Defuse the family stress this Christmas

Relationship strategists Mo and Phindi take aim at the stress Christmas can bring to families – and couples in particular – at this time of year

The Christmas season is a period many look forward to all year round. But it is often only when you get to December 16 that you remember how stressful the season can also be.

And for many people who were focussed on the ANC national conference, it’s only now that it’s over that they realise they’re smacked right in the middle of the season and may be faced with so much to do.

With the Christmas day so close, great expectations are reawakened in homes everywhere.

Holiday stress and anxiety settles in when you either didn’t properly plan for it, you didn’t set clear boundaries or as a couple you have differences that have not been resolved.

During the festive period, there’s a combination of issues like over-spending with money you don’t really have, hanging out with the in-laws, suddenly arguing about trivial household chores, over-indulging, too many social events, the aunt’s kids that are visiting with no proper prior arrangement and your own kids who seem bent on sucking your wallet dry with too many demands.

In short, it can be a dizzying array of demands and responsibilities that can be real relationship busters.

Despite the fact that this season is supposed to be one of cordiality, pleasantries and much love and laughter, it’s is also one of the most stressful periods in many households and especially, couples.

Sometimes these situations are small, unpleasant blips in an otherwise enjoyable celebration of time together. But for many couples, the feelings go deeper as feeling stressed out by the people you love can be isolating.

However, you may take some sort of comfort from the knowledge that you’re far from being alone if you’re experiencing holiday stress as so many spouses share your circumstance.

One spouse may be convinced that Christmas is unaffordable, while another may experience the stress of workplace demands that do not always subside to make room for the family’s overcrowded schedule of holiday festivities at school and church, with family and friends, or for shopping.

Some couples are stressed out by the mere logistics of Christmas and the challenge of finding ways to celebrate with two sets of grandparents and two extended families.

Couples who prioritise their Christian faith may cringe when the season’s real purpose gets left in the shadows, eclipsed by so much else that is happening.

There are, in addition, certain realities of life that do not manage to make themselves scarce just because Christmas is here. Children get sick and require care; an overdue notice of an unpaid instalment can still arrive in the mail; the fridge can stop working; the weather can get real bad.

Stress grows for couples when they feel pushed and pulled in two or three seemingly impossible directions simultaneously. Stress grows as spouses become more and more fatigued from trying to meet others’ needs and expectations and from the usually unfounded fear of somehow letting their family down at Christmas.

It is an unfortunate reality of life that the stress they feel often turns a wife and husband away from each other. At a time when they need each other, they may instead criticize each other and can be tempted to take out their frustrations on each other. Of course, the foolishness of this is to turn against the very person that can be your greatest ally and source of support.

Under these circumstances, we always advise spouses not to offer advice too quickly when one of them is suffering from stress.

The cardinal rule when helping your partner de-stress is that understanding must precede advice.

You have to let your partner know that you fully understand and empathise with the dilemma before you suggest a solution.

When your spouse feels stressed, you should take their side. This means being supportive, even if you think your spouse’s perspective is unreasonable. Expressions of affection are much needed during these times.

As Mo and Phindi, we both come from very large and noisy families based in Port Elizabeth for one and Durban for the other, over 900km apart. They speak two different languages and have vastly different world-views.

While one is a lot more compact and knit than the other, they are both large nonetheless. We mention that only to say we know what holiday stress is all about.

At the last moment, it is so easy to conclude that if only one or two more things were purchased or planned, Christmas would be a more perfect time for all.

At our home, we’ve stumbled along toward Christmas over and over again, wondering if we actually would survive until the big day or if anything about it would be memorable.

Christmas can be a happy time, for sure. But a perfect Christmas, we’ve concluded, is elusive and probably impossible, unless you live by yourself with no responsibilities over anyone.

We can also attest, however, that the memories of past Christmas holidays are marvellous and very precious. Hence we suppose this is why we’ll keep stumbling along toward this coming one and others afterwards!

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