December is the most stressful month for couples
While Christmas has a reputation for good cheer and joy, it is also the most stressful month
of the year for couples, according to Seddons, a law firm in the UK. They report in their 2011
study of 3000 couples that more arguments occur during the month of December than at any
other time of the year. It was reported that the average couple has 4 arguments a day during December, or a total of 124 arguments over the month.
The main topics of conflict are money worries, problems over family logistics, workloads, how much to spend on each other, how much to spend on the children and a lack of time and attention for each other. Around 20% of participants reported considering to split up during December and a further 20% reported having doubt their relationship would survive until the New Year. Twelve per cent of couples admitted they argue all the time over Christmas. Almost one in five said they were dreading December because they were anticipating the arguments they would have with their partner. For some, the arguments have proven too much with 23 per cent of people considering, or going through with, a separation during December in previous years.
It makes sense that if a relationship is already suffering due to poor communication or lack of time for each other, this will be heightened during a month when we are busy focusing our attentions on keeping other people happy, such as extended family and friends. Seddons also reported that January is a time when they see a significant increase in the number of clients consulting them for advice about divorce and separation
after having experienced a horrendous Christmas together. It seems this can
often be the ‘last straw’ in an ailing relationship.
How can therapists help?
In his research and drawing on the research of Bill Doherty
(The Intentional Family), Gottman found that couples and families who
had a rich source of articulated and shared rituals of connection in both
formal and informal ways, engaged in far fewer disagreements about these
things. Assisting couples to engage in dialogue about their daily, weekly,
monthly and yearly rituals is a powerful way to increase and deepen the
shared meaning they have in their relationship.
Encouraging them to talk about their childhood memories, their experiences as adolescents, as young adults, in previous relationships and how those experiences have led them to view these things in their lives now increases their knowledge and understanding of each other. Leading them into discussions about creating their own rituals where they honour and respect each others values, beliefs, likes, dislikes and emotional needs creates meaningful ways for couples to bond and emotionally attune to each other.
This leads to increased fondness and admiration, closeness and intimacy, all of which helps to down-regulate conflict in relationships and increase positivity.
Some of the areas of discussion might include:
Saying goodbye: A ritual of parting communicates “even though I am leaving, I care about you and look forward to being back with you”.
Reunions: A ritual of connection that communicates “I’m excited to see you again, I want to share my experiences of the day with you”.
Mealtimes: An important time for families to connect, to talk and share fun and food. Rituals of connection might include saying Grace together and/or talking about one positive thing and one negative thing from your day. Even very small children enjoy being the centre of attention and having their successes cheered and their challenges empathised with.
Eating out: A ritual that provides couples with time to focus on each other where no-one has to do the dishes. The reunion stress reducing conversation: A ritual that communicates “I’m here for you”.
Bedtime: Even if you do not go to sleep at the same time a hug and kiss from the person going to sleep first communicates “I accept you and care about your needs too”
Morning Rituals: For most families, mornings can be hectic. Find a system that works for them and they can stick to it creates a sense of teamwork and “We got this!”
Dates and Getaways: Rituals that focus on the importance of their relationship and prioritises it over all else.
When one person is sick: Everyone has their own likes and dislikes about how they want to be cared for. Understanding this assists couples to meet each other’s needs and communicates “I accept and respect your differences and am willing to meet your needs in the way you need them”.
Celebrations: Rituals that honour each other that might include how to celebrate successes, milestones, anniversaries.
Lovemaking: Rituals to communicate interest or refusal assist couples in managing what can be a very sensitive and emotionally charged topic in their relationship.
The list of rituals in relationships is never-ending. The therapist’s role is to identify those areas that cause the couple stress, tension and conflict, e.g. How do we celebrate Christmas, and assist them in engaging in a meaningful dialogue about the what this means to them and helping them to make a constructive plan for creating a ritual that they can both get behind, enjoy and feel proud of.
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