‘Home for the Holidays’ can Sometimes Have a Down Side

I’ve written before that many people set their holiday expectations very high. So high, in fact, that the need for “comfort and joy” can sometimes set the stage for tension. Clients often admit to me that the seasonal pressure to make everything (and everybody) instantly cheerful and merry can be stressful.

It seems that conflicts such as these center on attempts by one partner to somehow change the behavior of the other partner. It’s not only unrealistic, but it’s almost never communicated well.

Let’s say Deb wants Bill to be more outgoing over the holidays, and she’s mad at him for not being what she wants him to be. Well, maybe he should be more outgoing, but only if it benefits him, not because it would benefit her. Deb’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’s most certainly getting. If that’s not her intention (this may take some honest reflection on her part), then she needs to find some way other than anger to build her case.

It’s unhealthy to expect a partner to change fundamentally. 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 become generally more polite. Generalized complaints are vague and lead to defensiveness. Specific requests tend to work 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 this time of year can amplify problems and conflicts that have festered for a while. So, to keep “home for the holidays” from becoming a stage for frustration, pay attention to these issues all year long. So when the holiday pressure is on, lingering resentment won’t suddenly erupt in a yuletide snit that can ruin the season for everyone.