The holidays may be the most wonderful time of the year for some, but that’s not necessarily true when it comes to relationships.
We asked marriage therapists to share common relationship problems that always seem to crop up this time of year and how to handle them. Here’s what they told us:
1. Not being honest about holiday spending
“Between buying presents, plane tickets, parties, decorations, extra food and more, holiday spending can lead to disagreements about how much and where money should be spent. Serious problems arise if one partner keeps the other in the dark about their spending and budgets are not discussed ahead of time.
“To avoid the feeling of financial infidelity, sit down and discuss a realistic financial plan ahead of time. Together decide how much money you can afford to spend, create a budget and stick to it. Go over your gift list and pick who is on the top 10 and how much your budget will allow for each person. Create a plan for alternative gifts that will spread the cheer but not cost much, to make your money go farther ― baking cookies, making homemade gifts and cards or a creating a special evening out at some future date.” ― marriage and family therapist Sheri Meyers
2. Figuring out where to celebrate (without pissing everyone off)
“One problem that often arises during the holiday season is how to decide whose family to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas or Hanukkah with this year. One solution to this age-old dilemma is to switch off holidays. You can spend Thanksgiving with one side of the family and Christmas or Hanukkah with the other. Or you can rotate back and forth between the holidays every year. If these solutions do not work, you can invite both sides of the family to your home, but that can be a huge undertaking and a whole new level of stress for any couple.” ― marriage and family therapist Danny Gibson
3. Drinking that gets out of hand
“Overdrinking is a big problem this time of year. It’s not just the alcohol but also the bad behavior that can result from its misuse. Whether you or your partner struggle with alcohol or not, it’s wise to make a plan before heading out to any holiday function where it will be available about how much you two will drink and how you’ll get home.” ― therapist Kurt Smith
4. Clashing holiday traditions
“Say your family always opened presents on Christmas Eve and your partner’s family waited until Christmas morning. Or you think it’s no fun at all unless there’s lots of presents and your honey believes less is more. As couples, we have to navigate our differences every day, but even couples who do pretty well most of the time can get snagged when the holidays come around. Our holiday traditions are set when we’re children and tend to carry a strong emotional charge, making us more attached to our way and less open-minded or flexible than is ideal.
“Whether you decide to meet halfway or do it one way one year and another the next, keep in mind that there’s no right way or better way. You might even come up with a third way that’s just as satisfying and meaningful as (or even more so than) the tradition you grew up with.” ― marriage and family therapist Winifred M. Reilly
5. Dealing with toxic in-laws
“If Grandpa Mort gets drunk at every gathering or your mother-in-law can’t find a nice thing to say about you or your cousin is always two hours late, they’ll probably behave this way again. Instead of getting upset, know your buttons and practice a different reaction to your family dynamics. For example, practice taking a deep breath and see yourself as the gracious host or hostess acting respectful, grown-up, level-headed, responding nondefensively and filling your home with warmth, praise and approval.
Have a backup plan in place with your sweetheart for how to work as a team and handle it together. Develop a secret signal or word that says, ‘Step in now, please. I need help here.’ Once you have your backup plan in place, relax and anticipate goodness. What we focus on grows: Focus on staying calm and having a great gathering together.” ― Meyers
6. Having different philosophies about gifts
“One person in the relationship may show their love by researching, finding and buying the perfect gift, regardless of the amount, while the other person is more practical and thinks it’s perfectly OK not to spend extravagantly on a holiday gift. Some people feel the amount of money they spend on the gifts they purchase for family members or friends is a direct reflection on the amount of love they have for them. If both partners are not in agreement with gift buying and the amount spent, one or both could end up feeling resentful and angry.
To avoid this problem, partners should discuss gift buying and agree on how much each should spend for holiday gifts. This may mean reviewing household bills and upcoming expenses such as house painting or preparing for next year’s taxes.” ― Gibson
7. Finding time to connect when your schedule is hectic
“On top of your already busy life, add present buying, decorating, holiday parties and all the other financial and time-consuming emotional stressors the holidays bring, and you may find your emotional connection with your partner becoming drained.
“How can you avoid the despair of emotional disconnection and keep your relationship united and romantic throughout the holidays? A daily dose of what I call the three A’s — attention, appreciation and affection — are the critical factors in keeping any relationship alive and connected. And it doesn’t take much time or energy. It’s all about choosing where you want to focus your attention: on love or on stress. When you focus your attention on love and appreciation and everything you are grateful for, the holidays and your relationship feel so much better. Loving connection and partnerships thrive in a climate of acceptance, recognition and thankfulness. So make sure to hug each other every day, say, ’I love you’ and ’thank you’ for all the small and big things you do for each other.” ― Meyers