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The Annual Holiday Argument and Managing Challenging Relationships

The Annual Holiday Argument and Managing Challenging Relationships

‍‍This week we bring you an updated blogpost from the Good Dads archives. This article was originally published in 2021, but we think you’ll find that the topics we cover here are relevant every holiday season!


Let’s face it. Celebrating the holidays can be very stressful. Depending on your family’s background and traditions, the tension can last for weeks.


Even if you are able to keep plans for your family festivities reasonable, you still have to cope with the behavior and expectations of others. Just trying to find a parking space near your favorite store can be a hassle on December days when every space is taken. This kind of stress is peripheral to the pressure we may feel from family to perform in a certain way (gatherings, gifts, etc.) on specific days like Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.


Some families I know suffer from sleeplessness and exhaustion as they spend a majority of their time shuttling their offspring between households of extended family, regardless of weather conditions—because it is expected they will do so. A perfect storm of stressors begins to build for many couples around this time of year, often reaching a boiling point right when we long to be “merry and bright.”


Holiday Amnesia

Because this holiday hoe-down happens every year, we ought to be smarter about planning for it and preparing to alter the course of our behavior, but most of us don’t.


Dr. Bill Doherty, author of The Intentional Family, refers to this phenomenon as “Christmas amnesia” and notes that it is akin to “women forgetting the pain of childbirth soon after delivery. It is an amnesia that helps to populate the earth and keep the tradition of family Christmas alive.”


We could make plans to do things differently, to allow for demanding people and difficult situations, but we often disregard our discouragement, delay making plans to do something different, and delve back into the same dilemmas year after year. This year, why not plan to do something different while the memories are fresh?


Be Honest about Discouragements

There’s no time like the present to take a few notes about what discourages you most. You may not be able to extricate yourself from some holiday hassles this year, but the hope of doing something different in the future can help sustain you. While the feelings and thoughts are fresh, write them down. This will be critical in March and April when Christmas amnesia is likely to set in.


Plan Early to Do Something Different

You know that celebrating the holidays can have its anxious moments. You’re aware there are some people—often those to whom we’re related—who will be difficult. If you are the person in charge of seeing that the holiday happens for your clan (Doherty refers you as the “Christmas Coordinator”), then you recognize you need help. The key to all these realizations is planning early to do something different and then letting others know early and often about the changes that will occur.

LEARN MORE: E483 — Healthy Relationships


Developing Solutions for Old Dilemmas

If you are the Christmas Coordinator, you’re very likely to assume a martyr role as the holiday approaches: doing more and enjoying it less, while the rest of the family sits on the sidelines to watch you work. Here are some suggestions to assist you in altering that behavior.


  1. Involve others by asking for help with specific tasks. Instead of saying, “I need help with the shopping,” say, “I need you to purchase the gifts for your brother and sister. I’ll give you the list at least six weeks in advance.” Rather than bemoaning that you “always have to do all the decorating,” say, “I need you to get all the boxes out of storage and set up the tree the day after Thanksgiving.” Others are much more likely to respond when they know exactly what they need to do to assist and how much time it might take.

  1. Respect the old, but try something new. As families grow, they often begin to include others, like a new brother- or sister-in-law, who bring their own traditions. Take time to discover how they celebrate. Do they exchange names for gift-giving versus buying something for everyone? Do they swap White Elephant presents in lieu of something more serious? Consider how you might honor the traditions of new members while trimming back some of the old.

  1. Discuss gift exchanges and holiday travel well in advance. If you want to spend Christmas Eve or Christmas morning in your own home, tell others early (e.g. in July) and often (monthly if necessary), especially if this new plan is likely to challenge the expectations of extended family. Expect to hear pleas to keep the status-quo after you alter longstanding family patterns. Holding firm to your plans can make everyone happier in the long run, and new traditions may be created along the way.


Coping with the behaviors and expectations of others is rarely easy—and it’s almost impossible during high-stress times of the year. If you find yourself beat up and burnt out by challenging family members during the holiday season, keep an eye out for the rest of our December coverage on managing challenging relationships. We’ll delve into boundary-setting habits, pull back the curtain on common arguments and dissect what it means to have family traditions. We hope you’ll join us in our concluding month of the Men and Mental Health blog.


What do you do to manage challenging relationships during the holiday season? We want to hear from you! Share your experiences with the Good Dads team at [email protected] and you could be featured in a future blogpost.


Header image created by Adobe generative AI.

Dr. Jennifer L. Baker is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy. She is also the Founder and Director of Good Dads. She can be reached for question or comment at [email protected].

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