When Our Christmas Traditions Clash

Author:
Sharon May, Ph.D. and Alan Hart


Part two in our series, "How to Make Home for the Holidays Happier"

Christmas can be a joyful holiday, but for many couples, it is the most difficult one. Christmas often triggers conflict, filling December days with disappointments, disagreements and disconnection.

More than any other holidays, Christmas is brimming with expectations of re-creating the most nostalgic sounds, sights and smells of Christmases past. For married couples, this conflict over whose childhood traditions will be followed (or present the challenge of agreeing upon new ones). Around every corner, it can seem as if an argument is ready to be triggered. How can you and your spouse stay connected, get along, and face the Christmas season as an 'us'?

As you know by now, your spouse's needs are different than yours. Many marriages have one partner who wants to decorate, and then assigns the other to drag the boxes and bins out of storage. Or one perhaps with some resentment, who must decorate alone.

We have found that among the over the 1,000 couples who have attended a Safe Haven intensive or seminar, their biggest arguments are the tug-of-war battles over Christmas traditions. Such as, where to spend Christmas holidays and dinners.

"But we always get together Christmas eve at my aunt's house and open presents," one spouse might argue, as the other pulls in the opposite direction: "You are right, we always go, but can't we stay home and establish our own family traditions?" Other arguments are over the color of sweaters, tree toppers, a live tree or an artificial tree, white lights or blinking colored lights, turkey versus roast beef (barbequed or oven baked?)... do you know what I'm talking about?

No matter what triggers your arguments over holiday traditions, choose to stay connected and face the Christmas season as an 'us.' That sentence, I know, is easy to read and difficult to live out. But it is worth opening up a conversation with your spouse about the possibility of doing Christmas differently this year. And the greatest gift you can give each other is to get through the holidays as an 'us.' To do that, agree to make your marriage a safe haven, one where you can:

1. Share with each other your Christmas expectations, longings and desires. Maybe how important it is for you to make your grandmother's pumpkin pie recipe, have a family photo all dressed in red, or open presents on Christmas eve rather than Christmas day.

2. Listen to each other with respect. Listening doesn't mean you are agreeing. It is an opportunity for you to each be heard and understood.

3. Value each other's perspective. Try to understand why a particular tradition is so vitally important to your spouse.

4. Share and listen with the kindest attitude and words. This is a conversation, not a repeat of the same arguments you've had over and over again in the past.

5. What price are you willing to pay for your tradition? Why is your longing to keep your tradition so important to you? Do you fear you will disappoint your parents if you don't spend Christmas Day with them? Is that really true? Are you willing to fight for red sweaters at the family photo at the expense of stressing everyone out? Or are you so stubborn and resentful that you are really willing to refuse to stop by your in-laws' house? What is the worst that can happen if you spend an evening with a group of boring relatives? Be careful to not make keeping a tradition (or not allowing your spouse to have their tradition) more important than your spouse's feelings, your children or your marriage.

6. If you disagree on what to do, where to go or how something should be done, slow down. Work toward a win-win, a trade-off, a compromise, a give-and-take, all the while keeping in mind the value of your spouse and your marriage.

And how will you pay for Christmas? In the midst of trying to balance your and your spouse's traditions, remember to come together over holiday finances. Create a Christmas budget that you can both agree upon. Base it on the reality of your finances. Don't spend money you hope to have in the future. Grieve what you don't have, spend only what you can afford. Stick to it. Conflict and mistrust are created when you go against what you have both agreed upon. It is that simple.

Be willing to work together to make the holidays happy for you both. If you and your spouse can make this a priority (or at least try to), it will help you pause at each intersection so you can choose the 'us,' rather than fight for your own way.

Do your best to keep your marriage a priority during the holidays. Because in the new year, it will once again be you and your spouse.

Part 1: When Home for the Holidays is Disappointing

Part 3: When Memories of Christmas Hurt

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