How to have a good holiday with a bad marriage

Things have not been good between the two of you for a while. And now the holidays are upon you. Surviving the holidays with marital trouble can be daunting. But here are 11 critical tools that might be helpful.

Manage the irony with your partner

You may both feel smothered in cloying sentimentality that will clash with the actual stress of your real life.

Roll with it. Call a truce for a specific period of time.

Unless you both decide otherwise, feeling angry, isolated and disconnected during an otherwise happy time is baked in the cake.

If you have kids, your essential task is to focus on managing their memories for this Holiday Season.

Have firm agreements and boundaries with your spouse about what you will both do, and not do during the Holidays. Stay connected with each other through your specific agreements. Focus on collaboration instead of control. 

If it will help, agree on a clear start and end date for your Holiday agreements. Do it for your kids and other family members. Declare a truce…but lean into your spouse. Listen to each other. Instead of leading with what you demand from them, ask them what they will need from you first.

Mentally rehearse known stressors

Don’t overdo things. Ask for help if need be. Don’t allow yourself to get tired, irritable, or overwhelmed. If visiting family is a known stressor, have an agreement about how you both will deal with it, in advance. You may need to rehearse and plan for predictably irritating relatives. Make sure you have a friend to complain to… but don’t complain about your marriage.

Be here now

In every moment try to have a good time no matter what the circumstances may be. The Holidays may offer dozens of entertaining little distractions. Embrace them. Have gratitude for little pleasures with your kids, your family, perfect strangers…and perhaps even, on occasion, your partner.

Surviving the holidays means taking care of yourself first

Keep your own company

The Holidays are about spending time with family, but you’re going to need some “Me Time” too. Try to find time alone to keep a journal, reflect on what you want, who you want to be… and the gap between that aspiration and your present circumstances.

Prayer and meditation would be very helpful if you are so inclined. But at least keep some company with yourself, and reflect on what you want instead. Remind yourself that… this too shall pass.

Engage in a high degree of self-care

If you drink too much or eat too much, it might become more difficult to hold up your end of the deal.

Holiday Cheer is for people who have something to celebrate. You have something to manage.

Be on purpose. Set appropriate boundaries for yourself. Watch your booze. You both want to be on your best behavior until New Years’ Day.

Have a frank discussion with your partner about how you can both refrain from using too much alcohol as stress relief

Find reasons to be grateful

Holidays are often a time for gratitude and reflection.

Your current troubles are no reason to ignore the relationships and circumstances in your life that are positive and nurturing.

Be gentle with yourself and others, and humble in your expectations. Enjoy the happiness and anticipation of your children.

Surviving the holidays also means watching your automatic thinking

Be skeptical of the partner in your head

Couples in trouble typically think the worst of each other. Be mindful that the Holidays will provide ample opportunities to fulfill your partner’s worst fears…and vice-versa.

But it’s also an opportunity to make improvements that may very well be dictated by necessity.

Try to be extra patient and considerate this Holiday Season and model that for your spouse. Be less quick to judge and perhaps you won’t be so harshly judged in return. It’s a truce for the time being. Make the most of it.

Don’t “should” all over yourself

It’s appropriate to have standards and expectations. But try not to worry too much about what you “should” be feeling, thinking or doing. You may want to put some aspects of your normal Holiday routine on cruise control or farm it out to a trusted family member. Self-care is your first priority.

Notice what’s working… and express appreciation

It might be a challenge, but when your partner is being helpful, express appreciation. Remember you’re both managing a very tough situation. Find ways of expressing appreciation when they are living up to their end of whatever bargain you’ve struck to get through the Holidays.

Ask Santa for some self control

If you tend to escalate with your spouse…make escalation the enemy for now. Surviving the Holidays means taking time outs as needed. This is no time to lose your Christmas Cookies.

Breathe. Be brief…and stick to the business at hand.

Remember you can always go back to “it” later, but for now, you’re making memories for and with your kids.

You know that you can do better. And you will.

Be flexible

Don’t worry if you have a compelling need to do the Holidays differently this year. Remember the ultimate goal, to get through it with a minimum of drama and conflict. Focus on what’s possible…not what’s perfect. Be happy with a well-regulated “good enough” Holiday.

Final thoughts on surviving the holidays with marital issues

Whether or not couples therapy is something you’re willing to try next year, give yourself some credit for doing your very best to make the Holidays a delight for your kids and extended family.

But it’s not just about your kids and family. It’s also about your marriage.

It takes grit and fortitude to plow through the Holidays while having unresolved marital problems.

This may be the first time in a while that you and your partner worked together in relative harmony, for a common purpose.

If they held their end up with skill, don’t be stingy with your praise.

You both will work incredibly hard to give your kids and extended family a Happy Holiday in 2021.

But don’t kid yourself. Your kids probably know all is not ok between the two of you…but here’s another way of looking at it.

Surviving the Holidays with marital trouble is also modeling determination, teamwork, self-sacrifice, conflict management, resilience, respect, and goodwill for them.

And that’s going to linger in their little stockings a lot longer than you might think.

Happy holidays…and get yourselves some good couples therapy in the New Year.

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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