How to Keep Christmas from
Ruining Your Marriage
Christmas and New Year is a great time of the year ... especially for marriage counselors
and divorce attorneys. Don't get me wrong. I'm not against Christmas. In fact, my entire
family looks forward to the holidays every year as a time that we celebrate the birth of
Jesus Christ, and we reflect God's love for us by giving gifts to others.
But Christmas is a litmus test of a marriage's health. Good marriages flourish during the
holidays, but Christmas is the straw that breaks the back of many bad marriages. On
January 2nd, divorce attorneys and marriage counselors alike are usually swamped with
new business that will keep them busy until Spring.
The first letter I am posting this week is from a woman who is anticipating another
disappointing Christmas with an insensitive husband. She feels it may be her last. The
second letter is from a man who is fed up with all of the work and expense that goes into
Dear Dr. Harley,
This is the time of year that I hate the most, although it should be the most enjoyable
time for me and my family. Christmas is almost upon us, and as in years past I will be
disappointed and depressed again. I am 42, my husband is 45 and our children are 16, 12
and 8. We "celebrated" our 20th anniversary this past year, and I'm not sure I can make
it to 21.
I was raised in a home where we not only exchanged gifts on Christmas, but we also made
it a special time to remember the birth of Jesus. I made the mistake of marrying a man
who was never very religious and he has not attended church in years. He has managed to
make Christmas an ugly and disgusting experience for me.
He and his family have a very different view of Christmas than I do. They see the holiday
not as a time to remember Christ's birth, but rather as a time to give each other silly gifts,
to get drunk and to share profane "jokes" about almost everything including Christmas.
My husband knows how much it offends me, but each year we go through the same
I've had it with him and his whole family. I would like to enjoy Christmas with my
children so they can have the same good memories of Christmas that my parents gave me,
but my husband has ruined it for all of us. I am very close to divorcing him, and this
Christmas will probably push me over the edge. Do you have any suggestions that might
save my marriage?
Dear Dr. Harley,
My wife, Joan, and I have been married for 12 years and we have a daughter, 10. Each
year when Christmas comes around, Joan and I seem to have the worst fights of all, and
they are about Christmas. I would like to see just the three of us exchange one or two gifts.
But Joan wants lights all over the house, the lawn decorated, a big Christmas tree, extravagant
presents, and relatives at our house on Christmas day.
Back when we were first married, I did things her way because I wanted to make her
happy. But her way always made me miserable. Now I find myself spending a valuable
weekend each year struggling to decorate our house (and spending another weekend
taking the decorations down), buying and trimming a Christmas tree that I don't want in
our house, spending far more than we can afford on gifts we don't need, and having
people over that I can't stand to be around. I am trapped in this nightmare called
Christmas. How can I escape without getting divorced?
Why Is Christmas So Hard on Marriages?
Christmas is a time of year when many decisions must be made: What cards to mail and
gifts to buy (and wrap) for each person on your Christmas list (especially your spouse);
how and when to decorate your Christmas tree and home; what to serve and who to invite
to your home for Christmas; where to spend Christmas eve, and Christmas day; and, how
to pay for it all. These are but a few of the decisions that put enormous pressure on most
families this time of year.
The strength of a marriage is tested when decisions must be made. If a husband and wife
have learned to discuss each issue with respect for each other's perspectives, avoiding
anger, disrespect or demands, Christmas decisions draw them together and increase their
love for each other. That's because their decisions take the feelings of both of them into
account simultaneously. They create a Christmas that is enjoyable for the entire family.
But in bad marriages, conflicts are not resolved with mutual consideration. Instead,
husbands and wives try to force decisions on each other without taking each other's
feelings into account. That leads to a Christmas filled with resentment and unhappiness.
Many couples have the same conflict as S.W. and his wife regarding gifts for the children.
Generally, one spouse may want to create an experience the children will remember the
rest of their lives, while the other wants to get through the season spending as little as
possible. These two objectives are usually in conflict, memorable experiences costing what
they do these days. In bad marriages, one spouse issues an ultimatum: We can only
afford to spend $15 for each child, not nearly enough for a memorable experience. The
other spouse responds with another ultimatum: If I find gifts that the children will enjoy,
I'm getting them.
There are many variations on this theme. Spouses buy gifts with "their own money," so
that the children know that the gift was from only one of them. Or, they set a rule for thrift
and then break it on Christmas eve to demonstrate they care after all. In blended families,
the problem of children's gifts is raised to stratospheric proportions because each spouse
doesn't want his or her own children to have less than the other's children. Sometimes it
takes the wisdom of Solomon to decide fairness in those situations.
Another typical conflict raised by S.W is time management when there are so many things
to do. Lights on the house, setting up and decorating the Christmas tree, Christmas
shopping and wrapping gifts, mailing Christmas cards, planning meals ... there is an
endless array of activities that take time -- lots of time. And it's not as if we all get time off
from work to accomplish it. In fact, many companies are busiest at the end of the year.
Children may have time off from school, but their time off usually gives parents added
responsibility at a time when they are already overwhelmed.
Neither M.C. nor S.W. ever learned to negotiate effectively with their spouses. As a result,
Christmas has become a sacrifice for both of them because they would rather give in to
their spouse's demands than stand up for their own wishes. In M.C.'s case, an enjoyable
Christmas for her husband is painful for her. The same is true for S.W. He sacrificed to
make Christmas enjoyable for his wife, but now finds himself hating the very thought of
celebrating Jesus' birth.
A few years ago the movie, Jingle All the Way, was released. The father, played by Arnold
Schwarzeneger, tries to juggle all of his responsibilities on Christmas Eve, only to find that
he, along with many others who can relate to his dilemma, is over-committed. Like so
many others this Christmas, he just about loses his family because of it. His solution to the
problem was pure fantasy. I won't tell you the ending because you may not have seen it yet.
But I can tell you this much: it would never work for any of us that live in real life. In real
life, you simply disappoint your family when you are over-committed.
Arnold's intentions were sincere. He wanted to help create a "memorable" Christmas. He
didn't want to disappoint his family. But he had one problem that ruined everything: He
did not follow the Policy of Joint Agreement (never
do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). He had
not come to an enthusiastic agreement with his wife about how he would create this
memorable experience. If she had seen what he was up to, she would have overruled it,
and they would have created a new plan that would have strengthened their marriage, not
ruined it. Since his plans were not mutually agreed upon, he paid the predictable price.
The stresses of Christmas demonstrated how bad Arnold's marriage was. It took a
movieland fantasy to keep it together, a factor that doesn't work in real marriages. But
what really made his marriage bad wasn't Christmas, it was the way he went about
making decisions. He did not consider his wife's feelings as part of his plan. She was
emotionally isolated from him, and the Christmas season only underscored her resentment
of the way he ignored her.
How to Avoid a Disastrous Christmas
Arnold Schwarzenegger was saved from marital disaster by movie writers and special
effects. But what should he have done to have avoided the problem in the first place?
How should M.C. and S.W. overcome their Christmas crisis? More to the point, how
should you avoid a possible disaster that is less than one month away?
The Policy of Joint Agreement is the ultimate answer
to the problem. When M.C and S.W. are able to create a new holiday experience that takes
their feelings and the feelings of their spouses into account simultaneously, the burden of
Christmas will be off their shoulders.
Their first new Christmas experience may require a great deal of negotiating, because so
many of the decisions that went into the current nightmare must be completely scrapped.
An entirely new way to celebrate Christmas may be required to satisfy both spouses
simultaneously. And there will be scores of separate decisions that make up this new
Christmas experience. They should not go ahead with any Christmas activity until an
enthusiastic agreement has been reached regarding that activity. That may mean that the
first new Christmas experience won't involve many activities.
Under the Policy of Joint Agreement, M.C. won't
have to put up with her husband's family, but she may not have what she wanted either.
S.W.'s house decorating days may be over, but his idea of a cozy day at home with his wife
and daughter may not materialize. In the final analysis, both of these families may need
to create a way to celebrate Christmas that they had never considered before.
S.W. explains that his biggest fights are about Christmas, but that hasn't helped his cause
because fighting is not negotiating. In fact, fighting makes it impossible to negotiate. All
of his fights have not led to change -- only successful negotiation can lead to change.
To help S.W. and M.C. recreate Christmas so that their entire family will enjoy the
celebration, they must learn to negotiate every Christmas decision with their spouses.
Since there will be so many new decisions that will have to be made, it may take quite a
while to put it all together. In fact, it may take several Christmases before they get it right.
But once they have made these decisions, they will have succeeded in digging themselves
out of a painful experience that is repeated year after year. And in its place they will have
what Christmas is meant to be, a season of joy for the entire family. And that new
mutually fulfilling experience that is sure to deposit love
units will be repeated, year after year.
Incompatibility in marriage is simply an accumulation of habits and activities that are
good for one spouse and bad for the other. Love units
that are deposited into one Love Bank are withdrawn
from the other. Net gain -- zero, or worse.
To become compatible, all a couple needs to do is abandon those habits and activities that
are not mutually satisfying, and substitute those that are. These new mutually enjoyable
activities deposit love units into both Love Banks at the same time, helping to sustain the
feeling of love the spouses have for each other.
Here are four steps that you should follow with each decision you make about the way
you will be celebrating Christmas.
1. Set ground rules to make negotiations pleasant and safe.
Before you start to talk to your spouse about a conflict you have about Christmas, make
sure that you follow these rules: (a) be pleasant and cheerful throughout your discussion
of the issue, (b) put safety first--do not threaten to cause pain or suffering when you
negotiate, even if your spouse makes threatening remarks or if the negotiations fail, and
(c) if you reach an impasse, stop for a while and come back to the issue later.
Under no conditions should you be disrespectful or judgmental of your spouse's opinions
or desires. Your negotiations should accept and respect your differences. Otherwise, you
will fail to make them pleasant and safe.
2. Identify the issue in question from the perspectives of both you and your
Be able to state each other's position regarding a particular decision about a Christmas
activity before you try to find a resolution to your conflict. Be sure you don't argue with
each other -- just get to know how you both feel regarding the issue. What do you both
want and why do you want it? Find the answers to those questions.
3. Brainstorm with abandon.
Spend some time thinking of all sorts of ways to resolve the conflict, and don't correct each
other when you hear of a plan that you don't like -- you'll have a chance to eliminate
undesirable possibilities during the fourth step. Write down every suggestion. If you give
your intelligence a chance to flex its muscle, you will have a long list of alternatives.
4. Choose the solution that is appealing to both of you.
From your list of solutions, some will satisfy only one of you but not both. However,
scattered within the list will be solutions that both of you would find attractive. Among
those solutions that are mutually satisfactory, select the one that you both like the most.
If none of them meet with your enthusiastic agreement, go back to step 3 and continue to
When you use the Policy of Joint Agreement to help
you decide how you will spend Christmas together, neither of you will be controlled by
the other, because you are not being forced to do anything. You are simply being
prevented from gaining at each other's expense. That's not control, it's
If these four steps don't give you enough guidance, it might help if you were to read Fall in Love, Stay in Love where I describe these four steps in more detail.
Even if your spouse is not the marriage manual type, reading it by yourself will help you
learn how to reach your spouse in a way that takes his or her feelings into account.
How to Keep Your Family Together
after a Disastrous Christmas
If you follow my advice, and start negotiating today, you will avoid disaster. Some
won't follow my advice, and instead, will charge head-on into another Christmas
filled with habits and activities that withdraw love
units from an already bankrupt Love Bank.
What if, in the end, you simply blow it? What if your spouse is bitterly disappointed for
yet another Christmas, and is having second thoughts about being with you for another
That's the prospect many will have on New Years Day. After a disastrous Christmas,
when they've been told by their spouses that their marriages are almost over, what should
they do next?
Negotiations are usually out of the question at that point in time. Love Banks will be empty, and spouses are in the state
of emotional withdrawal. The cold winter of January is reflected in body language and
The secret to grasping hope out of the jaws of despair is to know what went wrong, and
to offer compelling assurance that it will never happen again. Your Taker will be
screaming advice to be angry, disrespectful and demanding. When the Love Bank is overdrawn, your Taker always tries to solve
problems with Love Busters. But if you let your
intelligence override that advice long enough to create a real solution, one that will make
both you and your spouse happy, your Taker will settle down and your marriage will
have a chance to succeed.
First, you must agree that what you did at Christmas was thoughtless. Even though your
intentions may have been as pure as Arnold Schwarzeneger's, you must admit that you
made a crucial mistake by failing to understand how your spouse would feel about your
decisions. Even worse, you may have gone ahead and done what you wanted,
knowing full well your spouse would not have agreed. In the final analysis, you must take responsibility for having failed to reach an
enthusiastic agreement with your spouse before you made your plans for Christmas.
Rising From the Ashes
The experiences of this Christmas can provide the evidence you need that your marriage
needs new guidelines. The ones you have been using are killing your love for each other,
and if don't change them soon, your marriage will not survive.
The Policy of Joint Agreement is the guideline you
need. It will change the course of your marriage and your life if you follow it. True, it will
prevent you from engaging in some of your most cherished activities, but they are
activities that drive your spouse nuts. Your spouse may need to revise his or her activities,
too. From the moment you implement
it, everything you do, say and plan will be subject to your spouse's enthusiastic agreement.
That way you will avoid doing things that have been ruining your spouse's love for you.
But you will not become a slave to your spouse's whims, because you must also
enthusiastically agree before you do anything. The Policy does not enable your spouse to
make you do anything, it only prevents you from doing something that would not be in
his or her best interest.
When you follow the Policy of Joint Agreement, you
are putting each other on notice that anything you do is likely to affect each other, and you
do not want to gain at each other's expense. So you ask, "how would you feel if I did ..."
It's that simple. It's not asking for permission, it's offering consideration. It's putting your
feelings and your spouse's feelings at the same level of importance, an agreement that
With Love Banks bankrupt, it's often difficult to
imagine feeling good toward someone that makes you feel so bad. But if you can override
the emotional instincts of your Taker, you'll find that the Policy of Joint Agreement re-deposits love units, and you will love each other again. By
avoiding anything that turns out to be thoughtless, the holes in the Love Bank are plugged up, and your efforts to meet each
other's emotional needs will refill your Love Banks.
Negotiations that reach mutually agreeable Christmas decisions require considerable skill.
You and your spouse may have very conflicting interests when it comes to choosing gifts,
decorating your house, deciding who to visit and how much time to take from other
responsibilities. But after Christmas you will have an entire year to develop those skills,
practicing on issues that are not nearly as difficult to resolve. By the time next Christmas
rolls around, you'll both be experts.
However, if you follow the Policy of Joint
Agreement now, instead of after this year's Christmas disaster, this
Christmas will be what it should be, a season where we reflect the love of God in us
toward others. And you'll find that Christmas will draw you and your spouse even closer
to each other.