Over the holiday season, the mass majority have extra time on their hands and less spending-cash in their hands. This can be a time for ceasing moments with family, friends, and loved ones. It can also be an idle time that places the spotlight on a relationship, especially one that was already in a fragile state to begin with. The pressure inherent in attending family gatherings can not only lead to social anxiety, but to social comparison. People seem to be more suggestible during this time of year, and the notion of keeping up with Joneses as a benchmark for success, is ever-present. All too often, I work with couples who report feeling "less-than" the next couple. This may be because of humankinds innate tendency to compare oneself to others, in order to decipher how one measures up against societal standards. It could be described as the modern game of survival of the fittest--a game where everyone loses when haughtiness prevails and posturing peaks.
The holidays can also be a set-up for a marriage, as it causes couples to have unrealistically high expectations of their partner. This highly activated time is wrought with more than just innocent gift-exchange. The current climate of coziness and comfort can either perk us up as we snuggle closer to our partner, or that desire of intimacy can leave a gaping, unmet need in our winter forecast. For example, we might desire more closeness and quality time with our significant other, but if that love and affection is not received, we might end up feeling stifled, resentful, or dejected. The ethos of the holidays can feel incongruent for a couple who has just experienced a tragedy such a miscarriage or one that has recently discovered infidelity. Needless to say, these are examples of cases where the holidays can bring up more pain than pleasure. Yet, the pressure to be happy leaves many susceptible to embarking upon other avenues to feel something else, roads that echo gluttony, greed, or both. This can lead to over-indulging in alcohol, over-spending at the mall, and other addictive behaviors. The holidays are often an emotional time; it can be daunting to try and absorb where the year went, as we recognize this may be the last holiday we spend with a grandparent or even a parent. On the contrary, it may be the first holiday we must spend without a loved one. Existential questions and concerns are often surfacing during this time of year, as well. We might wonder, "who am I and what the hell am I doing with my life?" We might feel disappointed in our partner for not measuring up to our version of who we expected them to be, and that resentment can be exasperated by the barrage of postcards, commercials, and romantic flicks that seem to radiate over the mainstream during the December month. I often hear couples share about the tremendous amount of stress they feel during the holidays, as they feel they need to impress others at the family function, either by style of dress or by who has the "best" marriage. It is normal to want recognition, but this is also where a couple's differences in how they give and receive love can be highlighted. For instance, one party might feel loved through receiving gifts, while the other requires acts of service to feel doted over.
It is my personal belief that this time of year can be used as a vehicle to not only strengthen a marriage, but to build on each others strengths and to encourage each others growth for the year ahead. I myself was recently having coffee with a fellow, therapist-friend who unnassumingly asked, "so, how's married life?" to which I quickly replied, "it's great--we are both working a lot, but it's cool that its all going towards the same pot." My point for sharing this is twofold: For one, of course, what I was talking about is the idea of marriage as a partnership, in all things finance and family, since everything is suddenly shared as one. If analyzed, it is an interesting concept. But, additionally, my quick response reflects our cultures tendency to share only the good things and to avoid airing our dirty laundry (e.g., the first word out of my mouth was "great"). This can be contrasted with the tendency of most to solely broadcast the good stuff--like that one time we causally boarded a private jet--and to pretend that that war of words didn't just happen the other night over spilled bread crumbs on the bedsheets. We almost never share a Facebook status about how anxious the holidays make us feel or the spotlight effect it leaves on our marriage. In the spirit of counterculture, and of normalizing the strong feelings we all have during a high-intensity time of year, I curled up on the couch and began writing out these thoughts. Full disclosure: this blog was inspired by The Bishop's Wife--a black and white film I watched as I lazily sprawled on my couch on Christmas Eve, vegan ice cream cone at hand, and a refreshing clay mask transcending its previous muddy consistency into a hardened grip on my face.
Meanwhile, I realized that my husband and I had broken a special, yet simple, tradition over the past 3 consecutive years: viewing It's a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve (Mind you, we are Jewish, but this is a tradition that knows no religious bounds, and that's what makes it even better). I tried to recall the variety of less-than-legitamite reasons for skimping on tradition, and came up with excuses like jet lag, working on our business plan, and the minutiae of daily distractions that seemed to divide us from our roots. 'Tis the season to be jolly, and yet, we so often find ourselves devaluing this time for rest by placing unnecessary pressure on ourselves to up the ante, maintain productivity, and never, ever dare to press pause. This year, I'm working on it. I'm managing this by being mindful of how much I allow this time of year to drive me into a state of disarray and to disarm the devil on my shoulder who likes to mistake R&R for laziness. I'm aiming to relish in the sweet comfort of the times, by taking in the tranquil smell of my cranberry-scented candle and by bashfully bringing out to play every plaid, flannel button down that I own. Ah, it is after all, the calm before the storm.
So, with that all being said, here are my 5 quick tips for coping during the holidays and for nurturing your relationship, while you're at it:
1. Manage your expectations: peal back the meaning of the holidays and see it for what it is--rest and renewal--devoid of consumerism that seems to test the very fabric of matrimony. Maybe you just watched a commercial of a husband handing over the keys of a brand new Mercedes to his wife, red bow and white snow in tow. How can you manage your expectations of your spouse? Maybe you are both saving up for a downpayment on a forever-home, or for the retirement in Costa Rica you've been dreaming up since your late 20's. These plans make the commercial's lavish gift reasonably unrealistic. How can you prioritize what you want this year and what you can go without? What can you remind yourself to see your situation through a more logical lens? Perhaps you would feel equally loved and revered if you received a framed picture of you and your loved one. After all, it is truly the thought that counts, which leads me to my second tip...
2. Giving is Receiving: Loving kindness, tolerance of each others different love languages, sweet trinkets of your affection in the form of a hand written card--are all free gifts you and your partner can exchange this year. It is these acts of thoughtfulness that can breathe new life into a marriage, and that often cost little to no money. The hardest part of producing a sentimental gift or kind action, is carving out the time for it, during such a fast-paced and busy time. However, logistics are a barrier that can be overcome, and the outcome of making your spouse feel loved or seeing the smile on their face is definitely worth it.
3. Set an intention and dedicate it to your spouse: Maybe your intention is for your spouse to work fewer hours and to have more time at home with the family. Maybe you want more date nights and for your husband or wife to be less stressed out, more present, and able to disconnect from their work e-mail at the end of the night. Whether you are wishing for the bare minimum--like a new bid of health for your spouse--or you are wishing for wealth, just spell it out! Then, communicate the intention you've set for them and tell them why this means so much to you. You could use a simple I statement, such as, "I made a wish that you'll work less hours, because I hate seeing you so wiped out at the end of the day." Pretty simple, and you will of course adjust this to be appropriate for your style of speak and situation.
4. Create a gratitude list: Studies show that it is not those who have the most materialistic things who are the happiest, rather, it is those who are the most grateful for whatever it is that they have. Although November seems to be the month of harvest and thankfulness, there is no reason it should taper off during the December/January months! Try by making a three-item list of things you are grateful for and attempt to make this a daily practice. This can be considered a mindfulness tool, as you will be fully attending to the items on your list, without judgement or feeling of lacking. If things are especially hard right now and it seems impossible to find one thing you are grateful for at this very moment, you too might surprise yourself by noticing what you come up with. Something like "being alive" or "my health" or even "a roof over my head" can generate a sense of fullness that only gratitude can deliver.
5. Tap into the true spirit of the holidays: pre-historically speaking, what were the holidays about? Before designer labels and technological advances, social media or shopping malls, what would the holidays look and feel like? Bringing it back to the basics and attempting to clear out the extras. How would the holidays feel if you didn't have to worry about how you looked or what people said? Would you be stiller, calmer, happier? How can you bring this feeling into your modern day festivity and reduce the emotional disturbances of this fleetingly frivolous month?
Edit: after writing this post, we made it a point to watch It's a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve, per tradition. As an added bonus, I once again received the gentle nudge at the end of the movie, and I quote, "Remember, no man is a failure who has friends."
Happy Holidays & Love to You All,
Eva Moheban, LCSW