The Eight Worst Christmas Arguments
And how to avoid the January counselling queue...
One annual tradition worth giving a miss is the festive falling-out with your partner. Ten days of booze, rich food, in-laws, overheated houses and the Boxing Day Sales are enough to put even the happiest relationships under stress.
However, if things have been tricky with your partner for a while, the holiday season can throw your relationship into a nasty downward spiral.
The key is - be prepared! If you can take stock and anticipate some of the challenges December will bring, you may be launching a positive cycle that can really turn things around in the New Year.
It is amazing how solving one small dispute can not only build your confidence for larger issues, but teach skills that can be applied to even the most explosive subject.
Holiday disputes are doubly stressful; so if you can head these off you are guaranteed not only a more relaxing break, but a springboard to happiness for the year ahead.
Here are eight potential flashpoints and how to head them off.
1. Different Holiday Visions
He’s doing some last minute Christmas shopping and wants to take the kids with him ‘to soak up the atmosphere’ but you’re worried that the shops will be packed and the youngest will get lost. However half an hour later, you turn round and find he’s taken them anyway.
Or, she wants to invite all fourteen relatives and friends round for a traditional Christmas with named place settings at the table and competitive charades; you want two weeks of peace on a Caribbean beach.
Quick Fix: find an alternative way to communicate - like writing a letter or sending a text. Often putting a request differently will get the message heard.
What it is really about: inability to compromise.
New Year’s resolution: to explain why you feel so strongly about something without getting angry or defensive, and to give your partner the same opportunity.
Couples are frightened that different values will tear them apart, and therefore put more energy into trying to convince their partner they’re wrong than they put into understanding them.
In reality, what splits couples is not their differences, but how they deal with them. Once someone feels heard, they are truly ready to compromise (rather than back down) and even fundamental differences will be settled to everybody’s satisfaction.
2. Sweating the Small Stuff
You are exhausted from weeks of shopping, baking, and making your own Christmas crackers and he asks: “why you didn’t buy organic cranberries?”
Or, you ask her to lay the table and she snaps: “you’re not my manager”.
Quick Fix: remember that only ten percent of the message our partner receives comes from our actual words; forty per cent from the tone of our voice and fifty per cent from our body language.
So when under stress, count to ten before you say something, in case it does not come out as you wish.
What it is really about: fear of arguing.
New Year’s resolution: to deal with issues as they come up. Instead of ignoring the small niggles, and letting them build up into an almighty row, say something at the time.
Firstly, this gives your partner a chance to immediately change the upsetting behaviour, secondly it prevents a build up of toxic niggles with each partner throwing-‘and another thing’-into the eventual row.
Ultimately, disputes are easier to solve when they are about just one thing.
You’ve decided to put Christmas on the credit card, treat the family to vintage champagne and worry about the bills in the New Year; he even questions how much change you gave the carol singers.
Quick fix: agree to differ. This is such an emotive time that trying to tackle money issues is a non-starter.
Instead, recap both your position and your partner’s, for example: ‘I believe nice presents show you care, but I am aware that you believe we can’t afford it.’
With both opinions on record, make an appointment to really unpack your financial issues in the New Year.
What it is really about: the past.
New Year’s resolution: to sit down together with bank statements and work out a budget. In most relationships there is a saver and a spender, and which role we choose depends on our childhood.
However under stress, both halves retreat into their corner and become more extreme. The more the saver worries about money, the more the spender absolves him or herself of all responsibility - which in turn makes the spender spend more and the couple become more stressed.
Instead talk about what money means to each of you; where these ideas come from and how to compromise. Ultimately money should be a joint responsibility.
4. “Me Time”
She says she’s worked hard all year and just wants to catch up on missed Netflix hours; you think it’s a chance to finally clean out the garage properly.
Quick fix: plan ahead. Start by sharing your number one priority for the break; and make them specific rather than general. Instead of “catch up with chores”, write “install a new kitchen tap”; instead of “unwind”, write “watch one season of White Lotus”). Put these events in the diary and schedule the necessary time.
What it is really about: power struggle.
New Year’s resolution: to take it in turns to be in control for a weekend. Often our fantasies of life, if our partner ruled the world, are worse than the reality.
Many couples who try this exercise discover that they had nothing really to worry about. The busybees quite enjoy the relaxation dictated by their partner’s choices and don’t worry that ‘nothing will ever get done’, because next weekend is their turn in charge. Another great advantage is just how much each partner learns about the other.
You have a couple of Christmas drinks with the neighbours and your partner accuses you of laughing too loudly and enjoying the attentions of a circle of men. Or, he’s gone into full panic mode about your habitually inappropriate and drunken office Christmas do.
Quick fix: instead of criticising your partner’s behaviour, talk about how it makes you feel. This prevents post-mortems becoming a dispute about what is right or wrong and provides a forum for possible alternatives.
What it is really about: imbalance of sexual desire.
New Year’s resolution: to spend more time being physically intimate without having sex. Many couples end up with ‘all or nothing’ syndrome: alternating between full intercourse and days without even touching.
One half desperately wants sex, the other feels crowded and the bedroom becomes a warzone. Cuddling, without it leading to sex, provides the reassurance for the more sexually charged partner and allows the other half to be close without feeling used.
He delights in getting your mother tipsy because it makes her notoriously indiscreet, (his version) or poisonous (your version). Or, her sister keeps dropping helpful comments about how best to make brandy butter but she doesn’t take your side in the ensuing dispute.
Quick Fix: agree that each half is responsible for dealing with their relatives.
What it is really about: poor boundaries.
New Year’s resolution: to decide together what is and what is not acceptable from other people- and stick to it. Without a fence anybody could wander into your garden; without decent boundaries anybody can wander into your relationship and start interfering.
Your families might be well-meaning, but you and your partner know what is best for your relationship. Once you have settled on your boundaries, be certain to police them.
Saying Yes to Everything
Having finished making the angel costume for your best friend’s daughter’s nativity play, you’re stirring the Christmas puddings (because your partner thinks shop-bought are tasteless but is too busy at work to make them) when your elderly mother phones to ask you to address the envelopes for her Christmas cards. You take a deep breath and tell her you’re on your way.
Quick Fix: buy yourself thinking time by saying: “I’ll need to consult my diary; check with my partner; juggle some other things... then I’ll get back to you.”
What it is really about: low self worth.
New Year’s resolution: make time for yourself. Desperate for everybody’s love, you’re frantically running around trying to please, and forget what is important in your own life.
True self-worth ultimately comes from within, so stop pleasing others and start saying ‘no’. Think of all the positive things you’d ultimately be able to say ‘yes’ to by being more selective.
Your partner has agreed that her daughter from her first marriage can bring her new boyfriend to Christmas dinner, while you wish it could be a traditional ‘family only’ day.
Quick fix: have an open mind. Don’t expect problems that might not actually happen.
What it is really about: fear of change.
New Year’s resolution: look for the upside. Because you fear change, you see it as something bad. However change is actually neither intrinsically good nor bad; it is all down to how you look it. A white Christmas could be beautiful (you could sit by an open fire and play games as a family) or terrible (family won’t make it for lunch and the kids will be stir-crazy shut up inside) - it all depends how you look at it.
This week on the podcast I spoke to writer Amanda Deibert, author of a beautiful new gratitude journal called You Already Have the Answers. We talked about the ways in which our lives are full of insight and wisdom, if we can slow down and find a meaningful route inward. Most of us are much stronger and braver than we think.
AND - we have our first ever The Meaningful Life podcast giveaway. Two listeners from the UK or the USA have the chance to win a copy of You Already Have the Answers.
Use the “Get Involved form on my podcast page (https://andrewgmarshall.com/podcasts/) to answer the question “What Have You Learned and Put Into Action After Listening to The Meaningful Life?
Entries due by close of day Thursday 15th December.
And as always, if it feels like the right time to start marital therapy, send an email to Tricia (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a virtual or in-person appointment with one of my team of therapists in London, or with me here in Berlin.