Here is November’s installment of “Ask Shelby” from Chester County’s own Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Shelby Riley.
I love the holidays, but my husband really doesn’t. Every year we end up disappointed and frustrated with each other. We don’t get into big fights about it anymore, but we can’t seem to find a way to really enjoy the holidays together. How do we make sure it goes better this year?
Signed, Hoping for a Better Holiday
Dear Hoping for a Better Holiday,
I have some ideas for you. Many couples have a hard time seeing eye to eye about how to celebrate because not everyone feels the same about the holidays. The first step to making this year different is to get a better understanding of what the holidays mean to each of you.
Talk with your husband about his holiday experiences growing up. Ask questions like:
“How did your family celebrate Diwali/Thanksgiving/Hanukkah/Christmas/New Years/etc.?”
“What was it like at your house during the holidays?”
“What did the holidays mean for your family?”
Sometimes people find out that their partners didn’t receive any presents growing up and the holidays are a painful reminder of a difficult part of their childhood. Sometimes there was a traumatic event, like a death or divorce that occurred during the holidays. Sometimes it was a day of reprieve, for example, the one day a year a violent parent consistently didn’t physically abuse the children. For others, it was a time of love and warmth with family. Finding out what your husband’s experiences were like can help you gain some empathy for why he might not like the holidays. Sharing your answers with him to the above questions might help him gain a better understanding of your hopes for the holidays, and help him make some decisions about the kind of holiday experience you two want to choose to create together. As adults, you are in charge of the meaning you give to something. See if you can find a shared vision for what you’d like the holidays to mean to you.
Next, I would encourage you two to create one or two rituals for the holidays. Examples include attending a religious service, hosting an open house, driving around one night to look at lights, hanging decorations, lighting candles, or volunteering, to name just a few. Choose at least two things the two of you will both enjoy and commit to engaging in the activity together each holiday season. Creating new rituals, or intentionally committing to a childhood tradition allows you both to feel respected and celebrated. Rituals and traditions are like family glue, and they anchor us in an experience, and bond us to each other. I also suggest you talk about eliminating any traditions or rituals that aren’t working for you. Maybe you both hate attending the office holiday party. Or you hate baking cookies, but you do it every year so your neighbors will get their cookie tin and won’t think you’re jerks. If you both agree it doesn’t bring you joy, give yourselves permission to stop doing it.
Finally, agree to acknowledge that you are different people, with different brains, and different backgrounds. Give yourselves permission to feel differently about the holidays in some ways. If you like to go caroling and he doesn’t, go caroling with your friends and let him stay home, free of any judgment or criticism. If you like to bake pies and he doesn’t, do it without him, and let go of any resentment. If the two of you can embrace a few shared activities, then it is healthy to allow yourselves to do some things without the other. Acknowledging and embracing your differences usually brings people closer together. Forcing one another to feel and act the same usually drives people apart.
I hope the holidays feel different for you and that you get to understand and enjoy each other more this year.
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC. She is currently the Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.com for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.