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Use Holidays to Boost Your Relationship, Not Stress It Out

6 research-based ways to cultivate holiday magic (not stress) with a partner.

It’s not uncommon during the holidays for to be so busy with parties, presents, meals, shopping, decorating, and every other form of hoopla that relationships with significant others take a serious hit. Couple relationships are left by the wayside as we become consumed with buying the right fishing rod for Uncle Joe, picking up Aunt Mae for Thanksgiving dinner, or figuring out how to hang a wreath on a door without an existing nail.

A variety of indicators—such as reported holiday breakups (pre-, post-, and during), an uptick in relationship status changes on Facebook after holidays, or divorce lawyers' phones ringing off the hook in January—suggest that couples don't just tend to ignore each other over the holidays, they also experience more conflict (Russo, 2013).

The Gottman Institute indicates that when partners do small, everyday gestures of kindness for each other and engage with positive intention and presence, they "grow their emotional bank account," which acts as a source of stability and resiliency that protects them from the negative effects of conflict and stress (Lisitsa, 2013).

Here are a few ways to ensure that your romantic relationship doesn't suffer, and that your "emotional bank account" continues to grow throughout the holiday season:

Plan at Least One Just-The-Two-of-You Date

You may be juggling extended family parties, cookie exchanges, or work celebrations, but plan at least one romantic one-on-one date. Couples who devote time to one another at least once a week on dates are more likely to have high-quality relationships and less likely to divorce. Couples who spend more time together also report higher levels of communication, sexual satisfaction, and commitment (Wilcox and Dew, 2012).

Be of Service Together

Stan Tatkin, author of Wired for Love, argues that the installation of new happy memories is crucial to a strong relationship. One way to create happy memories is by volunteering or engaging in service together. Visiting an elderly neighbor, shoveling snow from a neighbor’s driveway, buying coats for kids who need them, or making sandwiches for a shelter bonds you in a unique way and adds meaning. The benefits of volunteering include improved physical, mental, and emotional health; lower stress levels; a deeper connection to others and stronger sense of purpose (United Health Group, 2013); and greater happiness (Borgonovi, 2008).

Choose a Couple Ritual

Think about one ritual you could repeat year after year that would add more joy to your relationship. It might be having hot chocolate together on a holiday after the kids go to bed, watching a favorite movie together every holiday, or running a 5K together on New Year’s Day.

Give Unexpected Gifts, Words, or Gestures

When participants in one relationship study were asked, “What two things do you like best about your relationship?” they mentioned small words and gestures—like having their partner bring them a cup of tea in bed or cooking a meal for them. Thoughtfulness of the way the gift was presented and its meaning more than the gift itself (Gabb et al., 2013). Get your partner’s car washed, make them breakfast, rent their favorite movie from the library, or put a sweet note in their wallet. Rather than buying the exact blue robe requested, give an unexpected gift—one that took a bit of thoughtfulness and creativity. Research suggests that most people both prefer gifts that are unexpected and appreciate the gift-giver more when gifts are unexpected (Venkatraman and Berman, 2015). For more ideas on kind relationship gestures, click here.

Give Each Other Some Leeway... and Tenderness

Understand that your partner may be feeling stressed, emotional, and exhausted during the holidays, and give each other some leeway: 44% of women and 31% of men reported that their stress levels were higher than normal over the holidays (Disc Insights, 2013). Many people are tired, and lack of sleep can diminish your ability to manage your emotions (Goldstein and Walker, 2014). Research suggests that couples fight more and have a harder time resolving conflict if even one partner slept poorly the night before (Gordon and Chen, 2013). Having a few drinks can also fuel mood swings, angry outbursts, or misunderstandings of someone's intentions (Kampwirth, 2013). Be gentle – support each other through stress instead of allowing stress to ruffle or erode your relationship.

Be Proactive and Don't Keep Score

Many couples are disappointed by unmet expectations—like when a partner doesn't buy the right present or doesn't want to stay at a party longer. Author Maura Kelly suggests asking your partner one question—a critical question that has the potential to turn around your whole holiday season with your partner: "What can I do to make sure this is a special holiday for you?"

Copyright Erin Leyba, 2016

Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD is a psychotherapist for individuals and couples in Chicago's western suburbs. She is the author of Joy Fixes for Weary Parents (New World Library), now available for pre-order. Follow her on Facebook or sign up for free articles about building more joy into family life.

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