Written by Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, the Marriage in a Box blog shares insights into common relationship struggles, gives ideas for moving beyond the roadblocks, and helps you find your path to happiness – both individually and within your relationship.
When you are having marriage troubles, it is hard to see past the hurt and pain and put on a happy face for the sake of a special occasion. With Christmas and New Year’s right around the corner, you may be wondering how you and your spouse will get through the coming weeks. Here are 6 suggestions on how to celebrate the holidays despite your marriage troubles.
Forget Tradition. 2020 has been anything but a perfect year; so don’t expect a perfect Christmas. Let go of your expectations and traditions and aim for a holiday that is “happy enough.” It's more important for you, your spouse, and your children that you are fully present and engaged than it is to honor every tradition you’ve ever had.
Do something for someone else. Consider doing something to serve someone else through the season. It is always good to adjust your focus a little by getting outside of yourself and giving. It also creates a tangible way for you to remember there is always, always, always something to be thankful for.
Say No to extended family obligations. For right now, your immediate family needs your undivided attention. Throwing parents, siblings, and crazy aunts and uncles into an already difficult season is going to get really messy. Avoid the questions you don’t want to answer and get out of the conversations you don’t want to have. Just tell them “we have decided to do something out-of-the-ordinary this year.”
Skip the holiday parties. While it is tempting to go out and socialize, drown your sorrows in a cocktail, and ditch your spouse for a while, you are courting disaster. It won’t build you up and when your inhibitions are down, you are likely to make a fool of yourself and say things you wish you could take back.
Keep it simple. You may not feel like cooking the ham, potatoes, vegetable, and dessert for the whole family. Maybe you need to keep it simple this year. Order pizza, and let the feast go. Make do it yourself sundaes. Play board games. Don’t make demands of yourself or your spouse. Just focus on being with your family.
Make time for yourself everyday. Trying to put on a happy face amidst the busyness of the holidays when you are hurting and worried takes a lot of energy. Recharge your batteries by taking a little time for yourself every day. Sleep in, exercise, take a walk, listen to some music, or take a hot bubble bath. Do what makes you happy.
Here’s hoping that you enjoy a Happy Holiday.
When we try to hard to have the perfect holiday, it creates a lot of stress. Our mental to do list goes into overtime planning for joyful family gatherings, heartfelt gift giving, delicious food, and fun holiday events. Any time we set our expectations high, we can actually make ourselves miserable.
The reality is that many people overspend, overdo, and overeat during the holidays. Many try to do it all themselves, try to go to every holiday party and event, and fail to plan ahead or take time for them.
The key to relieving stress during this busy holiday season is to sit down with your spouse and plan for how much money you will devote to the holidays, how you will handle gift giving, family get-togethers, and parties and events. Here are 5 ways to do it.
- Set a budget and stick to it
Nothing puts stress on a relationship than overextending your finances during the holidays. Sit down with your spouse and make a list of gifts to buy, holiday purchases for decorations and food. Trim back your list by cutting back on the “extras” like more decorations or food or less expensive gifts. You don’t need to go overboard to have a great holiday.
- Learn to say NO.
You do not need to attend every holiday party and event. Make sure to space out parties and events so you have time to breathe in between. Decide as a couple which events to attend and say No to the rest.
- Ask for help.
You do not need to do everything yourselves. Make the holidays a family time and get everyone involved. Ask extended family to come to a cookie and candy swap. All the baking gets done and everyone goes home with lots of delicious goodies. Make the holiday meal a potluck so you don’t have to do all the cooking.
- Plan for last minute changes.
Holidays are also a time when plans don’t always go they way you want. Someone in the family gets sick and you have to cancel an event. The vegetable dish you were supposed to bring to the party turned our terrible. Life happens and you will get through it. Adjust your attitude and accept the change.
- Take care of yourself
Eating all the rich foods during the holidays and trying to pack in all of the events and parties can wreak havoc on your body. You each need time to take care of you. Prepare healthy meals. Get plenty of sleep. Take some time to get some exercise.
As this joyous holiday grows near, don’t get caught up in the endless stressors. Put your time and energy into what is most important-your marriage and your family.
Many people would love to have a “Hallmark” Christmas where the food and cookies are delicious, the House is decorated perfectly, and everyone gathers to meaningfully connect with family and friends. What happens when your expectations don’t mesh with reality?
Some people react with arguments and fights with family to try to make the moments into perfect ones. Other people hold it in and sulk in silence. Surely there is a healthy alternative that will allow everyone to enjoy the holidays in spite of what happens.
The truth is that more often than not, most people’s holidays have several mishaps and they cope by making back up plans and accepting what happens.
Check your expectations. Start by talking about your expectations for the holidays with your partner. Are your expectations realistic? Try to visualize the holiday. What do you and your partner picture? What are you doing together?
Are you picturing things? It is very easy to caught up in things at Christmas. The perfect decorations, cookies, and presents, etc. can require a lot of shopping, baking, and money.
Are you picturing intimate get-togethers or large family gatherings? Whatever you are picturing, you can both take time to get on the same page and decide what you want to do together. Rather than try to plan a family meal that you cook for everyone in the extended family, plan a smaller get together with each set of parents and make it a pot luck.
Bring your visions into reality. Take your perfect vision and adjust it to fit your circumstances.
In this year of COVID, many people are out of work or have had to pull in the reigns to make ends meet. Skip the expensive shopping and consider having the family make homemade decorations and gifts.
Perhaps you partner’s vision is those family traditions that his or her family always observed at Christmas. Chances are that you will not be able to recreate those exact traditions. Don’t try. Brainstorm some new traditions or a different version of traditional ones that you and your partner can create as your own.
Talking about your expectations together can help you both taper your expectations so that no one is disappointed, frustrated or angry. The key to a happy holiday is advance communication and planning.
Many couples tend to focus on the problems and conflicts in their marriage, believing that if they can just solve their problems their marriages will be happy. The reality is that no couple will ever solve all of their problems.
There are two types of problems in a marriage.
- Solvable problems are those that are situational, one-time or occasional problems. Solvable problems do not cause pain to a spouse. A solution can usually be found after discussion.
- Perpetual problems are conflicts that happen repeatedly and are rooted in personality traits or cultural beliefs or family upbringing. Perpetual problems cause pain and are usually emotional conflicts. No matter how often the couple discusses the problem, a solution is not found.
The process to arrive at a resolution or way to cope with both types of problems is the same. All people have a basic need to feel that they are understood and accepted. If you understand your spouse and accept who they are, you are able to communicate openly to resolve your issues.
In order for your marriage to remain a loving a safe place to be, we need to be willing to understand our partner.
Often our egos get in the way of trying to understand how our partner is feeling and what they need from us.
In any marital problem or conflict there are two subjective opinions, yours and theirs. No one has the right opinion and no one knows the right way. The problem or conflict is never one partner’s fault. When something happens, you see it one way and your partner sees it another way. It is a matter of perception.
The first step in resolving any problem or conflict is communicating to understand the problem or conflict. That means:
- No judgment
- No blaming
- No accusations
You need to take time to calm down, think about what made you upset, and what should change either resolve the problem or make it easier for you to cope with it.
In order for marriage to improve, we need to feel accepted by our spouse.
True acceptance means that you love your spouse for who they are, warts and all. It is not a conditional acceptance that your partner seeks. If you do this I will accept you, if you make more money I will be happy with you. Not accepting your spouse for who they are is rejection.
You fell in love with your spouse when they were not perfect; so do not require that they change their personality or intrinsic nature in order to be accepted by you.
- Focus on what you admire about your spouse.
- Focus on what makes you grateful for your spouse.
- Focus on the little things your spouse does to make you happy.
Unless your spouse feels accepted by you, it will be difficult to discuss any type of problems you have in the marriage. When people feel criticized, unappreciated, or disliked, they are too busy protecting themselves to have an open communication about issues.
There are no big magic, dramatic solutions to our problems in a marriage. The small everyday efforts we choose to make to understand and accept our spouses as they are will help resolve the problems are make them easier to cope with.
Too often when people have been together for a while, they have a tendency to take each other or granted. We may stop making an effort to be our best selves for our spouse. Before long, we are ignoring our spouses, not seeking their opinion on things, criticizing them for their values or beliefs, or becoming impatient when requesting something of them.
When you stop putting the needs and happiness of your spouse before you own, you have sunk into selfishness. Continue down this road and you will drive your spouse away. The hour has come for you to start being your best self for your spouse by sowing them respect and kindness.
Respect is the foundation of a healthy marriage. Couples enter into marriage voluntarily because they love each other, but they are individuals with differing needs and wants. As such, each partner in the relationship should be willing to:
- listen to their spouse
- be accepting of their differences
- be patient when requesting something or communicating, and
- respect their personal boundaries.
Respect is revealed in the things we say, the tone of voice we use, our expectations of our partner, and how we listen to our partner. There is no room in a marriage for rude or sarcastic remarks, name calling, criticism, anger or yelling. You do not seek to tear down someone you love. You need to treat your partner gently, tenderly, and protectively. Love is fragile and when someone close to you treats you harshly, that love is crushed.
Communication is essential for achieving respect in your marriage. The better you communicate, the better you can restore and maintain marital respect. Begin a conversation with praise and softly lead into the issue you want to discuss. State how you feel about an issue rather than accuse our partner of a behavior. Your aim is to keep the conversation positive and non-defensive so that it does not escalate to anger. Remember that you are talking to someone you love.
Don’t look for a reason to be kind; just be that way. Kindness is shown in a thousand ways, such as texting encouraging words, being a builder, having a shoulder to cry on, always finding the good, smiling, finding ways to serve your spouse, hugging your spouse, and thinking of them before you think of yourself.
It takes effort to be kind. You have to focus on the positive things about our spouse and tune out the negative. Both partners in a marriage are imperfect. Picking apart our partner for their differences does nothing to bring you closer together.
A small kind gesture or word may be just what your partner needs to face a harsh, unforgiving world. Be gentle, patient, forgiving, and positive with your spouse.
- A kiss on the check before work
- Keeping dinner warm in the oven when your spouse has to work late
- Forgiving your spouse when they forgot to take out the trash, or Encouraging our spouse with a “knock ‘em dead” before a big presentation makes a positive difference in their day that they will remember.
Respecting your spouse and treating them with kindness are two things that cost very little but can build a healthy, happy marriage.
Apologizing is something everyone in a committed relationship needs to learn how to do, as it can help end arguments and make your partner feel better when their feelings are hurt. It does not matter who was right and who was wrong. You do not need to solve the issue before you apologize for the damage you caused.
A sincere apology helps both the victim and the person who you are asking for forgiveness. When should you apologize? At the end of a long and painful journey, after a fight where we can't take back the hurtful things we said, after weeks or even months of withdrawing from our partner emotionally. Essentially, anytime you feel you may have hurt your partner, you should apologize.
What is an apology?
An apology is a repair attempt born out of love and friendship, the purpose of which is to remind one another of your bond. An apology is admitting you made a mistake, hurt someone's feelings, did something really stupid, made a bad decision, or something else you know is not right.
How to apologize
When you apologize to your spouse, your apology should be genuine and sincere.
- “ I am sorry.”
Express your regret for what has been done.
- “I was wrong and should not have done that.”
Accept responsibility for your actions and words. You are owning your mistake and displaying that ownership to the person you may have hurt.
- “ I want to make this right and restore your confidence in me?”
State what you are willing to do to make things right again.
- “ I will try my best not to do that again.”
Emphasize your determination to not make the same mistake again.
- “Can you forgive me?”
You need to humble yourself and ask for your partner’s forgiveness. This also lets your partner know that you want to repair the damage and continue your relationship.
What NOT to do in your apology
- Don’t make excuses
- Don’t bring up the issues again
- Don’t place blame on your partner (even if they have some blame)
- Don’t make your apology contingent on your partner apologizing
- Don’t demand forgiveness
- Don’t make promises you won’t keep i.e. “ I will never do that again”
When you make an apology and request to be forgiven, it may be difficult for your spouse to forgive you. To forgive you, they must give up their feelings of hurt, anger, embarrassment, humiliation, rejection or betrayal. They will have to live with the consequences of your behavior. They may need time to process it all, so do not expect immediate forgiveness.
Be patient with your spouse, and yourself, and keep the lines of communication open. Forgiveness takes time.
There is no truly perfect marriage or a perfect partner. We all have flaws, but when those wicked little behaviors start robbing you and your partner of the joys of marriage, it is time to put an end to them.
- Being closed off to new experiences with your partner
Partners can adopt roles or routines that limit us and close us off to new things and experiences. “You know I don’t like that restaurant,” or “We always see a movie on Saturday night.” It hurts the relationship when we stop being free and open to developing new shared interests. It can foster real resentment between partners.
While we genuinely don’t like some things, try to remember what it was like when you were dating and experiencing new things with your partner. New experiences can help keep a marriage vibrant.
- Manipulating your partner
Some partners may engage in manipulative maneuvers to get what they want, such as trying to control a situation by falling apart, crying, blowing up or being intimidating. They may adopt roles that hurt or limit them in their relationship. One person becoming domineering and controlling, while the other acts passive and submissive.
It’s essential to say what we want without trying to dominate or control a situation. Being Direct is the best way to maintain an honest and authentic way of relating that gets us what we want in life.
- Sending mixed messages to your partner
Partners can drive each other crazy when their words and actions fail to match. Unfortunately, deception and duplicity are commonly used in a relationship. There can be mixed messages based on people that say one thing but do something else. Examples:
- Saying, “I really love you,” but then acting like you don’t have any time to spend with your partner.
- Saying, “I need to be close to you,” then continually criticizing your partner when he or she is around.
Actions that contradict your words do not look like love. Say what you mean and behave accordingly.
- Lack of affection and impersonal sex with your partner
Over time in a marriage, the sex can start to feel inadequate and impersonal. Some couples describe their sex lives as mechanical or highly routinized. The routine takes much of the excitement out of their attraction. There are outside circumstances that can affect or change one’s physical relationship. However, there’s often a lot of negative self-talk or “critical inner voices” that discourage us from pursuing our sexuality.
It’s essential to filter out the negative messages and stay in touch with this vital part of our partner and ourselves. Ideally, we should strive to keep in touch with our feelings, and be sensitive to our partner’s feelings. There should be a sharing and a give and take, with real intimate contact being made, which sparks loving feelings.
- Having a distorted image of your partner
We can sometimes see our partners for who we want them to be rather than who they are. We distort them by idealizing or putting them on a pedestal. We pick them apart, denigrating them by projecting negative qualities onto them that may not be there. We may see them as more critical, intrusive, or rejecting than they are because we grew up with people who had these qualities.
No one can feel loved unless they feel like they are seen realistically. When our partner builds us up or tears us down, we feel like we’re on shaky ground, not being loved for who we are.
Marriage is a joyful experience that you and your partner can enjoy fully if you will work on eliminating behaviors that are harmful to your marriage.
Every marriage can benefit from humor and joking. Teasing each other is a show of affection. Sometimes joking and teasing can go too far when it becomes personally belittling. Belittling can be a misguided, insulting joke or teasing that goes too far. “Oh, oh, you’re wearing the “fat dress” again.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum belittling is a form of verbal abuse used to make another person feel small, unimportant or disrespected. It tears at a person’s confidence and sense of self-esteem. Belittling can be used to exert control over someone else.
What is Belittling?
- Yelling or screaming at you to get a reaction.
- Insulting you—calling you fat, ugly or stupid—or criticizing your parenting skills or intelligence.
- Ignoring how you feel, disregarding your opinion or failing to recognize your contributions.
- Humiliating or embarrassing you, especially in front of family or friends.
- Bringing up past failures or mistakes as evidence of your incompetence or lack of intelligence.
- Forcing you to agree with them instead of forming or expressing your own opinion.
- Treating you as their property or as someone who has no value other than as a sex object.
- Denying the belittling, blaming it on you or criticizing you for making too big a deal out of it.
- Blaming you for their abusive behavior, but then turning around and telling you how much they love you.
How do you know if you are being verbally abused?
- By the way it makes you feel less than, and by the lack of a sincere apology when you express how hurtful the comment was.
- By how frequently the belittling comments occur.
- Are you afraid of your partner?
- Are you extra cautious whenever your partner is around not to do something to upset them?
It is hard to believe that someone you love and trust would deliberately try to hurt you in order to control you or make themselves seem powerful. However, no one deserves to be demeaned or insulted. In a health relationship, partners do not hurt each other intentionally. Respectful partners should build each other up, not purposefully put each other down.
How do you deal with belittling behavior?
Don’t underestimate belittling or brush it off. If a comment or action makes you feel bad, it’s your right to express your discomfort directly and to expect a genuine apology.
- Don’t retaliate or insult them back.
- Identify how the comment makes you feel, so that you can express your emotions.
- Tell your partner exactly how they made you feel and that you didn’t like it.
Healthy expression of feelings can strengthen a marriage, but unhealthy expressions of feelings can create distance and tear the marriage apart. If you suspect that your partner’s belittling behavior is more than just an innocent mistake, take time to discuss it with your partner or see a marriage counselor.