Five Ways to Survive (and Even Thrive) as a Couple this Holiday Season

The holidays are upon us! Are you dreaming about cozying up with your honey by a roaring fire? Romantic walks in a winter wonderland after a pristine snowfall? Tears of joy as your partner surprises you with just the perfect gift?

Not so fast.

Unfortunately, for too many couples, reality falls far short of their starry-eyed expectations. One study found December is the toughest month for couples. More arguments occur during this month than at any other time of the year, and one in five couples consider splitting. So much for holiday romance!

I’m not shocked by these dismal statistics. Let me take you back to the first Christmas my husband and I spent as a couple. It was 1984, and we had been dating for only three months. We were going to meet each other’s family for the first time.

First, we went to Montreal on Christmas Eve to be with my extended family. My husband’s recollection of that night is, “Complete bedlam. If one person was talking, the others just talked louder. There was a tremendous amount of loving energy but not what I was familiar with. It was overwhelming.”  True, my immigrant family was a messy mélange of three generations all talking at once, switching rapidly between Hungarian and English, and sticking our noses into each other’s business. But, isn’t that what all families do?

Apparently not, which was news to me.

On Christmas day, we drove to Ottawa to be with my husband’s family. My husband and I sat quietly in the living room with his mom and dad. I remember feeling, “This is eerie. You can hear a pin drop.” The conversation was polite, formal and reserved—true to “old stock” Canadian values (their family were early settlers to Canada in the 1800’s). I wasn’t asked any personal questions because they would have considered it rude to pry. It was the first time I ever said “grace” before dinner. My rambunctious family always dove right in.

As I look forward to our 31st Christmas as a couple, we have ironed out differences that include culture clashes, and so much more. Here is what I have learned about what it takes not only to survive—but also thrive— as a couple during the holiday season.

Be a good sport.  Relationships require compromise, especially in December—so the ability to be a good sport is a bonus. My family is in Montreal. My husband’s is in Ottawa. We live in Toronto. So we accept that we will spend a lot of time on the road to visit both families over the holidays. We do so uncomplainingly, and play according to the “home-team’s” rules. We respect traditions and beliefs that are not our own. We consider it like being tourists in a foreign land. My best “good sport” moment came when my father-in-law bought me the most hideous Christmas sweater (beaded ornaments on bright red shiny polyester). I wore it.

Lighten up. It’s easy to drive oneself crazy during this season by feeling you have to do it all—buying thoughtful gifts for everyone from the in-laws to the dog walker, saying ‘yes’ to every holiday party invite, and organizing socials you are too tired to host. And the crazier you become, the crazier you will drive your partner, and the less fun you will both have. My husband and I try not to let the “work” of the holidays hijack the “fun” of it. Sure, there is always a massive amount to be done, but this is the time to create special memories. Ask yourself, when you look back in ten years’ time, do you want to remember grumpily making yet another dessert (when you already baked three types of squares), or that awesome game of shinny? If dinner is served an hour later because you were having fun, no one is going to starve.

Break some rules. There are so many expectations that come with the holidays—no wonder couples run the risk of disappointing each other. It’s better to create one’s own traditions than become a slave to conventional ones. My husband and I agreed to stop buying presents for each other many years ago. I am not embarrassed when friends ask, “So…what did he get you?” and I say, “Nothing.” We hated working towards a December 25th deadline, and didn’t want to spend money for the sake of it (especially when daycare costs started to suck up most of our earnings). We are pragmatic about presents to our friends and family because we know many are forgotten about by Boxing Day. We learned this at our eldest child’s first Christmas. He received a mountain of expensive toys. What was his favourite? The wrapping paper!

Give the gift of time. Holidays can fly by in the blink of an eye, and a common complaint is that people feel less rested after the break. While couple time, family time and time with friends is important, it is just as important to recharge one’s batteries by unplugging from others. This can often only be done when you and your partner give each other the gift of time. My husband is a downhill skier so I hold down the fort for a few hours so he can get away. And, when I want to “disappear” to read a trashy novel uninterrupted, he will pick up the slack. Neither of us wants to feel ripped off that our holiday didn’t feel like one—and with all the demands of the season, it is too easy for that to happen. By making little sacrifices, we can accommodate each other’s hobbies and interests, and need for “me” time.

Appreciate each other. If perceived inequities in domestic contribution are already a sore point between you and your partner, this could escalate to open warfare during the holiday season. Another study found that the vast majority of women don’t believe men understand the effort required for a “perfect” Christmas—and a substantial number of men think they could do a better job than their partner in hosting the festivities. True, there is so much “invisible” work done in December by both men and women. It is easy to miss how our partner is contributing to the cause. I know the shopping my husband does for the kids (I don’t have a clue what to buy) flies under my radar. Set priorities (what is your collective vision of a “perfect” holiday) and how can you work together to get as close as you can to that ideal? No one should be slaving away in the kitchen while the other lounges by a toasty fire, clueless to the other’s efforts. Remember to say ‘thank you’—and seal it with a kiss under the mistletoe.

There is so much hype about the holidays. Unfortunately, our romantic notions are too often dashed (isn’t “Dasher” a name of one of Santa’s reindeers?), and replaced with resentment, exhaustion and financial stress. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a bit of compromise, perspective and good will, you can survive and even thrive as a dynamic duo…and banish all thoughts of setting your partner adrift on an ice floe.

[Originally published in eHarmony.]

Sue Nador hashes out expectations in the messy world of love. Follow her on Twitter: @Sue_Nador and her weekly blog The Relationship Deal.

Find more ideas and tips in our Holiday Survival Guide:
How to Host a Kick-Ass Christmas Party
Delicious Cocktail Recipes
In-law Etiquette
Turkey Dinner 101
Hilarious (and Helpful!) How to Roast a Turkey Video
Staying Home For The Holidays
Sweet and Salty Chocolate Bark Recipe
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