Originally published Dec 8, 2020. Updated Dec 21, 2023

Ah, the holidays – that magical time of year filled with twinkling lights, festive cheer…and the potential for relationship disaster if your marriage is on the rocks. Navigating the season of goodwill with a partner you’re currently less than thrilled with can feel about as enjoyable as getting a lump of coal in your stocking. But fear not! With a little humor, a dash of self-awareness, and these 11 expert-backed strategies, you can survive – nay, thrive! – this holiday season, no matter how frosty things may be on the home front.

The Irony of Forced Merriment

Let’s face it – trying to muster holiday cheer when you and your spouse are barely speaking can feel about as natural as a snowman in the Sahara. Researchers have found that the pressure to put on a happy face during times of relationship distress can actually worsen negative emotions and lead to increased conflict1. So, what’s a disgruntled spouse to do?

Declare a Temporary Truce

One strategy is to call a time-limited truce with your partner. Agree to set aside your differences for a specific period (e.g., Christmas Eve through Boxing Day) and focus on creating positive holiday memories, especially if you have children. This doesn’t mean pretending everything is perfect, but rather making a conscious choice to prioritize peace and goodwill in the spirit of the season. Studies show that even brief periods of positive interaction can help buffer against the negative effects of marital discord2.

Get on the Same Page

To make your holiday ceasefire successful, it’s crucial to get aligned with your spouse ahead of time. Sit down together and hash out a plan for how you’ll handle potentially stressful situations, like dealing with intrusive in-laws or divvying up holiday tasks. Research indicates that couples who engage in collaborative problem-solving and set clear boundaries and expectations fare better during times of stress3. And if all else fails, just remember – eggnog makes everything better!

Managing Holiday Stressors

From endless shopping lists to awkward office parties, the holidays come with their fair share of built-in stress. When you’re already dealing with relationship woes, these added pressures can feel like the cherry on top of a very unappetizing sundae. But with a little preparation and perspective, you can keep from turning into a total Grinch.

Anticipate Triggers

Take some time to mentally map out the holiday scenarios most likely to push your buttons. Perhaps it’s your mother-in-law’s annual critique of your cooking skills, or your spouse’s tendency to overspend on gifts. Whatever your particular triggers may be, strategizing in advance for how you’ll handle them can help you stay cool as a candy cane. Role-playing potential conflicts with a trusted friend or therapist can be a helpful way to practice keeping your composure4.

Prioritize Self-Care

Amidst the holiday hubbub, don’t forget to take care of yourself! Chronic stress has been shown to exacerbate relationship problems5, so making time for activities that help you relax and recharge is crucial. Whether it’s sneaking in a solo shopping trip, hitting the gym, or just taking a few deep breaths, commit to prioritizing your own well-being. And if all else fails, there’s always the tried-and-true method of hiding in the bathroom with a glass of wine and a copy of “A Christmas Carol.”

Finding Moments of Joy

Even if your marriage feels about as merry as a toothache, there are still opportunities to find genuine enjoyment and meaning during the holidays. The key is to focus on the aspects of the season that bring you authentic happiness, rather than getting bogged down in perfection-seeking or comparing your experience to some Norman Rockwell ideal.

Savor Small Pleasures

Research shows that savoring positive moments, no matter how small, can boost mood and overall well-being6. So go ahead and take an extra whiff of that pine-scented candle, linger over a mug of your favorite holiday blend, or let yourself get lost in the childlike wonder of gawking at elaborate light displays. Bonus points if you can rope your spouse into joining you for a few of these mini-delights – even a shared moment of silliness can be a sweet respite from relationship stress.

Express Gratitude

When we’re hyper-focused on what’s wrong in our relationship, it can be all too easy to overlook what’s still good. Challenge yourself to find something to appreciate about your partner each day, even if it’s as simple as thanking them for taking out the trash or making the coffee. Studies have found that expressing gratitude can improve marital satisfaction and foster a more positive outlook7. And if you’re really struggling to come up with something nice to say, just remember – “thanks for not leaving your socks on the floor today” totally counts.

Keep Things in Perspective

When you’re smack dab in the middle of holiday-infused relationship drama, it can feel like the fate of the universe hinges on whether you and your spouse have a picture-perfect Christmas. But the truth is, one less-than-ideal holiday season will not make or break your marriage (or your kids’ psyches). By keeping a healthy perspective and focusing on the big picture, you can take some of the pressure off.

Lower the Bar

Forget striving for the “best holiday ever.” This year, aim for “good enough” – meaning you and your spouse both make it through the season with your dignity (and your sanity) mostly intact. Researchers have found that having realistic expectations and being willing to adjust them as needed is associated with greater relationship satisfaction8. So if your visions of sugarplum fairies dancing in perfect harmony don’t quite materialize, give yourself permission to shrug it off and settle for “not a total disaster.”

Find the Humor

When all else fails, try to find the absurdity in your situation. After all, holiday stress and relationship strife are about as universal as fruitcake and ugly sweaters. Studies show that couples who are able to laugh together, even in the midst of conflict, tend to be more satisfied with their relationships9. So go ahead and make a joke about your mother-in-law’s burnt turkey or your spouse’s tone-deaf caroling. A little levity can be the spoonful of sugar that helps the holiday medicine go down.

Final Thoughts

Surviving the holidays with a strained marriage may not be the stuff of Hallmark movies, but it is possible – and maybe even an opportunity for growth. By choosing to approach the season with intentionality, humor, and self-compassion, you just might find that this year’s festivities bring more light than you’d expected. And who knows? The skills you practice during this challenging time could even translate into a happier, healthier relationship in the new year.

So go forth and jingle those bells, even if they’re slightly out of tune. With a little luck (and a lot of spiked eggnog), you’ve got this. Happy holidays!


  1. Seidman, G., Shrout, P. E., & Bolger, N. (2006). Why is enacted social support associated with increased distress? Using simulation to test two possible sources of spuriousness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(1), 52-65.
  2. Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country’s foremost relationship expert. Harmony.
  3. Lavner, J. A., Karney, B. R., & Bradbury, T. N. (2016). Does couples’ communication predict marital satisfaction, or does marital satisfaction predict communication?. Journal of Marriage and Family, 78(3), 680-694.
  4. Epstein, N. B., & Baucom, D. H. (2002). Enhanced cognitive-behavioral therapy for couples: A contextual approach. American Psychological Association.
  5. Falconier, M. K., Nussbeck, F., Bodenmann, G., Schneider, H., & Bradbury, T. (2015). Stress from daily hassles in couples: Its effects on intradyadic stress, relationship satisfaction, and physical and psychological well‐being. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 41(2), 221-235.
  6. Jose, P. E., Lim, B. T., & Bryant, F. B. (2012). Does savoring increase happiness? A daily diary study. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 7(3), 176-187.
  7. Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of personality and social psychology, 103(2), 257.
  8. McNulty, J. K., & Karney, B. R. (2004). Positive expectations in the early years of marriage: Should couples expect the best or brace for the worst?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 86(5), 729.
  9. Kurtz, L. E., & Algoe, S. B. (2015). Putting laughter in context: Shared laughter as behavioral indicator of relationship well‐being. Personal Relationships, 22(4), 573-590.