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Get Through the Holidays with Humor and Grace: Four Strategies for Couples and Families

Pat LaDouceur, Ph.D.

Are you looking forward to a relaxing holiday? Have you made plans that fit your unique values, needs, and energy level? Or do you feel pulled by the needs of friends and family, swept into the consumer rush, or tantalized by images of perfect holiday bliss and feeling like you can’t measure up? These strategies will help you balance needs of others with your own, and make the holiday season more enjoyable.

family around treeGive up perfection: It’s inspiring to imagine a holiday filled with closeness and warmth, with a healthy dose of time for yourself to relax. But gatherings with real people bring real tensions. If you try to make the holiday perfect, the results can be frustrating.

Kierra* prided herself on finding the “perfect gift” for each friend and family member, and throwing a “perfect” holiday party each year too. She spent hours planning, shopping, and baking, and cleaning. But now with two toddlers, she didn’t have the time and energy to keep it up. At first she struggled with frustration and guilt about letting people down. Then she started to let go of “perfect” and aimed for “relaxing and fun.” She downsized her party, simplified her gifts, and spent more time her family. When the holidays were over, she felt refreshed.

Take care of yourself: Everyone needs a few moments alone to relax and unwind. Find at least 20 minutes a day to talk a walk, read, listen to music, play with the cat, have a cup of tea – whatever works for you.

Tracie and her sister argued a lot, and holidays were especially tense. Tracie took care of their elderly parents and wanted help. Her sister wanted to use her hard-earned vacation time to take day-trips and walks in the hills. When they got together, both felt short-changed and unhappy. Then Tracie and I worked on strategies to take care of herself and help her stay out of arguments. Her mood improved, and her relationship with her sister changed. Tracie stayed calm and focused when they talked, and her sister listened. Tracie got more help and more time for herself. It turned out to be one her most memorable holidays.

Turn to your partner: When you are surrounded by people and expectations are high, it’s best to have a stress-reducing ritual that is short and effective. Once or twice a day, ask your partner for a 5-Minute stress talk. You get 5 minutes to vent about whatever is bothering you. Make sure to talk about your own experience, and make sure that your partner knows to listen, not problem solve. This small ritual made a big difference for my clients Zoe and Steve last year.

Zoe and Steve had a hard time balancing her family’s needs with those of their relatives. With three kids and four grandparents, and six aunts and uncles, Zoe and Steve were so busy entertaining that they were exhausted at the end of the day. They needed a way to take care of themselves. Their solution was to take a “time-out”. With an agreed-on signal they excused themselves from the group. Zoe talked about her frustrations for five minutes, while Steve just listened. When the 5 minutes was up, Steve told her how much he appreciated how well Zoe was balancing everyone’s needs, and gave her a hug. Later in the day, Mark asked for his 5 minutes. These stress-reducing breaks helped both of them feel refreshed and relaxed at the end of the day.

Rediscover your core values: Take some time to remember what is truly important to you. Whether it’s family, adventure, community, solitude, learning, or freedom – make sure your holiday celebrations reflect those values. When you and your partner have different values, see if there is a way they might overlap.

Shannon wanted to rent a cabin on the Oregon coast and relax with her husband Mark. Mark was looking forward to their tradition of celebrating the holidays with his large and extended family. Their “cabin vs. relatives” discussions went in circles until they let go of the details and started talking about their deeper values. Shannon valued peace and renewal, while Mark focused on the value of togetherness and community. Because each of them talked about what really mattered, they were able to see how important it was to create a holiday that honored both of their needs. It was easy to work out the details because both felt listened to and respected.

If you’ve felt yourself pulled into holiday activities that left you feeling frustrated and tired instead of peaceful and relaxed...this year, try something different. Give up perfection, take care of yourself, turn to your partner, and rediscover your core values. These strategies will help you feel renewed and refreshed, and enjoy a peaceful holiday season.


* Names and identifying details have been changed to maintain privacy and confidentiality.