The new year can bring simmering tensions to the fore — couples need to focus on how the conflict is managed, not on who is right or wrong, writes Margaret Jennings.
The festive frenzy is over and we are settling into a brand new year, but while couples all around us may have raised their glasses warmly as the clock ticked towards 2020, others were on a different countdown — to the breakup of their relationship.
Christmas can be a challenging time on many fronts and with new year resolutions coming fast on its trail, this is now a predictable period for one or both in a relationship, to pull the plug.
In fact, the first Monday back at work after the holiday season has been dubbed Divorce Monday, as it marks the beginning of a spike in appointments for legal advice around breakups at the beginning of the year. “Christmas puts a lot of focus on how bad things are and generally they are off to the solicitors as soon as they can get an appointment,” says family lawyer Anne O’Neill.
“There is a surge, usually in January, of new clients, or of clients who came earlier and sat on their hands, but now feel they have to do something.
What kind of complaints does a disgruntled partner bring to her office? “Only a tiny percentage of breakdown is caused by drink, in my experience, but if there is drinking, it will aggravate any strain there is at Christmas,” says O’Neill.
Brewing financial issues get heightened: “Somebody is spending the money that was earmarked for something else, or failure for one party to tell the other exactly what they earn, or there’s a joint account and something is whipped out of it, or one party is not pulling their weight financially.”
Online gambling among men isa growing problem; it hits a couple not only financially but with the time the gambler spends away from the relationship, says O’Neill. Evidence of affairs also feature, as well as domestic abuse — that is, mental cruelty, emotional abuse, and coercive control.
O’Neill says she also hears a lot about “interference from relatives of the partners, being consulted on everything”.
At Christmas, this becomes heightened — unkind casual remarks, with the children “unfortunately becoming the pivot on which all arguments circle”.
According to the 2018 census, 3,235 divorces were granted along with 844 judicial separations, but not all couples who are under strain have tied the knot or have children, of course.
Family therapist David Kavanagh, author of the book, Love Rewired, says: “If you have been in a bad relationship and gone through a very stressful Christmas period, it’s very easy to make a new resolution to have a new life or have peace of mind at least, for the coming year — I think it’s a good time for people to be honest enough with themselves and say ‘it’s time for a break’.”
The festive period can be very stressful because of unconscious expectations we bring from our childhood, he says. Not all of us have happy memories. “For some,Christmas was a time of struggle and emotional distress, but the emotional distress is masked by alcohol, by consumerism, and everything we do to try and stop ourselves from feeling — and that puts a massive stress on relationships.
“If your unconscious needs or expectations from your partnerare not met, then you’re going to be needy, demanding, maybe clingy, nothing is going to be good enough — all the things that might make you less attractive to that person,” he says.
“You might be nagging, niggling at them — be really childlike in your behaviour to try and get your needs met, which of course has the opposite effect; it just pushes people away, which of course reinforces the fact that you’re not getting your needs met.
“In the therapy practice I do, I see that a lot — and especially at Christmas time it comes out, when the rest of the year people put the lid on it: The present isn’t good enough, ‘you didn’t pay me enough attention’, or ‘you went to your parents’ — those kind of strained situations.”
“With the relationship understress, it’s important that people take stock of whether they arecompatible and to ask questionssuch as: ‘Do we have some good times? Do we have fun together? Are we respectful of each other?’ If you answer yes to a lot of those questions then you should not be breaking up,” says Kavanagh.
Contentment, a baseline of happiness, is what a couple should be trying to acquire, while aiming to maintain what he sees as the core basis of a good relationship — trust, communication, healthy sexuality, and stress management.
“We live in a consumer society that tells us we should be happy all the time and people come to relationships with that expectation. That’s nonsense; we are not wired to be happy all the time.”
James Parrin, who specialises in emotionally focussed therapy (EFT) with couples, also puts the emphasis on our unconscious — and the fears and needs we bring to those we are intimately attached to.
“At Christmas, couples are brought face to face with their expectations, hopes, disappointments, and fears and in January they say ‘I can’t get caught up in that same cycle of disconnection and struggle’.
The most common form of negative patterns of interaction he sees, involves one person withdrawing, shutting down, and the other pursuing, wanting connection. The partners who do well in his therapy practice, are those who take responsibility for their attachment style and resultant behaviours and actions.
“Communication is very important and in EFT we help them recognise that the reason they are getting distressed is they want to feel loved and are trying to maintain connection,” he adds.
How couples communicate when they’re under conflict is a tell-tale sign of whether their relationships will last, says Dr John Gottman, a US psychological researcher and clinician who has done extensive work over four decades on divorce prediction and marital stability.
From his research, he can predict, with 90% accuracy, whether a couple will divorce or be unhappy, if their negative communication patterns contain what he calls the Four Horsemen ofthe Apocalypse — criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
During times like Christmas and new year, it’s really important to keep the lines of communication open and avoid the negativity of the Four Horsemen, says San Francisco based Sinead Smyth, a certified Gottman therapist, master trainer, and consultant, who holds trainings for clinicians in Ireland and internationally.
“Contempt is our biggest predictor of couple breakdown— bigger than affairs, addictions, or any other issue,” she tellsFeelgood.
“Contempt can be name-calling, humiliating the partner, eye-rolling, sarcastic or hostile humour; anything that I say or do, that puts my partner down, or indicates I’m superior to him or her, in some way.
“With criticism, the problem is you — ‘you’re always’, ‘you’re never’, etc — and with defensiveness, although it is the normal response to a criticism, it deflects blame and doesn’t take any responsibility for my part in the problem.”
Stonewalling involves “tuning the other person out in the middle of an argument — I might glaze over, shut down, withdraw from the interaction, even though physically I’m still present”, says Smyth.
It’s how we manage conflict that matters. “A common myth that exists is that couples need to see eye to eye on most issues in order to have a happy relationship. However, Dr Gottman’s research has revealed that the vast majority of problems in couple relationships, about 69%, are unresolvable and ongoing,” says Smyth.
What the research has also shown is that couples who fare well in dealing with their differences tend to be able to manage their conflict in a gentler way, avoiding the Four Horsemen.
“In fact, in Gottman method couple therapy, we let people know that conflict is inevitable in all relationships, and it’s how itis managed that will predict where the couple ends up,” says Smyth.
“Often partners feel more disconnected than angry with each other. In the US, for instance, about 80% of divorcing couples say their marriage died by ice rather than fire. Think back to the beginning of your relationship. What was it that you liked about your partner? What did you enjoy about each other? What attracted you?
“In our lives today, couples are busy, families are stressed, screens take up our downtime, we disconnect. Your relationship can become a to-do list and conversations can be all about logistics. Going back to the beginning and remembering the good can have surprisingly beneficial effects,” says Smyth.
Some food for thought for all of us in relationships over the new year.