IT'S all too easy to lose sight of your partner in the mad dash to Christmas Day. Distractions abound – there are a lot of bases to be covered, even if you haven’t fallen into the trap of trying to achieve the perfect Christmas.
“There’s so much to distract you. Other things get prioritised: getting it right for the kids, work can be really busy at this time and families become a focus. There can be a lot of tension around where we’re going to spend Christmas – your family or mine? This can really heighten emotions,” says counsellor/therapist Fergus Breen.
Christmas can be joyous, he says – but it can also be triggering. And partners can tend to get snappy with each other when the pressure mounts. “People are meant to feel a certain way at Christmas, to be happy, but they may not be in that place. So what happens is: they present to colleagues and others as ‘yeah, I can’t wait for Christmas’ – which doesn’t match up to where they actually are. And then the first person the [unspoken] feeling comes out at is their partner,” says Breen.
And, of course, Christmas stresses come on top of the normal everyday pressures of life – money worries, those niggles about kids at school, concern for elderly parents, not to mention the pandemic, which Breen says has amplified “nearly everything” in relationships.
“People in good relationships have enjoyed a lovely time. It has made others realise their frustrations and resentments. Conversations that hadn’t been happening have happened and, for some, there has been disappointment.”
So, in this season of love and goodwill, are there ways we can reboot our relationship? How can we recharge it for the better? Breen says compassionate enquiry into where the other person is at is really helpful. “It’s important to check-in, to really ask ‘how are you?’ – to sit down and say ‘I know it was difficult for you with your family this year, but how are feeling now?’ We often forget to do this.”
This checking in – and listening – is really crucial, he says. And so is checking in with yourself: where are you at? “And let your partner in on this – ‘I’m feeling a bit anxious that our finances are down’ or ‘I’m worried about the dynamics with my siblings’. It’s important to be vulnerable with our partner – to do that we need to know where we’re at in the first place.”
He urges couples to be generous in their view of their partner’s intentions. “We sometimes assume the worst, but very few people have bad intent towards us. It’s often a misunderstanding,” he says, giving the example of a man buying an extravagant present for his partner when all she wanted was more time spent with him. “No one was being mean here – we’re just missing each other in communication.”
Breen also recommends making an effort with in-laws. It really shows respect and care for our partner and it can go a long way towards eliminating tensions. He advises checking in with yourself before the visit and resolving to ask good questions, make good conversation (perhaps read up on the local football team ahead). “When we ask people questions about themselves, they feel valued,” he says.
Clinical psychologist, marriage therapist and author Dr Colm O’Connor says there are three entities in a relationship: me, you and us. And if the couple can treat their relationship as a third person to be nourished, it’s really helpful. “If they can begin to ask ‘what does the relationship need?’ as distinct from what I or the other person might need, it can be very positive.
“So instead of saying ‘what am I going to get out of this?’ and getting into an argument about my needs over your needs – which isn’t helpful – ask what would be good for us. It mightn’t be good for me to go to the pantomime with the family and not go drinking with the lads, but it would be good for the relationship,” explains O’Connor, who says this approach lifts people out of focusing solely on their needs.
Author of, O’Connor is reassuring about how easy it can be to improve a relationship. “The currency in which people feel loved and supported is in small things, not in grand gestures. To have a happy fulfilling relationship, your partner isn’t usually wanting very much. Get a sense of what that is.”
In his practice, he gets couples to ask each other: ‘What two or three small easy things can I do for you over Christmas that would make you feel more cared for, loved or understood?’ “Couples who do this begin to get each other, to have a sense of what makes the difference,” he says.
What’s needed to turn a relationship from poor to good isn’t an awful lot, says O'Connor. “If an ocean liner changes direction just one degree, it’ll end up in a completely different destination. The smallest change in direction will bring you to a completely different place.”
Psychotherapist and relationship therapist Bernadette Ryan says it’s really helpful to cultivate a culture of appreciation in your relationship. “Notice the small things your partner does. Say, ‘I notice you’re working really hard – is there anything I can do to help?’ Small acts of kindness, appreciation and compassion go a long way in helping a relationship under strain.”
She recommends couples open up to influence from each other. This isn’t about agreeing with everything, but about realising there’s more than one way to do something. “So you might say ‘oh, yeah, I understand what you mean – let’s look at it and see what we can do’ – rather than dismissing something with ‘Oh don’t be ridiculous’.”
An admirer of the work of American psychologist John Gottman, Ryan cites his magic ratio for a relationship – five positive interactions for every one negative. “According to Gottman, long-term happily married couples say 65% of their problems never get resolved – but they learn to give and take and are flexible. Whereas unhappy couples argue about everything because it isn’t safe to give and take.”
She says it’s important to realise there’s no perfect partner – or relationship. “Realise there’ll be things about your partner that will grate on your nerves, and vice-versa. Be more flexible: if something is really important for your partner and not that important for you, let it be.”
Words can be hurtful, so if you’ve said something wounding, take it back, urges Ryan. “Say ‘that’s not what I meant – I take it back’.”
Relationship expert and psychotherapist Charisse Cooke says sex is often the first thing to go when couples hit busy times like Christmas. She recommends making time for more frequent sex over the festive season to combat relationship conflict and tension. “Knowing they’ll be intimate at some point allows couples to be kinder, more patient and playful with each other during the Christmas holiday.”
If all you want for Christmas is a more loving, present relationship with your partner, the small things may well make the biggest difference – an affectionate touch that’s not always about sex, or leaving your mobile phone in the next room while you chat over coffee. Or, as O’Connor recommends: sit on the edge of the bed with your partner and say: ‘I feel good about you. I’m here for you. I care for you. Is there anything I can do to make your day better?’
Dr Vincent McDarby, clinical psychologist and president-elect of Psychological Society of Ireland, says trouble in a relationship can start when one partner shuts the other out of their inner world.
“Though it’s seldom done intentionally, we often do it when we’re stressed,” he says.
McDarby has the following tips to combat stress:
- Recognise your stressors and take a step back from them.
- Check your anger levels. When we’re stressed, our tone of voice increases and we come across as hostile, though this may not be intended. The other person then naturally escalates their tone to come up to your level. Best to say ‘hold on, calm down’.
- Make time for fun. We can be so overwhelmed with such a lot going on. Get dressed up and go out on a date.
- Give your partner space to meet their friends. It’s a really healthy way for them to deescalate stress.
- Be mindful of how much you talk about the children. Adults need to talk about themselves and their needs too.
- Get socially connected. Social isolation weakens resilience, social connection strengthens it. Christmas provides space and opportunities to connect socially.
Remember to keep social distancing guidelines in mind.