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"Tips for Navigating the Holidays Together as a Couple" in dark orange font above a stock photo of two pairs of feet, in cozy socks, in front of a roaring fire. Next to each pair of feet is a mug with a knitted cozy.

Tips for Navigating the Holidays Together as a Couple

Many of us have mixed emotions about this time of year. Some of you may feel excited for the joys of a vacation and time off with family for the holidays. Or, you may be mourning those who aren’t around this year and remembering disappointments that the holidays may have brought when you were young. Some of you may experience these struggles and then some.

The clocks are set back, the sky is dark, and there’s lots to get done in a short amount of time. Many people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (or “The Big SADS” as I like to call them), which is characterized by an increase in depressive symptoms due to the Winter season. Many people dread interactions with family members we rarely see, or feel anxious about the possibility of running into old acquaintances (or an ex) in your hometown.

No matter how you feel about this time of year, it’s likely you’re dealing with some significant stress during the holidays. An increase in stress can often lead to an increase in conflict in your romantic partnerships.

If you and your partner are experiencing any or all the above, here are some tips for getting through the holidays as a couple.

Remember that this too shall pass

It’s a cliche, we know, but it’s true! Remember that this is one time in one season of your life and life will get back to normal. Don’t let the hustle and bustle of the season overwhelm the progress you’ve made in therapy or in your own personal growth.

Set boundaries

Many people struggle to set and maintain their boundaries during the holidays. It’s important to remember that boundaries are about what you will or will not do, not what others can or should not do. Many people face pressure from family to take on old roles that no longer fit or engage in conversations that don’t feel safe.

Many folks struggle with feeling obligated to be in many places at once due to in-laws, blended family dynamics, or long-distance relatives. Remember, it’s okay to not spend time with certain people or in unsafe situations and to voice those concerns in a respectful way. How others respond is not in your control.

It can also feel impossible to set those boundaries despite your inner turmoil. If you find yourself falling into old patterns or being unable to maintain desired boundaries, go ahead and forgive yourself.

Family is hard, and sometimes you have to give more than you want to in order to keep the peace or maintain our own emotional safety. You can learn from these experiences and try again next time.

Take it easy on your finances

Many people also feel the pressure the holiday season brings to spend, spend, and spend. Whether it’s about getting your partner the “perfect” gift or ensuring all of your children are equally spoiled- it’s a lot! Setting a budget and sticking to it is a great way to curb pressure on yourself.

You and your partner can sit down and create a budget, or simply state expectations for gift giving and receiving. You may feel afraid of sharing your desires in this area, but it can relieve so much anxiety and pressure to be transparent about what you want and what’s expected of us. Money brings out a lot of different feelings for people based on our experiences and it can feel overwhelming to talk about.

Starting with a holiday budget can help you grow this skill with a partner and make the next budget a little less daunting. If you don’t feel you can have a conversation like this with your partner, it might be good to consider beginning couple’s therapy or having this conversation with your therapist in the room to guide you through the process.

Share expectations and plan together

Many couples report there is a pattern to who plans family events. This role can become even more stressful during holidays when we feel so many people and obligations pulling us in many different directions.

It’s important that you and your partner share responsibility for holiday plans so that you’re on the same page and can move forward on the same team.

You can each share what you need and want from the holidays to make the best plan for your relationship. If you find your expectations conflict with each other, or that plans are becoming overwhelming, that’s a good sign you need to reassess what’s really important for you in this season.

It may mean letting go of some things to best meet the needs of others but if we are able to share this with our partner, rather than slowly build resentment for unmet or unshared needs, you can protect your relationship and therapy progress.

Prioritize your partnership

During the holidays, many people can get caught up in the excitement and pressure of the season and lose track of their partner in all of this extra responsibility. It’s not only okay, but necessary, to prioritize your partnership during this time. 

This can look like:

  • Sneaking off for a quick walk around the neighborhood, just the two of you
  • Going to bed early to get in a little extra cuddle and chat session
  • Simply saying “No” to requests that are out of our comfort zone

Remember that when this holiday season is over, you will return to life with your partner. Spending time together with just the two of you can be a good reminder that you’re not alone and that you have a person on your team no matter what. Having one on one time with a loving supportive partner during the holidays can be grounding and remind us that our lived reality is waiting for us at the end of this season.

How can I cope with the holidays if my family isn’t in therapy?

Perhaps you and your partner have been attending couple’s therapy or individual therapy and feel you are making great progress in your relationship and personal growth. If you’ve been in Emotionally Focused Therapy, you’ve probably talked about how your own childhood and attachment history influences you in your relationship today. You have been growing and reflecting and feeling empowered to do things differently in your day-to-day life.

When you re-enter your family of origin, it’s normal to sometimes fall back into old patterns that resemble those of your childhood. This can be deeply triggering for people and can feel like you are losing progress or making mistakes.

It’s important to remember that your family is not in therapy with you and that they have continued to live life exactly as they had before. They may not understand or even respect the changes you are making to live a healthier, happier life.

It’s very normal, and even expected, for us to resume old roles when we enter old environments. This is something that many people experience during the holidays.

If you can, acknowledge this pull to resume old roles, and try to engage in your new coping skills. If you can’t, remember that this time does not mean you are backsliding. You are having a “normal” response to an environment that created years-long patterns – those don’t simply go away overnight.

It’s important to remember that this is also true for your partner. If you find yourself struggling to engage with this “old version” of your partner, remember it’s temporary. If you can identify the vulnerable emotion this brings up in you such as fear or sadness, share from this place.

Remember that your partner is facing pressure from patterns that were established from their birth. It can be impossible to see our old patterns showing up when we’re “in it”. If you are in couple’s therapy, this is a great opportunity to explore your family of origin with new depth that can lead to even greater healing.

Do the holidays bring stress that impacts your relationship? Our Denver couples therapists use Emotionally Focused Therapy to help couples connect with one another, repair past hurts, and understand each other more deeply. Make an appointment today to get started.

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About the Author

Family Counselor Denver Tech Center Maury HollimanHello, I’m Maury Holliman, Marriage and Family Therapist Candidate. I’m here to support you in your goals, whether they’re about your own personal growth or desires for change in your most important relationships or a combination of both.

You can expect therapy with me to be a slow build into deeper issues. We will take our time, exploring where you come from, what’s important to you, and where you want to go. I see myself as a provider of opportunities for change, developing new understandings of old patterns and using your natural strengths to move towards a brighter future.

The world throws a lot at you no matter what walk of life you’re in. Prioritizing yourself, your partner, your family, and important relationships can be challenging, and my hope is to provide you with a safe space to explore what’s really going on.

Learn more about how I can help here.

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