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The Christmas Tree Effect in Dating and Relationships

How doing less can mean more for your love life.

Key points

  • Like decorating Christmas trees, relationships benefit from a "less is more" approach, emphasizing simplicity.
  • Date with stronger filters. Fewer potential partners allows you to focus on quality connections only.
  • Clear relationship clutter by dropping unrealistic expectations, unhelpful comparisons, and restrictive rules.
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How can doing less help your relationship thrive?
Akmaral Imanbayeva/Pexels

'Tis the season for decorating Christmas trees.

I’m not sure what it’s like in your house, but it’s serious business in mine. There’s a right way and more than a few wrong ways.

Like a lot of things in life, Christmas trees are imperfect. There’s the good side you face outward and the side you intentionally face against the wall. Like a lot of things in life, trees are imperfect.

Anyone who has ever decorated a Christmas tree has felt the impulse to fill every possible spot on the tree with lights, ornaments, garland, kid’s crafts, or 10 pounds of tinsel. The result is a cluttered, inundated mess. (It’s the same when decorating outside; you really can have too many plastic figurines on your lawn.)

More isn’t always better. Instead, you can remove what’s holding you back and simplify. It’s a concept that David Epstein labeled “The Christmas Tree Effect.”

True for trees and true for relationships.

When we identify a problem, the natural inclination is to step in, say something, and make things happen with extra effort or a bit of hustle. That sounds right because it’s intuitive to be proactive.

Yet, in relationships, there’s often a better way.

The “Christmas Tree Effect” in relationships is about doing less, minimizing friction, and removing deadweight. This is the “less is more” epiphany that makes navigating dating and relationships easier.

7 Ways That Minimalism Benefits Relationships

  1. Date With Stronger Filters: When dating, we love the idea of having lots of potential partners interested in us. Though flattering, it’s inefficient. Realistically, you don’t really want everyone to like you. In fact, you want all of the incompatible people not to pay you any attention. That allows you to focus on partners with whom you’ll have a real connection.
  2. Relationship Clutter: We all carry around emotional knick-knacks that clutter our relationships. These are the impossible or impractical relationship standards we acquired while growing up. It’s the comparisons we make to relationships we see on social media. It’s time to clean out your relationship junk drawer by being more realistic and less demanding and by ditching overly restrictive rules.
  3. Down With Date Night: You’re busy. You’re overscheduled, frantic, and are constantly juggling a hectic calendar and too many responsibilities. But the most common relationship advice says, “schedule a regular date night.” When!?!?! Instead of trying to squeeze one more thing in, take things out. Miss a meeting, cancel an appointment, skip practice, and, most importantly, say “no” to adding anything new. Take the extra time to relax and enjoy the comfort and calm together with your partner.
  4. Spending So Much Time Together: Early on, it’s natural to feel like you need to spend every moment together—sweet at first, but can start to feel needy and suffocating. Importantly, research shows that time apart leads to missing, encouraging us to be nicer to our partners, talk more, and tell them how much we care—all of which builds commitment and strengthens our relationship.
  5. Keeping Score: Relationships aren’t competitive. They’re collaborative. To improve any relationship, stop tracking who is doing what, how much, how often, and at what cost. Instead, partners are part of the same team that works together for the good of the relationship.
  6. Gold Stars: Wouldn’t it be nice to receive more recognition and appreciation for everything we do for our partner? Sure, but as much as that feeling is understandable, it’s an impulse worth dropping. Instead, when you provide invisible support your partner doesn’t know about, they (and the relationship) benefit without potential costs (e.g., feeling inferior, indebted, or guilty about needing help).
  7. The Relationship Itself?: If your relationship isn’t helping to make you a better person, ending it will. My research on this found that leaving an unfulfilling relationship helped people feel more confident, empowered, and happy. In fact, 41.3 percent described the break-up’s overall impact as positive (25.7 percent were neutral and only 33 percent negative). For many, ending underperforming relationships really is “addition by subtraction.”

Take Home

Applying the Christmas Tree Effect to relationships shows how helping your relationship doesn’t have to be hard work. You can avoid the impulse to add more and instead find ways to lean back and do less. You get to drop restrictive rules, unhelpful habits, and the mentality that more is always better. Instead, it’s the realization that a “less is more” approach can help you optimize your love life.


David Epstein. The Christmas Tree Effect. Range Widely. October 3, 2023.

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