Couples Fight During The Holidays Because They Forget To Have This Conversation

Aligning on expectations allows for a happier holiday. Do yourselves a big favor and set aside some time for the discussion.

by Graham Techler
Emma Chao/Fatherly; Getty Images

Holiday plans are multiplying faster than you can count, gift receipts are piling up on your desk, and somewhere in between all of it, the time to relax with the people you love gets harder and harder to nail down. The holidays can be a source of great stress and pressure as well as joy. This isn’t a shocker by any means but it doesn’t make it any less true.

But where does all this stress come from, especially in the context of your relationship? Amy Morin, LCSW and author of the forthcoming book 13 Things Mentally Strong Couples Don’t Do, says that mismatched expectations are the primary culprit when you and your partner’s holiday turns from merry and bright to blue. Taking the time to get aligned with your partner in advance of the holidays is the best way to nip them in the bud.

“It prevents a lot of conflict later,” says Morin. “When you know what to expect going into [the holidays], it diffuses a lot of the emotions. So people aren’t as angry, they’re not as upset when they know several weeks in advance what this other person’s plan is.”

Here are six of the best conversations you can have with your partner to make sure your holiday season goes off without a hitch.

1. “What’s Our Budget?”

Obvious? Sure. But that doesn’t mean its any less important. How much money do you want to spend on gifts? Who do you want to give gifts to? What kind of gifts do you want to get each other? These questions can weigh heavily on your holiday season if they go unanswered.

“In addition to gifts, the cost of traveling and family outings can really add up,” says relationship expert and counselor Mark Verber. “Without discussing budgets, the potential is high for expenses to exact a toll on relationships.”

Agreeing on a budget together in advance can also make the inevitable conversations about which events to participate in a little easier. You won’t feel like a Grinch for saying “I don’t want to take the whole family ice skating this year,” if you can truthfully frame it as “I don’t know if we can take the whole family ice skating and still do these other things we’ve budgeted for.”

2. “What Are Our Family Plans?”

This is a slightly more diplomatic way of getting into the sometimes confrontational “in-laws” conversation. Morin notes that extended family coming to your home unexpectedly or staying longer than anticipated can be a source of stress even if your relationship with your in-laws is a positive one. She suggests framing the question as a matter of ‘family plans’ to avoid any bad blood, and approaching the conversation as one where you can simply give voice to your assumptions and preferences.

“[You can ask] the other person what their expectations are, what they’re hoping for, and then go from there,” says Morin. You’ll likely have to meet in the middle, but it’s better to do that in advance and not while you’re in the middle of holiday chaos.

3. “What Traditions Should We Observe?”

When two people become a couple, they bring with them a laundry list of meaningful holiday traditions they look forward to observing with their partner. But where one of you always went to a farm for your Christmas tree, the other always went to the church down the street. And even when two traditions aren’t in direct conflict, there often aren’t enough days on the advent calendar to do everything.

“I think they can both say, ‘here are my traditions, what are yours?’” says Morin. “And then talk about which ones you want to keep and which ones you don’t really care that much about.” After that, Morin says, you can turn your attention to areas where you might want to start new traditions together, growing closer on something that wasn’t a compromise for either of you.

4. “What Are Your Boundaries?”

The festivities of the holiday season can frequently push your boundaries in ways you would rather avoid. This is one area where you and your partner will inevitably harbor resentment towards each other if you don’t establish yourselves a unified front.

“If you go to the holiday events and arguing breaks out, what are you going to do?” asks Morin. “If you’re not comfortable with a family member who’s drinking and alcohol starts flowing, are you going to leave or are you going to stick around? What’s the plan?”

Couples don’t have to share the same boundaries in order to respect them, and taking the time to become extra aware of your partner’s holiday comfort zone will ensure you’re both able to take initiative to protect that zone on each other’s behalf.

5. “What Are Our Parenting Priorities?”

The holidays have a way of completely changing the normal rules in your household. Comes with the season. You want to make sure your kids are celebrating and making special memories of their own, but frustrations can easily arise when a couple is inconsistent about which aspects of your carefully established household status quo to bend.

“Kids push buttons, it just comes with the territory,” says Verber. “During the holidays, there are lots of extra buttons at their disposal. This can be anticipated, but for it to be navigated effectively, you need to be on the same page. From what gifts to get them, how late they can stay up, to how many Christmas cookies they can have — the questions are endless.”

You don’t need to have an answer to all these questions, but they should take the time to establish a process for addressing them as they come up.

6. “What Do We Want To Do Over The Holidays?”

Conversations between you and your partner don’t have to revolve around mitigating disaster before it happens — you should also be taking the time to plan ahead for the holidays with excitement and an eye towards your own enjoyment. This deceptively simple question can be one of the first things couples forget to ask themselves.

“Quite often couples get caught up in just going with the flow,” says Morin. “If you get invited to something, you go — without making your own plans. It’s a busy time of year, and people think about extended family as opposed to just their partner.” So make sure you take the time to focus on each other and ask: what do you want to do to make this year special?