Marital quarrels around the holidays can be avoided

The timeless words, ‘I’ll be home for Christmas!’ can mean good will, lots of cheer and loads of fun. But, for some, being home for the holidays also provides the unfortunate ‘opportunity’ for conflict and tension, particularly between married couples.

Couples fight for a variety of reasons, but most marital quarrels center around the desire of one partner that the other partner somehow change, or be different. This desire is usually not realistic, and almost never well communicated. Based on my experience as a psychotherapist, I’d have to say this is the #1 reason for divorce.

As an example, let’s say Sue wants Joe to be more outgoing, and she’s mad at him for not being what she wants him to be. Well, maybe Joe should be more outgoing, but only if it would benefit him, not because it would benefit her. Sue’s anger at Joe conveys to him that he should change his behaviors or personality on her account and for her sake. If this is, in fact, what she means to communicate by her anger, then she’s wrong and she deserves the resentful reaction she most certainly will receive. If she truly (and this may take a little introspection on Sue’s part) does not mean to communicate that Joe should change for her sake, then she needs to find a way, other than anger, to build her case.

It is unhealthy, for both parties, to expect a husband or wife to fundamentally change. It inevitably leads to hurt, resentment and even, in a way, a feeling of having been cheated. Why cheated? Because, if you demand that he change to suit your needs, he will feel like you pretended to marry him for who he was, and now that you’re together for life, you’re expecting him to become someone different. It’s like changing the rules in the middle of the game. This tends to create a wall of hostility between you and your spouse and, even worse, if you do happen to have a good point that he should change some particular behavior or habit, the point gets lost in the ensuing conflict.

Breaking the Pattern

If you’re sincerely interested in seeing a change in your spouse, focus on particular behaviors rather than personality. For example, if you want your wife to interrupt you less, then ask her to do so. Ask her nicely, calmly and in private. Don’t express your frustration over her annoying habit in front of your friends. Don’t let her discover that this annoys you when you make a crack about it in front of a mutual friend or family member. Instead, let her be the first to know, and from you directly.

Even more, don’t ask her to become a different person merely because of this one annoying behavior. There’s a big difference between asking someone to interrupt you less and asking them to become more polite. Generalized complaints such as this are vague and lead to defensiveness. Specific, behavioral requests, politely made, tend to work a lot better. Think about it: You wouldn’t approach a stranger, a clerk in a store, an employee or a friend with vagueness or rudeness, at least not if you wanted something out of them. So why approach the most important person in your life this way? If you wouldn’t expect rudeness and hostility to work with someone else, then why should it work with the one you profess to love?

The very worst thing a spouse can do in such a situation is to top the anger with the accusation: “You’re being selfish!” There’s nothing wrong with an individual wanting to act in his or her own interest. Doing so is healthy, psychologically affirming, and, as such, makes one a better spouse, family member or friend. To communicate otherwise is devastating to a relationship. It’s like saying: ‘Now that you’re with me, your wants and needs should no longer matter. You live for my sake.’ No wonder divorce is so prevalent in marriages where this attitude takes over. It’s also ironic how those who demand ‘unselfishness’ are, in actuality, demanding a lot for themselves.

Improvement without Conflict

Fights are not inevitable in romantic relationships. Well-matched, reasonable people, who don’t expect their partners to change, will rarely, if ever, fight. If you know a couple that seems to never seriously argue or fight, most likely they are content with each other as they are.

Part of a good relationship involves challenging someone to grow and improve, and, occasionally, it’s not wrong to want your spouse to change some behavior. But the key is how and what you communicate. Make sure your expectations are fair and realistic, and make sure you’re talking about behaviors, not vague personality traits. Your criticism should be constructive, not unkind. And take responsibility for showing your husband or wife why you believe that the change is in his or her own interest, and not just yours.

The increased togetherness that comes with the season can amplify problems and conflicts that have been building all year long. So, to keep ‘home for the holidays’ from becoming a stage for quarrels and frustration, pay attention to these issues all year long, before they explode in a shower of tinsel, holly and cranberry sauce.