How to Keep Holiday Stress From Wrecking Your Relationship

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How to Keep Holiday Stress From Wrecking Your Relationship

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Photo: AnyRGB


Many couples struggle with the mounting stresses of the holiday season. But this year, with the added turmoil of the world, tensions may be especially high and you may be arguing more. To keep these disagreements from causing lasting damage — or a breakup — it’s important to consider the way you and your partner tend to handle conflict.

According to relationships researcher John Gottman, there are three common styles that couples in healthy relationships use to manage conflict: validating, volatile, and conflict-avoiding. As you read about these styles below, consider which one seems to describe your relationship best.

Validating style: These couples tend to remain relatively calm during disagreements. They work cooperatively to resolve their issues. You and your partner likely use this style if you cope with conflicts by being:

  • Calm and emotionally in control
  • Polite and respectful
  • Empathizing with and validating each other’s feelings
  • Open to compromise
  • Consciously trying to find a solution that satisfies you both

If tensions become especially high, these couples might slip into avoidance as they attempt to keep things calm. The result can be mounting resentments. If this describes your situation, it is important to sit down and talk about the breakdown in communication. Acknowledge that you love and don’t want to hurt each other, but that truthful discussion is essential to working through differences and maintaining a sense of connection. Then get started on an honest, heartfelt discussion.

Volatile style: These couples often resolve conflict through passionate arguments. Signs that

you and your partner use this style of coping are that you:

  • Argue frequently
  • Argue openly and passionately
  • Make up passionately
  • Are respectful even while arguing
  • Value each other as equals
  • Work to resolve differences

Volatile couples can find that their relationship gets into trouble when their expressiveness crosses the line into not being sensitive to each other and being hurtful. To guard against this, check in with each other at calmer times to see if your arguing caused lasting or unacceptable emotional harm. If it has, be sure to repair any damage done and talk through how you might avoid this in the future.

Conflict-avoiding couples: Your relationship falls into this category if you tend to minimize differences and avoid arguing. If this is your style, you are also likely to:

  • Frequently ignore differences of opinion, especially when you think that they are irreconcilable
  • Minimize and accept those differences that you do address
  • Focus more on similarities, which you value
  • Each try to fix problems on your own, or try to “wait it out,” hoping problems will fade with time

With this style, it’s helpful to monitor the level of tension in your relationship. If you are avoiding talking about problems but not some increasing tensions, then find a way to talk directly about what’s going on. If you don’t know how to do that, you might benefit from reaching out for professional help.

In contrast to the above healthy styles, hostile couples are hurtful to each other. Their criticizing, distrust, and tendency to see each other as an enemy make them at high risk for breaking up. If your relationship is characterized by this dynamic and you want to save your relationship, you would likely benefit from getting professional help to rediscover healthy ways of connecting and resolving conflicts.

Whatever your style, the danger of being conflicted is often greater during the holidays. Add to this the extra anxiety and upset that people are feeling from recent turmoil in the world, relationships have an even greater chance of breaking up. So this year it is especially important to be conscious of how you address conflicts during the holidays. As long as you are both willing to work together to resolve differences, you can repair damage, come together, and maintain a happy relationship.

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Important:  This article is part of the WebMD Relationships blog. The articles in the WebMD Relationships blog are for general education purposes only. They should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment, or advice. Do not delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read in this article.