As we near the end of the holiday season and another year fades into a sea of memories, gratitude, regrets, and dismay, it’s understandable to reflect on our relationships. To ponder what has worked and what has not. To look back at previous years and experience a pang of nostalgia or longing.
For more couples than not, the holiday season is tricky. Fraught with a constellation of challenges, our relationships get pushed to a precipice when we navigate a surplus of time with in-laws and family. It turns out that excess brings with it unique challenges, and that lavish spending, overeating, and the occasional extra eggnog can create a perfect storm for relationship stress and marital demise.
It’s a setup. Societally, we bring a high level of expectation to the holidays, infused with sentimentality and wistfulness. Such pangs get further amplified when we receive perfectly customized greeting cards (showcasing family vacations to Aruba, college graduations from Dartmouth, and photoshopped dewy face smiles of family and friends).
Furthermore, many of us struggle to acknowledge when we hurt (or hurt others) and concurrently have an aversion to the vulnerability that goes with expressing it. Instead, we suppress our complaints until they reach a tipping point, leaking out of the crevices of our cracked smiles for all to see. The painfully well-timed joke, an uncensored reveal informed by an excess of wine. We throw our partner under the bus (or they throw us) while our children leave the room, and our in-laws stare awkwardly at their laps, refolding napkins.
Leading up to such scenarios, we are vulnerable to what social scientist and bestselling author Brene Brown calls comparative suffering — internally viewing our pain (and others) through a comparative lens. We weigh and measure our woes to determine if they are worthy of a complaint and frequently make unconscious choices to bypass our hurt and anger. Concluding that such first-world suffering is best left ignored, we let sleeping dogs lie – until they don’t.
As you find yourself in the thick of the holiday season and the New Year makes its arrival, it can be tempting to reach for relationship sound bites as a way to feel better, and the internet will provide you with no shortage of them. Just a quick Google search can afford you a list of panaceas promising better sex, fun, novelty, deeper connection, and of course, love.
Similarly, it can be tempting to make New Year’s resolutions as a couple, aspiring to will yourself (and your partner) into a mindset that says THIS year will be different. Though well-intentioned, such endeavors often miss the mark.
The problem is this: resolutions are not promises, and promises are not seasonal, they must endure.
If you want your relationship to thrive, if you desire change, what your relationship requires from you is commitment – not just for 2020, not solely as an aspiration, but wholeheartedly as a mindset. Resolutions speak to the aim rather than the action, and therein lies the rub. It’s why we often cringe at the mention of (our own) resolutions or sheepishly avert pronouncing them aloud. Though often earnest, such intentions by nature can be a setup, and by definition, are lower risk than commitments, contracts, and vows.
Stan Tatkin, author of We Do, Wired for Love, and Your Brain on Love, makes a compelling case that all couples can benefit from creating a shared contract, one where you hash out the basic rules to govern your relationship by in the days and years to come. He advocates for keeping each principle short and sweet, and that they emphasize mutuality. Tatkin also is clear to point out that if you can’t and don’t fulfill your share of the agreements at all times, then the guiding principles don’t genuinely exist.
So why am I digressing from a seasonally themed blog on holidays, the New Year, and couples woes?
Because according to the research of John Gottman, the father of couples therapy as we know it, the majority of couples wait on average six years from the onset of a problem to seek any type of counseling or help with their relationship distress.
That’s six Christmases.
Six New Years.
You get the gist.
If you are reading this intending to set things right in your relationship for the New Year, I’d suggest you consider sitting down with your partner and creating a long-term plan that will go the distance and transcend the multitude of holidays and occasions to come. Grab a bottle of wine, light a fire, purchase Tatkin’s We Do, and have some paper and pencils on hand – make a night of it (or several).
Know the process won’t be easy. You may experience bumps and even find yourself in gridlock. Being open, while hashing out your needs and feelings requires courage and vulnerability. It necessitates that you bring to the table equal doses of humility, justice, and humor. Optimally, some affection and passion for topping it off. There is the genuine possibility you could experience heartbreak, if not globally, at least for a moment (or two), but crafting love out of heartbreak is the alchemy of the strongest of couples, and such strength is built daily – it’s a practice.
And, if in this process of creating your relationship contract, you discover that you don’t have the tools or skills to navigate the (understandable) challenges of such terrain, I’d recommend you connect with a seasoned couples therapist to assist you. An expert who gets the complexities and symbolism that underlie the meanings, rituals, and values that the holiday season brings with it. Such therapists often offer private intensive retreats where you can take care of many months’ worth of material in just a couple of days, or devote a whole weekend to creating your guiding principles for the New Year and beyond.
In the end, what could be a better gift for your relationship, your children, and even your grandchildren than your marriage thriving and going the distance? Seriously, the legacy of loving well is a gift that benefits humanity, and it behooves us all to prioritize caring for our relationships by placing love and the fruits that it brings at the top of our lists this year and in the years to come.
Take good care of your hearts.