How to Keep Christmas from Ruining Your Marriage

LISTEN DEC 16, 2014

How to Keep Christmas from Ruining Your Marriage-Christmas and New Year is a great time of the year … especially for marriage counselors and divorce attorneys. Don't get me wrong. I'm not against Christmas. In fact, my entire family looks forward to the holidays every year as a time that we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, and we reflect God's love for us by giving gifts to others.

But Christmas is a litmus test of a marriage's health. Good marriages flourish during the holidays, but Christmas is the straw that breaks the back of many bad marriages. On January 2nd, divorce attorneys and marriage counselors alike are usually swamped with new business that will keep them busy until Spring.

The first letter I am posting this week is from a woman who is anticipating another disappointing Christmas with an insensitive husband. She feels it may be her last. The second letter is from a man who is fed up with all of the work and expense that goes into Christmas. Dear Dr. Harley,

This is the time of year that I hate the most, although it should be the most enjoyable time for me and my family. Christmas is almost upon us, and as in years past I will be disappointed and depressed again. I am 42, my husband is 45 and our children are 16, 12 and 8. We “celebrated” our 20th anniversary this past year, and I'm not sure I can make it to 21.

I was raised in a home where we not only exchanged gifts on Christmas, but we also made it a special time to remember the birth of Jesus. I made the mistake of marrying a man who was never very religious and he has not attended church in years. He has managed to make Christmas an ugly and disgusting experience for me.

He and his family have a very different view of Christmas than I do. They see the holiday not as a time to remember Christ's birth, but rather as a time to give each other silly gifts, to get drunk and to share profane “jokes” about almost everything including Christmas. My husband knows how much it offends me, but each year we go through the same pathetic ritual.

I've had it with him and his whole family. I would like to enjoy Christmas with my children so they can have the same good memories of Christmas that my parents gave me, but my husband has ruined it for all of us. I am very close to divorcing him, and this Christmas will probably push me over the edge. Do you have any suggestions that might save my marriage?

M.C. Dear Dr. Harley,
My wife, Joan, and I have been married for 12 years and we have a daughter, 10. Each year when Christmas comes around, Joan and I seem to have the worst fights of all, and they are about Christmas. I would like to see just the three of us exchange one or two gifts. But Joan wants lights all over the house, the lawn decorated, a big Christmas tree, extravagant presents, and relatives at our house on Christmas day.

Back when we were first married, I did things her way because I wanted to make her happy. But her way always made me miserable. Now I find myself spending a valuable weekend each year struggling to decorate our house (and spending another weekend taking the decorations down), buying and trimming a Christmas tree that I don't want in our house, spending far more than we can afford on gifts we don't need, and having people over that I can't stand to be around. I am trapped in this nightmare called Christmas. How can I escape without getting divorced?

Why Is Christmas So Hard on Marriages? Christmas is a time of year when many decisions must be made: What cards to mail and gifts to buy (and wrap) for each person on your Christmas list (especially your spouse); how and when to decorate your Christmas tree and home; what to serve and who to invite to your home for Christmas; where to spend Christmas eve, and Christmas day; and, how to pay for it all. These are but a few of the decisions that put enormous pressure on most families this time of year.

The strength of a marriage is tested when decisions must be made. If a husband and wife have learned to discuss each issue with respect for each other's perspectives, avoiding anger, disrespect or demands, Christmas decisions draw them together and increase their love for each other. That's because their decisions take the feelings of both of them into account simultaneously. They create a Christmas that is enjoyable for the entire family.

But in bad marriages, conflicts are not resolved with mutual consideration. Instead, husbands and wives try to force decisions on each other without taking each other's feelings into account. That leads to a Christmas filled with resentment and unhappiness.

Many couples have the same conflict as S.W. and his wife regarding gifts for the children. Generally, one spouse may want to create an experience the children will remember the rest of their lives, while the other wants to get through the season spending as little as possible. These two objectives are usually in conflict, memorable experiences costing what they do these days. In bad marriages, one spouse issues an ultimatum:   We can only afford to spend $15 for each child, not nearly enough for a memorable experience. The other spouse responds with another ultimatum:   If I find gifts that the children will enjoy, I'm getting them.

There are many variations on this theme. Spouses buy gifts with “their own money,” so that the children know that the gift was from only one of them. Or, they set a rule for thrift and then break it on Christmas eve to demonstrate they care after all. In blended families, the problem of children's gifts is raised to stratospheric proportions because each spouse doesn't want his or her own children to have less than the other's children. Sometimes it takes the wisdom of Solomon to decide fairness in those situations.

Another typical conflict raised by S.W is time management when there are so many things to do. Lights on the house, setting up and decorating the Christmas tree, Christmas shopping and wrapping gifts, mailing Christmas cards, planning meals … there is an endless array of activities that take time — lots of time. And it's not as if we all get time off from work to accomplish it. In fact, many companies are busiest at the end of the year. Children may have time off from school, but their time off usually gives parents added responsibility at a time when they are already overwhelmed.

Neither M.C. nor S.W. ever learned to negotiate effectively with their spouses. As a result, Christmas has become a sacrifice for both of them because they would rather give in to their spouse's demands than stand up for their own wishes. In M.C.'s case, an enjoyable Christmas for her husband is painful for her. The same is true for S.W. He sacrificed to make Christmas enjoyable for his wife, but now finds himself hating the very thought of celebrating Jesus' birth.

A few years ago the movie,   Jingle All the Way, was released. The father, played by Arnold Schwarzeneger, tries to juggle all of his responsibilities on Christmas Eve, only to find that he, along with many others who can relate to his dilemma, is over-committed. Like so many others this Christmas, he just about loses his family because of it. His solution to the problem was pure fantasy. I won't tell you the ending because you may not have seen it yet. But I can tell you this much: it would never work for any of us that live in real life. In real life, you simply disappoint your family when you are over-committed.

Arnold's intentions were sincere. He wanted to help create a “memorable” Christmas. He didn't want to disappoint his family. But he had one problem that ruined everything: He did not follow the   Policy of Joint Agreement   (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). He had not come to an enthusiastic agreement with his wife about how he would create this memorable experience. If she had seen what he was up to, she would have overruled it, and they would have created a new plan that would have strengthened their marriage, not ruined it. Since his plans were not mutually agreed upon, he paid the predictable price.

The stresses of Christmas demonstrated how bad Arnold's marriage was. It took a movieland fantasy to keep it together, a factor that doesn't work in real marriages. But what really made his marriage bad wasn't Christmas, it was the way he went about making decisions. He did not consider his wife's feelings as part of his plan. She was emotionally isolated from him, and the Christmas season only underscored her resentment of the way he ignored her.

How to Avoid a Disastrous Christmas Arnold Schwarzenegger was saved from marital disaster by movie writers and special effects. But what should he have done to have avoided the problem in the first place? How should M.C. and S.W. overcome their Christmas crisis? More to the point, how should you avoid a possible disaster that is less than one month away?

The Policy of Joint Agreement is the ultimate answer to the problem. When M.C and S.W. are able to create a new holiday experience that takes their feelings and the feelings of their spouses into account simultaneously, the burden of Christmas will be off their shoulders.

Their first new Christmas experience may require a great deal of negotiating, because so many of the decisions that went into the current nightmare must be completely scrapped. An entirely new way to celebrate Christmas may be required to satisfy both spouses simultaneously. And there will be scores of separate decisions that make up this new Christmas experience. They should not go ahead with any Christmas activity until an enthusiastic agreement has been reached regarding that activity. That may mean that the first new Christmas experience won't involve many activities.

Under the Policy of Joint Agreement, M.C. won't have to put up with her husband's family, but she may not have what she wanted either. S.W.'s house decorating days may be over, but his idea of a cozy day at home with his wife and daughter may not materialize. In the final analysis, both of these families may need to create a way to celebrate Christmas that they had never considered before.

S.W. explains that his biggest fights are about Christmas, but that hasn't helped his cause because fighting is not negotiating. In fact, fighting makes it impossible to negotiate. All of his fights have not led to change — only successful negotiation can lead to change.

To help S.W. and M.C. recreate Christmas so that their entire family will enjoy the celebration, they must learn to negotiate every Christmas decision with their spouses. Since there will be so many new decisions that will have to be made, it may take quite a while to put it all together. In fact, it may take several Christmases before they get it right.

But once they have made these decisions, they will have succeeded in digging themselves out of a painful experience that is repeated year after year. And in its place they will have what Christmas is meant to be, a season of joy for the entire family. And that new mutually fulfilling experience that is sure to deposit   love units   will be repeated, year after year.

Incompatibility in marriage is simply an accumulation of habits and activities that are good for one spouse and bad for the other.   Love unitsthat are deposited into one   Love Bank   are withdrawn from the other. Net gain — zero, or worse.

To become compatible, all a couple needs to do is abandon those habits and activities that are not mutually satisfying, and substitute those that are. These new mutually enjoyable activities deposit love units into both Love Banks at the same time, helping to sustain the feeling of love the spouses have for each other.

Here are four steps that you should follow with each decision you make about the way you will be celebrating Christmas.

1. Set ground rules to make negotiations pleasant and safe.

Before you start to talk to your spouse about a conflict you have about Christmas, make sure that you follow these rules: (a) be pleasant and cheerful throughout your discussion of the issue, (b) put safety first–do not threaten to cause pain or suffering when you negotiate, even if your spouse makes threatening remarks or if the negotiations fail, and (c) if you reach an impasse, stop for a while and come back to the issue later.

Under no conditions should you be disrespectful or judgmental of your spouse's opinions or desires. Your negotiations should accept and respect your differences. Otherwise, you will fail to make them pleasant and safe.

2. Identify the issue in question from the perspectives of both you and your spouse.

Be able to state each other's position regarding a particular decision about a Christmas activity before you try to find a resolution to your conflict. Be sure you don't argue with each other — just get to know how you both feel regarding the issue. What do you both want and why do you want it? Find the answers to those questions.

3. Brainstorm with abandon.
Spend some time thinking of all sorts of ways to resolve the conflict, and don't correct each other when you hear of a plan that you don't like — you'll have a chance to eliminate undesirable possibilities during the fourth step. Write down every suggestion. If you give your intelligence a chance to flex its muscle, you will have a long list of alternatives.

4. Choose the solution that is appealing to both of you.

From your list of solutions, some will satisfy only one of you but not both. However, scattered within the list will be solutions that both of you would find attractive. Among those solutions that are mutually satisfactory, select the one that you both like the most. If none of them meet with your enthusiastic agreement, go back to step 3 and continue to brainstorm.

When you use the Policy of Joint Agreement to help you decide how you will spend Christmas together, neither of you will be controlled by the other, because you are not being forced to do anything. You are simply being prevented from gaining at each other's expense. That's not control, it's thoughtfulness.

If these four steps don't give you enough guidance, it might help if you were to read   Fall in Love, Stay in Love   where I describe these four steps in more detail. Even if your spouse is not the marriage manual type, reading it by yourself will help you learn how to reach your spouse in a way that takes his or her feelings into account.

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