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How to save a relationship from holiday hell

By Maura Kelly,
Tell your significant other exactly how you will use the present he or she gave you, or why you like it so much.
Tell your significant other exactly how you will use the present he or she gave you, or why you like it so much.
  • Be honest about what you really need, but don't have unrealistic expectations
  • Travel solo so you can set your own priorities about how much time to spend at each place
  • Make use of small talk and avoid sensitive topics around relatives and in-laws
  • Limit your alcohol intake
  • Christmas
  • Relationships
  • Marriage

( -- Ah, the holidays. 'Tis the season to move into the relationship danger zone. We get so stressed out about buying the right presents, staying within our holiday budget, or trying to please impossible in-laws that the tension inevitably spills over into our love lives.

"It's naturally a time of high stress and high expectations," says Carol J. Bruess, Ph.D., the director of family studies at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minnesota, and co-author of "What Happy Couples Do: Belly Button Fuzz & Bare-Chested Hugs--The Loving Little Rituals of Romance." "Our culture creates images of the perfect gathering, the perfect feast, the perfect happy family gathered around the tree, the perfect couple exchanging perfectly thoughtful gifts."

The reality, of course, is nowhere near perfect.

However, just as much as planning ahead will enable you to handle all the shopping and cookie-making, it can also help you to troubleshoot any potential relationship drama--and nip it in the bud before you're tempted to put coal in your guy's stocking. Thanks to this expert advice, the only romantic issue you'll have this December is where to hang the mistletoe.

The problem: Having expectations that are too high

The solution: Be honest about what you really need--but don't ask for the moon

The most common mistake people in relationships make around the holidays? Having expectations that are too high--and not voicing them. "People often think their significant others should be able to read their minds," says psychiatrist Dr. Mark Goulston, the author of "Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone." But, as he points out, it's unreasonable to expect your significant other to automatically know what you want, and that will leave you feeling resentful when he doesn't live up to your unspoken hopes. Preempt a problem by making an effort to be clear about what you'd like him to do for you this December. What to do if your sex partner refuses to wear a condom

But if it's your partner who tends to get upset because you can't guess whether there are visions of sugarplums dancing in his head, ask him, "What can I do to make sure this is a special Christmas for you?" Bruess puts it this way: "If you talk with each other in a frank and honest way about what you do expect, you can help each other bring those high expectations down so the experience can be more positive."

The problem: Your partner never feels appreciated

The solution: Go out of your way to say thank you

On the other side of the coin, some of us aren't great at accepting gifts gracefully. "Many people have a hard time accepting gifts, compliments, even love. If you have negative reactions to receiving, allowing yourself to accept the things from loved ones can be a difficult task," says Barton Goldsmith, Ph.D., the author of "Emotional Fitness for Couples: 10 Minutes a Day to a Better Relationship."

In fact, as he points out, sometimes we can even prevent our partners from giving us all sorts of things--including affection--by consistently pulling away or failing to respond with gratitude. Talking about how you don't deserve such a nice gift (or a flattering compliment) won't boost your partner's ego. "My wife has these three rules for feedback. Ask yourself: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?" says John C. Friel, a licensed psychologist in Las Vegas, Reno, Nevada, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, and co-author of "The Seven Best Things (Happy) Couples Do." 8 tips for telling your partner a secret

If you have an especially difficult time being on the receiving end of small kindnesses, make more of a conscious effort to show how thankful you are. "A response as simple as 'Where did you find this?! It's wonderful!' will take you a long way towards strengthening your bond with your partner," says Friel.

So, make a mental note to tell your significant other exactly how you will use the present he or she gave you, or why you like it so much. Also, even if you live with your partner, write a thank-you note that details how thoughtful he or she is.

Or, try the approach that works for 38-year-old Amy Spencer, from Los Angeles, California. "Two Christmases ago, I decided to be clear about what I wanted: a sweater. I then dropped hints about a black cashmere V-neck at J.Crew I liked," says Spencer, the author of the forthcoming book "Meeting Your Half-Orange: An Utterly Upbeat Guide to Using Dating Optimism to Find Your Perfect Match." Top 10 myths about safe sex

"On Christmas morning, I opened up my present to find a sweater--a pink, cable-knit cotton one. I was disappointed, but I wanted to say thank you that morning from my heart. Instead of lying by thanking him for the perfect sweater, I was thanking him for how excited he was about getting me what he thought I wanted, for the care he took in choosing a flattering color, for being in my life to get me a gift in the first place!" And the next time Spencer wants something that specific, "I'll just tear out the catalog page and tape it to the mirror."

The problem: Fighting with your in-laws

The solution: Being the queen of small talk

Perhaps you think your sister-in-law is crazy because she pays obsessive attention to her three dogs while ignoring her ailing grandfather. Or maybe your boyfriend's mother likes to pick irritating fights about politics. Regardless of how much you dislike certain relatives, resolve to be the bigger person and put your differences aside for the season. "From now until January 2, remember that small talk is the glue that holds society together," says Friel. Tell yourself that any and all touchy subjects are off limits.

If someone tries to start an argument by asking a loaded question about the state of the economy--or about whether you're ever going to find a new job--Friel has a plan of attack. "First, acknowledge that you heard what your interlocutor said with a simple statement like, 'It's a very difficult time right now.'" (Ignoring your nemesis isn't wise; that could make her all the more angry or aggressive.) As soon as you've responded neutrally, promptly steer the conversation in another direction--by talking about how delicious the potatoes au gratin she made were, for example. 10 ways to shake up date night

To make sure you're not the one making waves, remember your audience. If Grandma doesn't want to be reminded that you and her favorite grandson are co-habitating before marriage, or you know your take on the health-care debate won't go over well, avoid those topics. Skipping touchy subjects with the relatives can save couples an argument on the way home.

The problem: Too many parties to attend, too many relatives to see

The solution: Travel solo so you can set your own priorities without stressing

Do you and your guy always fight about how long you're going to stay at your college roommate's annual tree-trimming party, or his office buddy's yearly Evening O' Eggnog? Make life easier by taking separate cars to any events that might cause tension; there's nothing wrong with setting individual schedules during such a busy time of the year. Feeling guilty about the size of your carbon footprint? Then think about hitching a ride home with a friend. Or, if you and your beau only own one car between the two of you, consider calling a taxi. "If you know there's a good chance of a fight or tension if you don't take separate modes of transportation, don't let anything stop you from doing it," says Friel.

Two motor vehicles can also come in handy on the big day itself, particularly if you would otherwise battle over how long to stick around at all the different houses on your Christmas agenda. "If you need to spend more time with your own family, and your boyfriend would like to spend the majority of the day at his parents' place, splitting up makes perfect sense," says Friel. He points out that Christmas comes but once a year, and it's understandable if you or your spouse feel you really need to make your parents happy on the big day.

That's why 35-year-old Judy, from Brooklyn, New York, rarely spends December 25 with her partner. "His parents are each twice divorced, and my parents are divorced too--which means there are so many people who want to see us during the holidays that we're usually forced to spend them apart," she says. "Otherwise, our families are so wounded that it's just not worth it. So we've become resigned to spending the actual holiday apart--although we also have our own celebration later in the month, just the two of us."

What's more, Friel points out that by simply resolving to cut back on 25 percent of what you were planning to do in the next few weeks, you could eliminate a substantial amount of stress. (And, yes, we think that Uncle Fred's Christmas Karaoke Night is the first thing to cross off your list.)

The problem: Your emotions--and stress levels--are running high

The solution: Since alcohol can increase the risk of an emotional outburst, limit yourself to two drinks at a party

Though many of us think a few stiff Christmas cocktails are all we need to get through an awkward gathering, the reality is that booze often makes things worse. Says Friel, "Even one or two drinks can affect your emotions"--and that's particularly true during a time that's so intense to begin with. "If you're going into any situation that you think might be problematic, limit your alcohol intake."

Instead of helping you calm down or relax, intoxication is likely to exacerbate any anxiety, hurt, or shame that might come to the surface--for example, it could make matters worse if you go to a party where your husband's old girlfriend is going to be in attendance. By sipping at your wine instead of chugging Jäger shots, you could prevent a post-festivities screaming match with the person you love.

Copyright Health Magazine 2011