Relationship Connection: Calming holiday strife

My husband and I used to be excited about the holidays. But now it seems that we only feel anxious and resentful because we’ve spent so many years arguing through them. The main problem seems to be that we can’t ever agree on how and where to spend our time.  Isn’t there something we can do so we don’t have this mess every year?
Your heartfelt question is a common one. The next few months of holiday celebrations often put strain on an otherwise healthy marriage. Even though the holidays traditionally are a time to reconnect with loved ones, the logistics involved in planning and implementing holiday plans can induce stress and frustration. 
Let’s look at an example to see how a perpetual issue like this one can be handled. When Dave and Diane (not their real names) were newlyweds, they agreed to spend every Thanksgiving with his family. They eventually began having children and Diane felt it was important to have their own Thanksgiving meal instead of sharing the day with a large group of extended family members. She loved the idea of gathering her small family together to share a meal in a personal setting. 
Dave, on the other hand, wanted to continue his extended family tradition with playing the annual “Turkey Bowl” and watching football with the guys after the meal. He wanted his own sons to take part in this family tradition. The couple realized their beliefs about holiday traditions had changed dramatically and they began to experience some resentment and frustration toward one another. Neither of them could budge on how their family should spend Thanksgiving Day.
After seeking some counsel from a marriage therapist, this couple eventually benefited from the understanding that, for them, this was a problem that wasn’t going to be solved quickly. They also recognized that they would most likely have a similar discussion every Thanksgiving for years to come. Dave and Diane learned that these types of situations are built into every marriage and are often attached to deeply held beliefs and traditions that make compromise difficult.
They learned that the main objective in handling these types of situations is to initially take the focus off resolving the problem. Instead, they placed their focus on understanding the reasons behind their partner’s insistence. They each discovered that their partner wasn’t being difficult for the sake of being difficult. Instead, they saw how their partner was feeling threatened that something of deep importance would be taken away. 
Dave was able to see that Diane’s vision of herself as a mother includes cooking for and serving her children during holidays. Due to her busy work schedule, Thanksgiving is one of few times where she can really pull out the stops and design a beautiful home-cooked meal for her family. Diane listened to Dave and learned that he wants his sons to bond with their uncles and cousins, as he felt mentored and guided by caring uncles when he was growing up. 
As you seek to understand the story behind your partner’s insistence, you will see that your partner is likely holding on to a set of deeply held beliefs. Over time, as you gently discussed each other’s beliefs, ideals, and dreams for your family, you will be able create traditions that seek to honor your individual perspectives.
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, UT.  Please send questions for future columns to:  [email protected]. Geoff maintains a blog, article archive, Twitter feed, and Facebook page which are available at

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