Christmas is often portrayed as a time of romance and love. In films and books couples ‘find’ each other over tinsel and fir trees, ice-skate, snuggle up in front of fires, play in the snow etc.
Taking on this narrative we often believe that it’s a time of year when we should be overflowing with love for our partner. Our social media accounts are full of Christmas jumpers and smiley happy people having fun.
The reality is that the festive season actually places great strain on couple relationships. The combined financial pressure, busyness and being stuck together for longer periods of time than normal takes its toll.
Without wanting to be too much of a Grinch, this year is likely to be tougher still. Let’s face it, for many of us, 2020 has been more than usually stressful: the length of the pandemic, and restrictions, coupled with the minor and major losses experienced have taken their toll.
Added to this, Christmas isn’t likely to look or feel the same to ‘normal years’. Whilst news that brilliant scientists have developed a vaccine is deeply heartening we still have to grapple with severe restrictions (for most of us) in seeing people outside our households. The ‘magical Christmas window’ is great but it doesn’t solve the problem of keeping elderly relatives safe.
Financially we may also be significantly worse off and worrying about how we are going to afford any present giving at all.
So how do we ensure that the festive season isn’t the fighting season? Here are my top three ideas…
It is good to have conversations ahead of time about what you are wanting to do as a couple in relation to money, presents, seeing people etc. Recognise that you have different expectations of ‘what’s normal’.
Deep in the heart of my being is the belief that ‘there’s always money for things that you really need/want’. This is a direct result of my background, where there was always enough money, not excessive amounts, but enough for things that mattered. My husband on the other hand knew full well that there wasn’t always money for things you wanted/needed and is quite capable of dealing with that reality. It has led to some interesting Christmas chats! I need to be prepared to let go of my ‘oh don’t worry about it, we can find the money from somewhere attitude’ and he needs to loosen up a bit!
Toucan Together’s free Money Module helps you explore your different backgrounds and expectations around money. It’s full of tips and practical money management tools too to help you manage finances really well.
Just keep talking
On the market (especially at Christmas) you can find a number of different ‘family relationships’ games. In them you get to pick a card and ask a question of a sibling, a partner, a parent or friend. The idea is to get families chatting, and it’s a great idea, but in reality you don’t need to spend money on a game, you can actually have these conversations for free.
How do you have them?
Well you start off by telling yourself a simple truth (based on 60 years of research): ‘connection is good, disconnection is bad’. We function well when we feel connected to our loved ones but we start to malfunction both emotionally and behaviourally when feelings of disconnection hit.
So starting conversations that build connections are good, and one of the best ways is by asking open questions: ‘what do you like best about…?’; ‘how do you feel when…?’; and ‘what do you think about…?’ (fill in the blanks with a topic of your choice).
The principle of: ‘connection is good, disconnection is bad’ is even more important to remember when we’re having a more tricky conversation.
Wise partners are able to take a step back from the problem and begin to think about responding in a different way from our normal knee-jerk response.
If we are having a problem with our partner, instead of asking oursleves the question: ‘why are they doing this to me?’, it can be more helpful to think through: ‘do they need something from me?’
Wise partners are able to take a step back from the problem and begin to think about responding in a different way from our normal knee-jerk response. If we are able to take that all important step of reflection we can begin to see the problem in a new way. This involves both thinking about what our loved one might be showing us about what they need and considering what we are bringing to the party.
All too often when we stop to think (in a non-pressured way) we realise that we are particularly sensitive to this kind of behaviour due to our own relationship history.
Reflective conversations with loved ones can lead us to feel even more closely connected if done well.
So if we get mad when our partner is clearly struggling but refuses to talk to us; we might want to think: ‘why do I hate this so much?’, and maybe even: ‘is there anything I’m doing, or not doing that makes this harder for them?’
We all have ‘raw spots’, as Sue Johnson calls them: a place on our emotional skin that is particularly sensitive to the touch. Reflective conversations with loved ones can lead us to feel even more closely connected if done well. Because in these conversations we openly acknowledge the importance of the other person to us, and to show our willingness to learn to respond in new ways that leave them feeling safer and more connected.
Toucan Together’s free Communication Module opens up conversations about feelings, it helps you develop even better listening skills and connect in deeper ways.
Accept that love and life is messy
For those of us who have a Christian faith, the reality of Christmas should really come as no surprise. After all Jesus was born into a complex family situation and became a child refugee, he was no stranger to suffering or family stress. Christians believe that God didn’t come into the world to tell us all to be holy, happy people, but he came into our mess, into our struggle to invite us to find our way home to God again.
So this Christmas let’s not get fixated on the mess, let’s lift our eyes and try and find our way back to each other again. One of my favourite songs which brilliantly describes the messiness and wonder of love is by Ewan MacColl in The Joy of living…
“Farewell my love, my time is almost gone, lie in my arms until the darkness comes,
You filled all my days, held the night at bay, dearest companion,
Years pass by and they are gone with the speed of birds in flight.
Our life like the verse of the song heard in the mountains.
Give me your hand and love and join your voice with mine.
We’ll sing of the hurt and the pain and the joy of living.”
This year more than most has shown us how relationships are both precious and frustrating. Hurt and pain come hand in hand with love and delight. Couples that are able to accept that can find that even the tough times, when we have to fight for every moment of connection and closeness, can deepen their love.