Relationship Connection: Holiday marriage stress

Photo by Joel R. Terrell


My husband and I used to be excited about the holidays, but now it seems that we only feel anxious and resentful because we’ve spent so many years arguing through them.  The main problem seems to be that we can’t ever agree on where to spend our time.  Is there something we can do so we don’t have to have this mess every year?


The next few months of holiday celebrations often put strain on otherwise healthy marriages.  Even though the holidays traditionally are a time to reconnect with loved ones, the logistics involved in planning and implementing holiday plans can induce stress and frustration.

Let’s look at a fictional example to see how an issue like this one might be handled.  Scott and Emily agreed to spend every Thanksgiving with his family. They eventually began having children and Emily felt it was important to have their own Thanksgiving meal instead of sharing the day with a large group of extended family members. She loved the idea of gathering her small family together to share a meal in a personal setting.

Scott, on the other hand, wanted to continue his extended family tradition with playing the annual “Turkey Bowl” and watching football with the guys after the meal. He wanted his own sons to take part in this cherished family tradition. The couple realized their beliefs about holiday traditions had changed dramatically from when they were first married and they began to experience some resentment and frustration toward one another. Neither of them could budge on how their family should spend Thanksgiving Day.

This is what marriage researcher John Gottman calls a “perpetual problem.” In other words, this is a problem that wasn’t going away anytime soon. When a perpetual problem is discovered in a relationship, it’s beneficial for the couple to recognize that they both have valid positions that need to be heard and understood by one another. These types of gridlocked situations are built into every marriage and are attached to deeply held beliefs and traditions that make compromise difficult.

The main objective in handling this type of situation is to initially take the focus off resolving the problem.  This is easier said than done, as each partner believes that his or her solution makes the most sense. Instead of trying to convince your partner that your way is the best way, focus on understanding the reasons behind your partner’s insistence.  Your partner isn’t being difficult for the sake of being difficult.  Your partner is feeling threatened that something of deep importance is going to be challenged or taken away.

Let’s return to our fictional couple to see how they might work through a discussion about their perpetual problem. Scott learned that Emily’s vision of herself as a mother includes cooking for and serving her children during holidays.  Due to her busy work schedule, Thanksgiving is one of few times where she can prepare a lavish spread for her children.  Emily took a turn listening to Scott and learned that he wants his sons to bond with their uncles and cousins, as he felt mentored and guided by caring uncles when he was growing up.

In most cases, couples can eventually reach a place where they both value and honor one another’s position, ultimately discovering some flexibility and compromise.

I recommend reading John Gottman’s book “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work”, which has a chapter on how to talk about these perpetual issues. You both deserve to have your positions honored and respected. In these long-term discussions, I’m confident you will both find ways to reduce your irritation with one another and find ways to meet both of your desires.

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