There's a wave of tumult in the world right now even without a generous pour of flammable holiday cheer on top. But the holidays are approaching, and it's worth taking a moment to troubleshoot any couples/ problems before they even start. Here, some relationship experts give us some insight and actionable tops on how not to burn it all down between us and our lover.
1. Tough Conversations? Dance It Out Afterwards
Kindman says that moving our bodies after a contentious moment—like touching on a political topic with non-like-minded relatives—can work wonders to dissipate stress. “When you come out of a conversation where someone is not hearing you, your fight-or-flight response is activated and you feel yourself getting stressed,” she says. “It’s hugely important to release that big energy, even if you think your conversation went well. So go on a walk around the block, or put on one of your favorite ‘90s pop songs and dance it out, or if there’s nowhere to do that, curl your hands into a ball then release them five or ten times. You will notice this activates, then releases that stress energy.”
2. Agree to a Regular Check-In Moment with Your S.O.
In The Jewish Marriage Book: How to Improve Your Marriage One Jewish Holiday at a Time, Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin details the benefits of Imago therapy, which seeks to show how both partners are at fault in marital difficulty. In this therapeutic model, couples face one another, not the therapist, in a session and discuss their issues. Use a similar facing-each-other technique every day with your partner, whether it’s going over your plans in the morning, a private midday chat or a before-bed heart-to-heart. In the busy holiday season, this mutual temperature check is more important than ever.
3. Just Serve Their Favorite Cranberry Sauce
Made with love or plopped straight from the can, serve their choice of dishes with a smile. This shows you are willing to set aside your ideas about what the "correct" cranberry sauce, stuffing style or other food choice is, and give them what they want. It's the spirit of holiday appreciation, and it will show your loved one you want to please them.
4. Erect “Scaffolding”
In the therapy world, there’s a process called scaffolding—when you set up a shared expectation of what you and your associates can expect. For example, if you’re seeing your parents for the holidays, you want to scaffold your schedule—so that your parents don’t get miffed at you over a misunderstanding, which can cause a tense atmosphere that’s like kindling for a fight with your husband or wife. Los Angeles-based individual and couples therapist Kaitlin Kindman suggests making statements like “Hey Mom, tomorrow morning I think I am going to go on a run, so I won’t be around until lunch time.” Carving that space and time out for you ahead of time makes it a shared understanding and helps your family understand and not personalize it, making them more likely to support you to taking the space you need.
5. Use the Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart Method When Conflict Arises
Research professor and bestselling author Brené Brown says in her podcast Unlocking Us that when she’s feeling fearful, worried or “wobbly,” she wants to feel connected to her loved ones and her community…but that her (and let’s face it, most everyone’s) tendency is to fall back into a defensive, guarded attitude. In the interest of much-needed solace in these stressful times of social upheaval and pandemic (compounded by holiday stress, oh my) Brown recommends imagining that you have a strong back (to bear whatever discomfort or burden you might feel), a soft front (not armored against conflict but instead open to whatever feelings someone elicits in us) and a wild heart. That last part is key: Our recognition of our own wild heart allows us to experience joy even amid situations that are filled with grief and seeming hopelessness (or just plain annoyance that nobody’s washing their hands as much as you are).
6. Try Not to Eat Your Feelings
Who doesn’t love pie? And yet, holiday sweets like pie might trigger a snappish mood. “Notice if you’re eating to comfort yourself or soothe your feelings. If you are, try taking a walk, do some yoga stretches, or just take a few deep breaths,” says sex therapist and author Tammy Nelson. “Sugar highs are always followed by sugar crashes, and that blood sugar low can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety and irritability. To keep your energy up, try eating protein throughout the day.”
7. Use Touch to Support One Another Around the Dinner Table
Use the method of one therapist we spoke to: When her family is gathered together at a holiday meal, voicing opinions she finds objectionable, she discreetly puts her hand on her husband’s knee and gives it a gently squeeze. He places his hand on hers, as if to say back: I hear what’s going on, and you can vent all you want later when we’re alone.
8. Plan Your Outfit, Makeup and Hair Beforehand
You'll feel more confident, positive and attractive—all of which will make you be able to be less focused on yourself and more present in the moment, which is key to feeling connected as a couple—if you look nice. Then again, if you want to face your family with unkempt brows, sweatpants and lackluster hair, then bless your inner-beauty-filled heart.
9. Manage Your Expectations
“Most couples have high expectations over the holidays,” says Nelson. “They want extra closeness and bonding, they want snow and joy and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. They also dream of families getting along and partners holding hands. Try getting your expectations under control and know that the stress of holidays can mean you might feel let down.”
10. Plan Together-Time With Your Partner
Nelson recommends planning small intimate dinners and date nights with your partner alone in between the big social holidays. “Make them romantic; light candles, drink mulled cider or hot cocoa and make out in front of the yule log on your laptop,” she says. (Or, in front of Nana, no judgment.)
11. When Gifting, Don’t Forget Sexual Wellness
Soumyadip Rakshit, CEO and Co-Founder at MysteryVibe, says that since orgasms release oxytocin and endorphins, binding us to our partner, we should all try to have that happen during our holiday season. (No pressure: Any sort of intimate experience is a win.) He recommends setting aside an hour just for the two of you, and calling it “intimate time,” rather than “sex date” to lessen the awkwardness. He says to start by giving a massage then maybe introducing lube or a sex toy to enhance the experience. Keep it casual: “If you have not had sex for a month you can say. ‘Look honey I bought this a toy for us let’s try it.’ Then you can say, `That was fun, let’s try it again,’ and make time for it again the next week. That way, it can be a catalyst to re-start your sex life,” he says. Interestingly, MysteryVibe’s products (such as the bendy Crescendo and the ring-shaped Tenuto) are designed with both men and women in mind.
12. Have a Getaway Vehicle At the Ready
Even if you don't use your car, it's calming to know that, if the mood between you and your husband or wife becomes too tense, or you feel yourself getting angry or panicky, you can just take a drive to clear your head. Otherwise, it’s just another Christmas where you ask to borrow your in-law's car to drive to the nearest convenience store to chain-smoke the cigarettes you gave up three years ago.
13. Set Gift Shopping Deadlines Early
Remember: The more relaxed you feel, the less likely you and your spouse are to fight. So, thinking of arriving empty-handed to a family Christmas? Don’t. Or unsure what to get for your spouse? Figure it out and order now, so you don’t stress yourself out and disappoint your loved ones. Covid-19 has disrupted the usual supply chain, but if you trot that excuse out while everyone’s sitting in a pile of torn wrapping paper from more on-top-of-it family members, you’re only going to get a pinched smile in return.
14. Don’t Be Rigid About Rituals
Does your wife prefer hanging one tinsel strand at a time, while your family tradition has you throwing handfuls of the stuff on the tree? Consider trying it her way, or maybe skip the shiny stuff altogether in your household. And if the opening-gifts tradition of one person opens one gift, then the next person opens a gift, etc., seems too slow for you, think of it as meditation. Remember, the rituals of holiday time are made-up anyway, and differ from family to family, with no exact right way to do them.
15. Be Pleasantly Surprised When Your Partner Sacrifices For You
In a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, researchers found that when participants didn’t expect their partner to sacrifice for them, but the partner did, it made study participants more satisfied with their relationship. On the other hand, when participants expected their partner to sacrifice for them, when the partner actually did, it didn’t really make them happy. So, if you want to feel happy in your marriage? Expect less and look for all that your partner is doing for you.
16. Remember, You’re Building Character
In her book The Case Against Divorce, therapist Diane Medved reminds readers that crises in a marriage actually strengthen it—as long as you don’t give up. “The process of conquering problems is in itself gratifying,” she writes. “Solving a dilemma brings excitement, vitality and satisfaction within the most intimate relationship possible.”