How The Holidays Stress Relationships — And What To Do About It

Marriage Counseling Insights brought to you by California Psychotherapeutic Resources, Inc.

You’re only half-way through your holiday gift list, your office party is this evening (in person, no less!) and your babysitter just cancelled and you feel a bit of a cold coming on. What holiday stress?! Well, at least your partner will listen to your woes and offer encouraging words, right? Well, maybe. All too often couples direct their holiday stress at their partner. OK – slow down, take a deep breath and make a commitment to handle any conflicts with your partner around the holidays in a healthy fashion.

A stressed out woman

But what, exactly, is a healthy way to handle conflict? Writing for, Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD, says “According to relationships researcher John Gottman, there are three common styles that couples in healthy relationships use to manage conflict: validating, volatile, and conflict-avoiding.” The key is realizing which style you and your partner use and then consciously seek to resolve disagreements using that style. Phelps sums up the three styles as:

Validating Style. “These couples tend to remain relatively calm during disagreements. They work cooperatively to resolve their issues,” writes Phelps. This style may take a modicum of self control on the part of both partners, and a willingness to compromise, but the result can be open, honest and productive discussions. One drawback to this style to watch for, though, is that one or both partners may just avoid a difficult discussion for the sake of keeping things calm.

Volatile Style. “These couples often resolve conflict through passionate arguments” but … “Volatile couples can find that their relationship gets into trouble when their expressiveness crosses the line into not being sensitive to each other and being hurtful,” says Phelps. You can recognize this style with a couple who argues passionately — and then makes up with just as much passion.

Conflict Avoidance. “Your relationship falls into this category,” says Phelps, “if you tend to minimize differences and avoid arguing.” The problem with this style is that you may never end up addressing real issues, which can lead to a slow and unhealthy increase in tension. That may lead to the need for professional counseling.

Read more about Phelps’ insights here.

Of course, another way for couples to handle holiday stress is to develop a plan that helps eliminate stress in the first place. Easier said than done, but Kyle Benson, writing for The Gottman Institute, has some ideas to do exactly that. The key, he says, is identifying all the things that need to be done and then assigning tasks to each partner in a fair manner. These five tips for creating your plan may help.

1. “List out all the chores and responsibilities that require attention. This will give you an objective view for determining who should be in charge of what.”

2. “Add three columns to the list: one for you, one for your partner, and one for both of you.”

3. “Read the list together. Talk about each other’s perception of how holiday responsibilities were handled in the past, and discuss how you would like them handled this year.”

4. “Go through the items that are easy to assign this year and choose who is responsible (you, your partner, or both), check the appropriate task and partner on the list, and set aside the tasks that may need to be talked through for later.

5. “For the items you didn’t assign, take the time to ask each other open-ended questions about the task and the difficulties associated with it. Truly listen to what your partner likes and doesn’t like, which is an opportunity to learn something new about your partner and their preferences and concerns.”

Check out Benson’s full article, including tips for stress-reducing conversations, here.