Avoiding family conflict during the holidays

We all know that the holidays can be a source of stress, including the seasonal pressure to make everything (and everybody) instantly cheerful and merry. Well, sometimes it’s just not that easy, and the timeless words, ‘I’ll be home for Christmas’ can sometimes provide the unfortunate ‘opportunity’ for 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. 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 number one reason for divorce.)

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 benefits him, not because it would benefit her. Sue’s anger at Joe conveys to him that he should change his 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 it’s truly not her intention that Joe should change for her sake (and this may take a little honest reflection on her part), then she needs to find a way, other than anger, to build her case.

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

Breaking the Pattern: If you’re sincerely interested in seeing a change in your spouse, focus on a particular behavior rather than his or her overall 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 while sipping eggnog with friends. Don’t let her discover that this annoys you when you make a crack about it in front of her extended family on Christmas Eve. Instead, let her be the first to know, from you, directly and privately.

Even more, don’t ask her to become a different person just 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 requests, politely made, tend to work a lot better. Think about it: You wouldn’t approach a stranger, an employee or a friend with vagueness or rudeness—at least not if you wanted something out of them. If you wouldn’t expect rudeness and hostility to work with someone else, then why should it work with the one person 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 makes one a better partner, 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 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 so much 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 never seriously argues or fights, 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. Talk about behaviors, not vague personality traits. Your criticism should be constructive, not unkind. And take responsibility for explaining why you believe that the change is in his or her interest, and not just yours.

The increased togetherness that comes with the season can amplify problems and conflicts that have been building for a while. So, to keep ‘home for the holidays’ from becoming a stage for quarrels and frustration, pay attention to these issues all year long. That way, when the holiday pressure is on, lingering hurt and resentment won’t suddenly erupt in a shower of tinsel, sugar cookies and cranberry sauce.