Community Counseling and Mental Health Saltzman Center School of Health Professions and Human Services

Happy? Holidays ~ Why the Holiday Season Can Put a Strain on Relationships

holiday tree lighting 2012
holiday tree lighting 2012

It’s thought of as the “most wonderful time of the year,” but for couples who are dating or newly married, holiday cheer can turn into tears if expectations are not agreed upon and managed. Teresa Grella Hillebrand, M.A., LMFT, director of the Marriage & Family Therapy Clinic at the Joan and Arnold Saltzman Community Services Center, agrees that the holiday season can put a strain on relationships.

Teresa Grella-Hillebrand
Teresa Grella-Hillebrand

She says, “The holidays turn up the heat on a relationship. We are under added pressure to shop, cook, and entertain during the holidays. Even couples who get along well can begin to argue over additional burdens – even festive ones.”

Professor Hillebrand explains there are increased opportunities for arguments and breakups during the holidays for couples who:
… are under financial strain. Holidays add significant pressure to spend, and that makes us all that much more aware of our financial limits.  If a couple isn’t negotiating their finances well, holiday spending (and when holiday bills come in) often instigates more arguments of greater intensity.

… come from different cultures or religious backgrounds. This time of year can highlight significant differences in traditions or even which holidays are celebrated.  There can be pressure to celebrate the holidays a certain way. There can also be the added stress that comes from a family’s disapproval of a boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse who celebrates differently or who comes from a different faith.

… tend to have a lot of expectations about the holidays. Couples often don’t communicate about their expectations until after they’ve started arguing, and by then it’s too late.

… have blended family relationships. Blended families can be at increased risk, especially if children are unhappy with a new spouse or relationship. In this situation, children can undermine attempts at holiday togetherness in the new family or new family traditions.

There are ways to put the “happy” back into “Happy Holidays.” Professor Hillebrand says, “New and unmarried couples need to discuss their holiday traditions with each other rather than assuming that they do things the same way.  If there are differences in how they want to celebrate, prioritize what is most important or most loved about their traditions and make room for those things on both ends.”  For example, if both people really love celebrating Christmas Day with extended family rather than Christmas Eve, plan to divide up the day;  dinner with one family and dessert with the other.

“Often, for newlyweds, there may be expectations about how observing the holidays will change or continue status quo, now that the couple is married. The problem is that spouses often don’t discuss this ahead of time and find themselves butting heads at what is often the most hectic and stressful time of year.”

Professor Hillebrand advises, “Take the time to talk about how each of you envisions celebrating as newlyweds and if you disagree, come up with a compromise so each person gets to live a piece of their holiday vision.  Many couples who have difficulty compromising, often end up trading off years:  this year we follow my plan, next year yours, etc.”

For more information on the Marriage and Family Therapy Clinic at the Saltzman Community Services Center visit .

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