In the past, the holidays have proved to be a tense time in our house, especially with our untraditional schedule and extended family. What can we do to avoid arguments and disappointment this year?
Holidays can be an especially hard time for couples, because each holiday inherently comes with its own expectations. One of the challenges we all face in our relationships is how to deal with the discrepancy between expectation and reality. When you expect something to go one way (having a quiet holiday dinner at home with your family) and the reality turns out differently (you’re late getting home from work and miss the festivities, or your spouse’s pager goes off as just you’re passing the dinner rolls), it is easy to be disappointed. No wonder the holidays–meant as a time to return to peace and joy–are sometimes anything but peaceful and joyful!
Luckily, there are several things you and your partner can do to get on the same page before the festivities begin. These small and simple things will help you create a celebration you can both enjoy:
1. Determine what matters most. The word priority comes from the Latin root prior which means “first.” So when it comes to seasonal priorities, try to remember: you can’t have 16 firsts. You can only have one! Then a second. Then a third. When it comes to the holidays, what matters enough to you to get that number one spot on your priority list this year? Is it purchasing or receiving a specific gift? Is it spending time with extended family? Is it celebrating a holiday on the official day rather than all together as a family?
For most people, being with–and feeling connected to–their immediate family is the number one priority. That doesn’t mean that numbers 2-16 don’t count! They do. It’s just helpful to list them out and see where each item falls on your list.
2. Value what your partner values. You might be surprised to discover that your partner’s list of “what matters this holiday” is very different than your own. That’s okay! It will certainly mean you’ll need to do some negotiating to figure things out, but you can still make your celebrations work for both of you. Make an effort to love what your partner loves–because you love your partner. Find out which special traditions or expectations are meaningful to your sweetheart, and give some of your time and energy to making those happen. Find a way to combine traditions you both love, and don’t be afraid to start some of your own together as well!
3. Accept that things seldom go as planned. This is true for everyone, but it is especially true for physician families. If your expectation is that something could go wrong or interrupt your plans, you will be less angry or disappointed if or when it actually happens.
There is one caveat, though: When things don’t go as planned, work to stay close to one another and communicate your love and concern. One couple I met with last year at this time really struggled when the wife would get called into work while they were out together with their friends. The husband was embarrassed to be left alone, and–even worse–he quietly wondered if maybe he wasn’t good enough for her to make their time together a priority. While they couldn’t stop those work calls from coming, the wife learned that she could do something to make these situations better: she could express her regret that she had to go into work, and she could acknowledge that her having to go left her husband in a tough situation. She also started telling him how much she would rather be with him. Those simple things were all they needed! He felt reassured that he was good enough, and was no longer hurt, withdrawn, and unavailable to her when she would return home later. Communication like this can be a bridge that links us together, even when we can’t physically be together.
4. Set boundaries with extended family. When you have such little time to be together as a couple or immediate family, it is not only okay, but often necessary to set limits with extended family. It’s okay to say that certain events or days will be celebrated alone.
As in the example above, express your love and regret that you can’t be present, but do what you need to do to reserve time, energy, and presence for your number one priority–maintaining a strong connection with your partner.
5. Don’t expect other people to understand. I know you hear this all the time as a physician family, but it’s worth repeating again: Don’t expect other people to understand! They can’t! They have never lived your life. Most of them have no frame of reference for what this experience is like for you as a couple or as a family. Come up with a couple of responses you can use when you get the standard, thoughtless questions or remarks.
“Where is your husband? Is he not coming again?”
“No, he got tied up in surgery today. I’m grateful to know that because of what he does, one more family gets to have Grandpa around Christmas morning.”
I know we don’t like to boast about what our physician partners do. In fact, for many people, the above statement might be really difficult to say. But when said with a kind smile and an even kinder heart, you can speak the truth and avoid being resentful.
6. Set your own holiday dates. This really is the easiest of all! You do not have to follow the calendar to celebrate this year. I promise that roasted turkey, homemade rolls, and pumpkin pie taste better the day after Thanksgiving with your partner present than they would on Thanksgiving, alone. Children follow the example of their parents, too. If you have a good attitude about it, so will the kids. (Besides, kids think receiving presents the day before everyone else is really cool!)
7. Find a way to serve others. We have all heard that happiness comes as you reach outside of yourself. This is not just some seasonal feel-good advice. It really works!
Regardless of what stage of medicine you are in, you have been blessed with so much more than most people. Your service can be offered in actual physical goods that cost money, or in love and time. While we were in residency, I would purchase large quantities of fleece on Black Friday for next to nothing. My girls would then cut the fabric into scarf lengths and fray the ends. We would then drop the scarves off at the local homeless shelter. It didn’t take a substantial amount of money for us to make a significant difference.
As you serve, your heart changes. You get a sense of the common humanity among all of us. These opportunities also strengthen and fortify our families. When we are able to give together, we find greater meaning in the simple moments we spend together–and that’s just what this time of year is all about.
Kim is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Certified Emotionally Focused Therapist, popular presenter and speaker and media expert. As the wife of a surgeon, Kim is passionate about helping medical marriages thrive. She leads marriage retreats for physician couples, hosts the Nurturing Medical Marriages Facebook Group, and meets privately with couples for intensive marital therapy weekends. You can find more information by visiting her website www.kimblackham.com, joining the Nurturing Medical Marriages Facebook group, or contacting her directly at NurturingMedicalMarriages@gmail.com.