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  • Caleb Birkhoff

How to Manage Holiday Stress as a Couple

The winter holiday season is often seen as a time of joy, love, and togetherness for many, but it can also bring about stress and tension in relationships; specifically it can also bring unique stressors for couples. With family obligations, high expectations, and financial pressures, couples may find themselves struggling to keep calm during the festive season It can even strain even the strongest relationships. However, with a little bit of planning and communication, the winter holiday season can actually bring couples closer together. Below we’ll explore the sources of holiday stress for couples, provide tangible solutions to address these issues, and highlight how successfully navigating this season can ultimately bring you closer. We'll also consider how a couples therapist can be a valuable resource for support. Let’s explore some of the main causes of stress for couples during this time of year and provide tangible solutions on how to address them.


Why do we experience holiday stress?

We experience most of our holiday stress due to expectations and the fear that they will not be met. This is especially true in new relationships or new phases of relationships (freshly engaged, just married, or started a family). These expectations often go uncommunicated or miscommunicated, so we end up disappointed. Sometimes we have an experience of disappointment from previous years that we expect to come true again.

What Causes Holiday Stress?


-Family Dynamics:

Family gatherings can stir up tensions, unresolved conflicts, or old grievances. This can be specifically difficult for a partner joining a family's traditions they have never been a part of before. When we return to our family of origin, it is almost impossible to not revert, or regress, back to old and familiar roles. As a couple we might be presented with behaviors and attitudes that surprise or even offend. This doesn't include the politics of being part of a family, and how challenging it can be to negotiate them on the fly, or with preparation in a pressure packed situation.

-Family Obligations:

One of the biggest sources of stress for couples during the winter holidays is the pressure to spend time with family. While it’s wonderful to have family nearby, it can also be challenging to navigate the different personalities and expectations. Couples can address this by setting boundaries and being clear about their priorities. It’s okay to say no to certain events or limit the time spent with family members. By communicating their needs to each other, couples can support each other in managing family dynamics and reduce the risk of resentment.

-Traditions and Expectations:

There is a sizable chance that your family feels pressured to meet specific holiday traditions or expectations. This can include the conventional holiday details, such as gift-giving, elaborate meals, and perfect decorations, all of which can be quite overwhelming. Additionally, you might be running into family specific traditions, which get harder to maintain as families age and new partners join the mix. You might be dealing with the disappointment that not everyone will be in attendance or that extra people will be there with their own expectations of what is normal around the holiday. The winter holidays are often portrayed as a time of perfect joy and celebration, which can put a lot of pressure on couples to create the “perfect” holiday experience. To avoid disappointment and unnecessary stress, couples can manage their expectations by focusing on the things they enjoy most about the season. By discussing and prioritizing what’s important to them, couples can create realistic expectations that allow them to enjoy the season without undue stress.


-Financial Strain:

This stressor almost speaks for itself, especially as things are seemingly more expensive than ever. The costs of gifts, travel, and holiday preparations can strain finances and even the most balanced budget, leading to stress. It can feel impossible to not fall victim to the financial pressures. With all the gift-giving and other expenses that come with the winter holidays, finances can cause significant stress in a relationship. Couples can address this by creating a budget together and sticking to it. By discussing their financial situation and setting realistic expectations for spending, couples can make the most of their holiday without putting unnecessary strain on their wallets. It’s important to remember that the holidays are about spending time with loved ones, not buying the most expensive gifts.


-Navigating Multiple Celebrations:

For couples, the challenge of juggling multiple family celebrations and trying to make everyone happy can be stressful and feel like an impossible task. I believe it to be a great developmental milestone in the arc of relationship development to be able to negotiate how you spend holidays. It's essential to be able to talk about it, beyond the logistics, and tackle the emotional implications. Trading holidays, spending with one family or families, separating on holidays (and more) are all options, but only as comfortable as they are discussed and negotiated. Throw in the possibility that you might want to start a new tradition in your relationship, which could throw families for a loop.


-Time Management:

With all the events and obligations that come with the winter holiday season, couples can find themselves feeling overwhelmed and stretched thin. Trying to balance holiday preparations, social commitments, and work can lead to time management stress. This is a time of year where there are many things that call for your time and attention, which can get in the way of living the rest of your life. Try to be clear and communicative about your plans as you take care of yourself and your partner during the holiday season. With all the events and obligations that come with the winter holiday season, couples can find themselves feeling overwhelmed and stretched thin. To reduce stress and create more quality time together, couples can prioritize their schedules and carve out time for themselves. This can be as simple as scheduling a movie night at home or taking a walk to look at holiday lights/decorations. By creating intentional moments of connection, couples can reinforce their bond and reduce stress.

2. How can a couple manage holiday stress?


Managing holiday stress as a couple involves open communication and mutual support. You're going to be most effective when you're working together to solve any issue. I hope that at the end of the holidays you are feeling more connected as a result having been able to negotiate the stress together and feel supported through the process. Here are some tips to actively manage the stress together:


-Plan Together:

Be proactive about planning! The more you can create predictability the less stress you will experience, and the easier it will be to set boundaries around what you and your partner want to do. Discuss your holiday plans, including when, where, with whom, and how long you will attend celebrations. Think about a realistic budget and stick to it! Budgets are only effective if they are adhered to and don't rely on whimsy. Additionally, plan how you are going to communicate your plans to your friends and family, do not assume they are thinking the same thing you are.


-Set Realistic Expectations:

Acknowledge that the holidays don't have to be perfect. Let go of unrealistic expectations and embrace imperfections. Most families have stuff, the emotional baggage, interpersonal friction, and a flair for unpredictability. If you're dead set on being a family (or couple) in matching pj's ready for the 'Gram or cover of the Target ads, be ready to be disappointed or do a lot of work to pull it off.


-Establish Boundaries:

Set boundaries with family and friends. Communicate your limits and prioritize self-care. I love a boundary that anticipates the follow up questions with answers. Something like "We will be spending Thanksgiving with (insert partner's name) family. We're going to alternate holidays year to year, so we will spend Christmas (or next holiday) with you this year and reverse them next year. We want to be able to enjoy old family traditions and start some of our own." Be prepared to reset that boundary, as it won't be respected by everyone, or to move it if needed. You might, through this process, discover that a particular holiday or tradition is more important to you or your partner, or respective families, so you can always be flexible.


-Create Your Traditions:

Establish your own holiday traditions as a couple. This can include new activities or celebrations that are meaningful to both of you. They can start small and become elaborate, or you can start off dreaming big. It's important in a relationship to have a joint narrative about what it means to be in your partnership, it's okay (and even important) to be mindful and intentional about creating them. You'll be glad you did when you look back on the history of your relationship.


-Support Each Other:

Be supportive and understanding of each other's needs and stressors. Offer emotional support when one of you is feeling overwhelmed. This includes dividing up tasks related to the holiday (shopping, travel planning, cooking, etc.) and communicating with your family of origin.


-Seek Professional Help:

If holiday stress becomes too much to handle, consider seeking help from a therapist or counselor who can provide guidance and coping strategies. Therapists are available to help you negotiate the stress of the holiday season and to furnish you with the skills and confidence to manage other stressful times in your life together.


-Relationship Recharge:


After managing all of the above stressors, couples may need to recharge and reconnect. One way to do this is by scheduling time for couples counseling to help them process their feelings and plan for the future. By working with an experienced therapist, couples can learn better communication skills, identify triggers for stress, and create strategies for navigating difficult situations. Couples therapy can help them to build a stronger and more resilient relationship, setting them up for success in the new year.


Ways Holiday Stress Can Bring You Closer:


· Teamwork: Successfully navigating holiday stress as a team can strengthen your bond and showcase your ability to overcome challenges together.

· Quality Time: Use the holiday season to create special moments as a couple. Whether it's a cozy night in or a romantic date, these shared experiences can deepen your connection. It’s a great time to be intentional about creating your own traditions!

· Communication Skills: Managing holiday stress requires effective communication. The skills you develop can enhance your overall communication as a couple.

· Resilience: Overcoming holiday stress together builds resilience, which can benefit your relationship when facing future challenges. You’ll be able to look back on this joint success as inspiration to face new challenges.

· Shared Memories: The challenges you conquer together during the holiday season become part of your shared history, reinforcing your unique connection.



The Role of a Couples Therapist:

If holiday stress becomes overwhelming and threatens your relationship, consider seeking guidance from a couple’s therapist. They can provide:


· A safe space for open and honest communication. · Tools to improve your communication and conflict resolution skills. · Strategies for setting healthy boundaries and managing stress. · Support in understanding and addressing deeper issues that may be exacerbated during the holidays.


Navigating holiday stress as a couple is an opportunity to strengthen your relationship. By addressing challenges together, setting realistic expectations, and considering the guidance of a couple’s therapist when needed, you can not only survive the holiday season but emerge from it with a deeper and more resilient connection.

Remember, the key is to approach the holidays as a team, supporting each other through the stresses and focusing on the joy and togetherness that the season can bring. Communication, understanding, and teamwork are essential for managing holiday stress as a couple.


The Holidays Don't Have to be Stressful


The winter holiday season may bring about stress in relationships, but it doesn’t have to be a time of tension. By communicating their needs and priorities and focusing on the things they enjoy most, couples can create a peaceful and joyful holiday experience. Even better, if couples are successful in navigating the stress, it can bring them even closer together. And, if they feel they continue to struggle, working with a couples therapist may be an excellent option to consider. With these tools, couples can face the winter holiday season with confidence and love.


I hope that this helps you feel more confident about negotiating the the holidays with your partner, or inspires you to find couples counseling in San Francisco. If after reading all of that, you’re still swirling with questions feel free to call me at 415-990-1452 for a free 15-minute phone consultation and to get some questions answered. I would be happy to hear what is happening for you, what you’re looking for and provide some direction to finding the right therapist for you.


Additionally, if you are seeking help with couples therapy, drugs and alcohol, life transitions, discovering yourself, or therapy for men’s issues, you can read more about how Caleb Birkhoff might be able to help by clicking here!





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