If your holidays feel less “merry and bright” and more like a knock-down, drag-out fight, you’re not alone. With this time of year comes high expectations and even higher tensions that often push partners to the breaking point. Not only can disagreements about budgeting, traditions, and where to celebrate wreak havoc on your relationship, but holiday conflict with your partner can actually affect your health and well-being over the long haul.
In HelloJoey’s “Adult Communication: Talk to Me, Baby,” we look at the different ways people handle conflict – and what impact all that fighting has on your body, your brain, and your kids. We also share tools and techniques from the experts on how to handle holiday conflict with your partner in healthy and productive ways so you make it through holidays feeling more like Santa and less like Scrooge.
How does relationship conflict look?
There’s no one pattern that defines relationship conflict. In fact, one of the most challenging aspects is that everyone handles it differently. You might want to fight it out and decide whose family you’ll see for Thanksgiving right this minute, but your partner may need time to process or cool down before they’re ready to talk. In another common pattern, your partner might make demands – “We’re taking the kids to Midnight Mass on Christmas, period!” – while you withdraw to avoid the confrontation. The pressure builds, and eventually, someone explodes.
While relationship conflict looks different for different couples, there are some tell-tale signs you’re experiencing it. When it comes to the physical effects, relationship conflict: heartaches.
causes stress, triggering your fight or flight response by releasing cortisol (the stress hormone). If you and your partner fight often, you may have chronically elevated cortisol levels, which eventually can affect your health.
can hurt your heart. Of course, fighting with your partner can cause a lot of heartache, but the increases in blood pressure and heart rate that come with conflict also can damage your heart over time.
messes with your head. During conflict, the surging hormones are the same ones that are released when you ride a roller coaster or get startled. That’s why you might feel a head rush when your partner freaks out when you suggest Tofurky instead of turkey.
Along with messing with your head, conflict also messes with your brain. According to neuroscientist Dr. Alex Korb, “All of these parts of your brain are competing with each other for control over what your next action or thought pattern will be. That's why, sometimes, you just want to say the thing that you're angry about. It feels so good to say it in the moment, because you get a little burst of dopamine – but the rational part of your brain is like, ‘No! That's not going to help us get to where we want to go.’”
Does conflict mean our relationship is doomed?
Whether you’re fighting about your gift-giving budget and exactly how many new Legos your little one should find under the tree or you’re debating whether you’ll even have a tree and which other holiday tradition your family will follow, it’s safe to say that the holidays can bring up some pretty serious conflict – and bring out some pretty strong opinions you may not have even realized you had. When you find yourself full-on shrieking that it’s not Thanksgiving unless the cranberry comes from a can, you might be the most surprised of all.
The good news is that disagreeing with your partner doesn’t mean disaster – or that your relationship is doomed. As author and psychologist Carolyn Cowan explains, “It’s natural that two people are going to have somewhat different ideas or vulnerabilities. It's not always terrible to have a disagreement, an argument, or even a fight,” Her co-author and husband of 60 years psychologist Phil Cowan agrees. “It's not whether you fight – it’s how you fight and how you resolve the fight afterwards.”
What are some ways to resolve holiday relationship conflict?
You and your partner may never agree on how to play dreidel or who to invite to the holiday party, but there are ways you can learn to disagree more effectively. These four ideas for fighting fairly can help you navigate those holiday battles a little more peacefully – and may help you have a happier new year, too.
1. Stick to the subject at hand. Focus on the issue you need to resolve without calling each other names or bringing up unrelated complaints. Tackle one battle at a time, and try to stay civil.
2. Be kind and curious. Instead of getting defensive when you feel attacked, ask questions to get insight into your partner’s perspective. If you do slip into attack/defend mode, marriage therapist Dan Wile says kind words like, “You’ve got a good point,” can help.
3. Watch your tone and body language. Saying “I’m fine,” through grit teeth is confusing – and passive aggressive. Try to sincerely communicate your feelings clearly and honestly.
4. Shift from “you” to “I.” Use “I” statements to share your feelings without attacking your partner. If you tell your partner, “I get stressed about money when you overspend on holiday gifts,” instead of, “You’re so irresponsible,” they may be less resistant.
Creating a safe, supportive home for your kids doesn’t mean you have to put up a false front. If they overhear you arguing about taking down the holiday lights, that’s perfectly okay. Just keep it civil, take a timeout if you need one, and remind the kids you can love someone and disagree with them at the same time.
If your arguments do start to spin out of control, Phil Cowan suggests pushing pause and explaining to the kids you need some privacy to have an adult conversation. “Say, ‘Look, Mom and Dad really have to talk about this, and we're going to go in that room because we don't want to scare you. It's not your fault, and it’s not your business. We need to work something out here.’”
Want to learn more about “Adult Communication: Talk to Me, Baby,” and how to help your child learn to listen? Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.