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Why are the Christmas holidays so stressful? Do you think of surviving the holidays, rather than enjoying them? What happened to peace, harmony, love, and joy? The incidence of domestic violence events increases over the holidays. Why are the Christmas holidays a source of stress for many couples and many families? Here is a survey of some of the hot spots and how you can navigate them.
Holiday hot spots
No, I’m not referring to hot travel destinations, but to the areas of stress, you might be experiencing around the holiday season. Surviving the holidays is easier when you know what the issues are likely to be.
So, you live an increasingly hectic life. Collectively, we sleep less than ever before. Are you fitting more into your life than last year? You’ve been working, studying, raising a family – probably all three. Maybe you’ve been finishing the end-of-year assignments and the final exams. You are worn out already, and suddenly you have Christmas stress as well! All you want to do is chill out, but there are all the expectations to fulfill…
Expectations to fulfill.
Surviving the holidays inevitably means negotiating expectations.
“We always go to my parents for Christmas lunch, but I just want to spend the day on the beach!”,
“We can’t have both our son and his wife to Christmas Eve present-opening, because they are separated! And how are we going to explain that to the kids!”,
“I’d rather just stay at home this Christmas holiday. But if we don’t do the beach holiday, when will all the cousins get to see each other?”
“I think uncle Arthur’s dementia has advanced so much that he’ll be stressed and upset if we have him over for the Crissy BBQ. Most likely he won’t even know where he is!”
These dilemmas are very real. Because families are so complicated!
Complicated family dynamics
Are your family dynamics complicated, with fractures and chronically conflictual relationships? These issues are likely to come to the fore over the holidays. You manage to avoid dealing with them for the rest of the year, right? Now you are in the same room together, what happens?
The image of Christmas we are “sold’ is happy families and a spending frenzy. Is this realistic for you? Is surviving the holidays a full-time activity? While you are expecting family warmth and connectedness, what actually happens is family conflict. For most of the year, you’ve deferred connecting with the people who matter most in your lives, until that phantom moment when things will “ease up.” In your imagination, that phantom moment is most likely Christmas and the Christmas holidays. But how realistic is this? Are these hopes that things will ease up based in magical thinking, or good planning? Or are you setting yourself up for disappointment?
Debt and overspending
Australians are in debt as never before. Additionally, there is pressure to spend on the trappings of Christmas. Are you still paying off your Christmas debt well into the middle of the next year? This does not make for happy family life! Rather, this is inviting holiday stress.
Plugged into technology
Are you on call 24/7? If you are plugged into technology habitually, then switching off for even a day can feel abnormal. If you divide your attention, focussing on only one thing feels really weird. Such as focussing on the present moment and the person you are with. Is everyone in your family plugged into their devices and tuned out to each other? So, if you are plugged in you don’t pay full attention to the family gatherings. Or the time with friends over the holidays.
Relationship stress is at a peak during the holiday season, too. Conflict over plans, conflict over chores, conflict over spending….the list goes on. Every January couples seek therapy because the holiday stress exposed weaknesses in their relationship. They are hurt and frustrated and know there has to be a better way.
Loneliness and alienation tend to bite deeper during the holiday season. If you have lost a loved one during the year, the first Christmas without them seems very empty. Maybe you have experienced a relationship separation and have the challenge of creating a new ritual around the holidays. If you have moved house, you have likely left your social network behind. Where to start!
Now add these to the holiday stress mix
The kids are on holidays
You’ve got six weeks or more of holidays ahead of you. More exactly, the kids have the holidays. “Yes, I know I promised that we would go on Christmas holiday adventures, but…” Then you see their look of disappointment, and you know you can’t disappoint a child, so you make plans for that trip, even though you are tired beyond belief. Because you and your partner are working full time, and can’t get leave at the same time, the arrangements are haphazard. No wonder holidays are stressful.
Loss of routine
Christmas holidays are destabilizing, because of the loss of routine and structure of ordinary life. The freedom of the holidays might feel good, but familiar comforts are not available. The gym is closed, and the cleaner is on holiday. Your favourite trades-people are on a long break, often for a whole month, so your usual acts of commerce, which provide both structure and interaction with others, are not available. Apart from tossing off a few DIYs, you feel at a loss.
Mental health issues are at a peak during the holiday season, and loss of routine and structure is one of the main reasons. The other is the unrealistic expectations around what feelings you are going to have, of love and family warmth.
Here is the good news for surviving the holidays
Pull back on expectations of yourself, and most particularly of others. Scale it all downwards. How much is enough? Set limits and boundaries in your relationship. You can’t demand or expect unconditional acceptance from others – though you can work on offering it yourself. Accept people as they are, rather than as you wish they would be.
The behaviour of your family members is unlikely to be much different (read “better”) than it was last year, so just accept this as a given. Your family, or significant other, won’t be any closer to the idealized image of happiness.
Rather than follow an outdated idea of how to spend the Christmas holidays, you and your partner can create whatever holiday and Christmas style of celebration – or lack of celebration – that suits you. Try creating agreed meaning as a couple.
So, in advance, find things you love about your family and friends, things to be grateful for, qualities to appreciate. Have these in mind beforehand, and bring them out as needed. When Aunt Mary says, “I think you’ve put on weight” (she says this every year!) you are ready to compliment her on her stylish dress sense. You’ve ducked the insult and sent the conversation in a different direction.
Planning, preparation, and collaboration (sharing!)
Accept the fact that things are unlikely to go the way you want. Engage others, including the kids, especially the kids – whatever age – in planning and preparation. Do lots of planning. Create lists. Delegate. Plan ahead, and don’t wait till the last minute. And then don’t stress when things don’t go to plan!
Practice your collaboration skills. Ask for help. Forget the idea that it is all up to you! But what does collaboration look like? Peter Pearson and Ellyn Bader give this wonderful example: “Decide on a chore or responsibility that needs to be done. Choose one that neither of you wants to do.
Then set aside some time to ask each other questions about the chore and the difficulties you face doing it. Take turns asking questions, and listen – truly listen – to the answers. Try to hear something new about each other. Don’t just listen for opportunities to boost your case or criticize your partner.
When you believe you understand the major concerns, make a suggestion in this form:
“Honey, what I suggest is… This suggestion works for me because … and it could (not should) work for you because….”
Be sure to include why it COULD work for your partner, not why it should work for them!
By describing why the suggestion works for you, you avoid the temptation to capitulate too quickly. You have to think of your own interests.
On the other hand, by describing why the suggestion works for your partner, you avoid the temptation to think only of yourself.
After your suggestion, your partner responds. They may agree with it or they might suggest an alternative. They will also use the same formula for why their suggestion works for them and why it could work for you.
Those people who are able to experiment with these concepts will be toasting each other instead of roasting each other at the end of this holiday season.”
Thanks, Pete and Ellyn, relationship experts extraordinaire. You are as authentic in person as you are in print.
Rest and relaxation to survive the holidays
Don’t pack every minute of every day of the holidays with duties, visits, and obligations. Schedule downtime. Schedule daily naps – and not just for your toddler. Plan early nights so you will be refreshed and ready to enjoy the family members or friends who have travelled the length of the country to share these precious days with you. Honestly manage your fatigue.
Increase your window of tolerance. Intentionally calm yourself. Keep a daily routine during the holidays, including bedtimes, so the essentials are taken care of easily, and you all have plenty of time for fun. Out-of-routine kids are usually out-of-control kids. Decide ahead of time what rest and relaxation requirements you have, personally.
Remember that your holiday time is preparing you for the year ahead. Allow time for healing in the upcoming holidays. Allow time for inspiration.
Budgeting to thrive rather than survive
Is “budget” a dirty word when Christmas or holidays come to mind? Is this a time when you just want to splurge and forget the consequences? Have you had courageous conversations with your partner around spending? You can budget for a splurge! Having your finances under control is a major way to reduce holiday stress – and post-holiday guilt. You can create a special “splurge account” that you contribute to all year round. Encourage the kids to do this too! If you need help with this concept, Scott Pape is a one-stop-shop for reliable advice on financial planning at any age.
Switch off technology to reduce holiday stress
Surviving the holidays is easier when you give yourself – and the kids – a break from being wired. (Here is some help.) Plan activities, and interactive games: old-fashioned board games, cricket on the beach, picnics with no devices in sight. Be together! Or be alone, without electronic distraction.