I was rereading my seasonal blog post from this time last year to prepare for writing this, and I think a lot of the points still hold up: please check it out if you, like myself, are one of the many who find that trying to make the holidays 100 percent happy ends up making you feel some percent sad or angry or exhausted or deficient.
In this year’s batch of holiday-themed therapy wisdom, I would like to start with my usual recipe of individual behavior—it is the area over which we have the most control, after all—and then stir in some strategies for maintaining and improving intimate partnerships.
When considering holiday tropes about relationships, intimate partnerships rarely rank among the most fraught: that honor is usually reserved for parents, adult children, in-laws, and other extended family members. The first premise of this trope is that adults interact little and/or superficially with these family members throughout most of the year; the second premise is that with the arrival of the holidays—which we know to be a veritable powder keg of individual emotional needs and cultural expectations—any and all past and present sparks of tension between family members have easy fuel to ignite and detonate.
Conversely, adults who are in long-term intimidate partnerships typically see and interact with their partners every day or almost every day of the year—so, by comparison, the holidays would not be particularly meaningful or stressful for those relationships. I don’t buy it. Nor, by the way, do I buy the narratives about intimate relationships often evoked in seasonal romantic comedies: i.e. if one partner is hard to shop for, does not like Christmas caroling, or does not believe in Santa (or maybe is Santa?), the relationship is doomed.
These opposing tropes symbolize an irresponsible and potentially dangerous approach to intimidate relationships that I observe in media as well as in real life: that is, either my relationship is at the center of my world, or it is in the far-flung and easily neglected periphery. Either it is the only thing I see, or I fail to see it at all. Either I am working at it 24/7, or I am expecting it to run on autopilot.
This time of year—and maybe every other time as well—it is important to have another option: an option for staying close, to staying connected, and continuing to build together, even amid external chaos. Although external chaos no doubt diminishes the time, energy, and attention we have for our intimate partners, it does not necessarily preclude meaningful expressions of love, affection, and attraction. And do not be fooled: this work does not require grand gestures; consistent, routine effort can be much more valuable.
Now, in the format of carol parody, here are some tips for guiding that effort:
12 days of Christmas [and/or Whatever We Celebrate]: Relationship Maintenance Edition
- On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me… One clear and direct progress update about task or area of mutual concern.
- On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me… Two instances of graciously accepting constructive feedback.
- On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me… Three specific and genuine statements of affirmation.
- On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me… Four clear, calm, present-focused directives about how I could be helpful to them.
- On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me… Five gestures of nonsexual physical affection.
- On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me… Six times asking, “what can I do to make your day easier?” followed by timely action.
- On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me… Seven verbal statements of gratitude.
- On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me… Eight minutes of hearing me express anger and hurt about my family, and then validating my feelings.
- On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me… Nine minutes of hearing me express anger and hurt about their family, and then validating my feelings.
- On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me… 10 hugs and/or kisses that were each at least ten seconds long.
- On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me… 11 accurate summaries of what I just said, to make sure they understood.
- On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me… 12 reminders that I am lovable and valuable even if our plans do not work out perfectly.
NOTE: Do not attempt to sing along… My suggestions are much more relationally effectively than they are lyrically graceful.
Janine Joly-DeMars provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda, MD office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Janine.