strength to our marriages — no matter what stage we find ourselves in. Purposeful connection can combat the added holiday stress, allowing hope and joy to ring through during the season.

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