UT Professor Offers Advice to Help Couples Avoid Holiday Pitfalls

KNOXVILLE—Finances, dealing with in-laws, sibling rivalry, and the stress of having too much to do—all of these can be a lump of coal in your holiday stocking.

Kristi Gordon, associate professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said families can often sidestep problems by talking through potential conflicts before they happen.

Gordon, who specializes in marital relationships, offers some advice to help you through these sticky areas:

Finances

“Finances are tough, especially with the economy being as bad as it is,” Gordon said. “What makes it doubly stressful is that we put meaning on top of money.”

Success is too often measured by money, she said. When one partner complains about spending limits, the other can translate that into “I’m not good enough.” Husbands—whether or not they are family’s sole breadwinner—are especially susceptible to this thinking, Gordon said.

She suggests talking through how much to spend on holiday gifts before shopping. Good problem-solving skills and some old-fashioned creativity will help, too.

Couples should ask themselves a few key questions: “What’s important to us?” “What are our limitations?” and “How we maximize what we can do?”

In-laws

One of the biggest dilemmas for many couples is how to share the holidays with both of their families, Gordon said. It’s easy for one spouse to think, “If you don’t want to go to my family this year, it must mean you don’t love my family.”

Once you’re at the gathering, big problems can result if tensions develop with your in-laws and your spouse doesn’t immediately come to your rescue.

Each spouse faces the same dilemma: “Where is my primary loyalty? Do I side with Mom and Dad, my significant other, or remain silent?”

Again, Gordon suggests talking through potential difficulties before they arise.

“Try to do it at a time when you are calm, being respectful, and communicating without blaming,” she said.

For newlyweds, the first holiday season together may be especially stressful.

There is no prescribed rule for dividing up time, Gordon said. Some couples choose to spend one holiday with one family and the next holiday with the other family. Some even put the family’s names in a hat and choose one.

Spouses from different faiths may have to find a way to incorporate multiple rituals into their life.

The important thing, Gordon said, is to remember that your spouse “is the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, so you want to maximize the happiness for both of you, not just make sure you get what you want.”

Sibling rivalry

The holidays can transform grown-up siblings into squabbling youngsters again.

“When we get back under the same roof, we tend to go right back to the way we were as kids,” she said.

“You cannot change your family members,” Gordon said. “The best thing you can do is manage your own reactions. Be consistent with your own values and be who you want to be.”

If you must confront a sibling, try to do it one on one—not in front of the whole family.

And don’t worry about taking a break from the family to avoid a blow-up.

Overbooked and overscheduled

“We have so many expectations for the holidays,” Gordon said. “People need to sit back and think, ‘What do you want this time to be about?’ ‘What are your priorities?’”

One strategy, Gordon said, is for each person to pick one holiday tradition or activity that is most important to them.

“Couples too often get in a win-lose situation,” she said. “Remember to come at the holidays with as much care for your partner’s point of view as your own.”

And, she said, “recognize that you don’t have to do everything. Allow yourself to accept, let go, and relax.”

C O N T A C T :

Amy Blakely, (865-974-5034, amy.blakely@tennessee.edu)

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