Avoid holiday conflict (Delaware Wave)

The seasonal pressure to make everything (and everybody) instantly cheerful and merry can certainly be stressful. The timeless words, ‘I’ll be home for Christmas’ can sometimes set the stage for tension, particularly among family and between married couples.

Couples fight for a variety of reasons, but most quarrels center on the desire of one partner that the other partner somehow change his or her behavior. It’s not only unrealistic, but it’s almost never communicated well.

Let’s say Sue wants Joe to be more outgoing over the holidays, and she’s mad at him for not being what she wants him to be. Well, maybe Joe should try to be more outgoing, but only if it benefits him, not because it would benefit her. Sue’s anger conveys to him that he should change his personality only for her sake. If this is, in fact, what she means, then she deserves the resentful reaction she’ll most certainly get. If that’s not her intention (this may take a little honest reflection on her part), then she needs to find some way other than anger to build her case.

It is unhealthy to expect a partner to fundamentally change. It leads to hurt, resentment and a feeling of having been cheated. Why? Because, if you demand that she change to suit your needs, she will feel like you only pretended to marry her for who she was. It’s like changing the rules in the middle of the game, and it creates hostility. And even if you do happen to have a good point, it will get buried in the conflict.

Breaking the Pattern

If you’re sincerely interested in seeing a change, focus on a particular behavior rather than the overall personality. For example, if you want your wife to interrupt you less, then ask her nicely, calmly and in private. Don’t express your frustration while sipping eggnog with friends. Don’t make a crack about it in front of her family on Christmas Eve. Instead, let her be the first to know, directly and privately.

Even more, don’t expect her to become a different person just because of this one behavior. There’s a difference between asking someone to interrupt you less and asking them to generally become more polite. Generalized complaints are vague and lead to defensiveness. Specific, polite requests tend to work a lot better. You wouldn’t approach a stranger with vagueness or rudeness — at least not if you wanted something out of them. So why should it work with the one person you profess to love?

The worst thing a spouse can do is to top the anger with the accusation, “You’re being selfish!” Acting in one’s own interest is healthy and psychologically affirming, and to communicate otherwise is devastating to a relationship. It’s like saying: ‘Now that you’re with me, your needs no longer matter.’ No wonder divorce is so prevalent. It’s also ironic how those who demand ‘unselfishness’ are, in actuality, demanding so much for themselves.

Improvement without Conflict

Well-matched, reasonable people who don’t expect their partners to change will rarely fight. If you know a couple that never seriously argues, most likely they are content with each other as they are.

Part of a good relationship involves challenging someone to grow, and sometimes it’s not wrong to want your spouse to change some behavior. But the key is HOW and WHAT you communicate. Your expectations should be fair, realistic and constructive. Be responsible for explaining why the change is in his or her interest — 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, cranberry and pine needles.