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Peace on Earth—and at Your House, Too

How to beat the stress of the season

It's supposed to be "the most wonderful time of the year," but the strain of the four-week Advent season can test even the strongest of marriages.

You'll go to extreme lengths to make meaningful memories for your kids. You'll try to blend three family traditions (hers, his, and ours). Possibly you'll travel hundreds of miles to visit loved ones. You'll write, rewrite, and distribute a Christmas letter (bonus point if you include hand-written notes); spend hours shopping for presents (bonus point for time-consuming homemade gifts); and attend the obligatory office parties, neighborhood get-togethers, church socials, and school programs (triple bonus points if you host a party).

No wonder your idea of peace on earth has shrunk to 30 minutes of quiet—so you can wrap presents.

'Tis the season to make some changes.This Christmas, you and your mate can exchange these patterns for a saner Christmas. Here's how to beat the stresses of the holiday season.

  1. Say what you expect. As holiday tensions increase, so do conflicts. As you get more tired, the more you expect your spouse to pick up the slack. When these unfair expectations don't get met, you both feel resentful. So expectations should be stated, collaborated, and related. "Stating" means discussing roles and responsibilities for each person. "Collaborating" is working together to resolve differences. "Relating" is honoring your relationship in all your actions. Get down to the nitty gritty! Tell your mate why it's important that you stay up 'til the wee hours baking cookies and writing personal notes on Christmas cards. Make specific plans for decorations—big tree vs. little tree, who will put up outdoor lights, which rooms you'll decorate indoors.
  2. Put your marriage and family first. It's hard to take care of each other when you're worried about disappointing loved ones. But if both sets of grandparents plan simultaneous celebrations, someone's got to be disappointed. Don't sacrifice your spouse's needs. Decide together what you want to happen in December. Maybe you should say no to your uncle's annual snowmobiling trip so you can skate with your own kids.
  3. Share the load. Holiday preparations tend to fall on one person's shoulders—which isn't good for either spouse. The one with the heavy workload feels resentful; the other partner feels useless and disconnected.
    Seek a balance of duties and agree on priorities before the rush begins. To create a balance, let some duties go and mix up other chores. One Christmas when I was pregnant, Jim bought stocking stuffers for his family's Christmas celebration—a job I normally handle. We're still laughing over the funny gifts he chose!
  4. Listen to your spouse's dream. Heather tells me that what she really wants for Christmas is some quiet family evenings. So we set aside the nights. Plan to see "The Nutcracker" together or take a Saturday to shop for the tree and trim it.
  5. Honor each other's family traditions. In my family the video camera and other cameras stay in continual use during holiday gatherings. Heather comes from a photographically challenged family, but now she enjoys it—most of the time. Maybe you dislike your spouse's family's favorite Christmas snack. Maybe your family gives lots of presents and your spouse's gives just a few. Talk about the differences and respect each other's celebration styles.
  6. Lighten the calendar. Make pre-Christmas, Christmas, and post-Christmas plans. Have get-togethers in November and January, then commit December to major events.
  7. Respect your budget. If Heather splurges on a gift for her sister, then I feel "justified" to splurge on a gift for my dad. It's easy to find ourselves extended beyond our budget. Especially when money is tight, it's not fair to overspend and then expect your spouse to support your purchases. Plan ahead so you have time to find "perfect" gifts within your limits.
  8. Set a date night in December. Too many "must-do" events leave no time for you as a couple. So plan a night out—or "in" after the kids are asleep. If you can't schedule one, then you're over-committed.
  9. Keep in mind the best gift you can give. A loving relationship is the best gift. So make decisions that nurture your marriage and reduce tension. What's the gift we want most? A marriage that reflects the beauty and sacrifice of God's gift to humankind.

Dr. James Sells is Counseling Department Chair and Assistant Dean for Academics at Regent University. Heather Sells is a reporter at CBS News. They have three children.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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