During the holiday season—replete with travel, family visits, extra spending, and the pressure to feel jolly and filled with good cheer—even the happiest and most high-functioning couples can experience challenges.
Married since 1972, relationship counselors Charlie and Linda Bloom say it’s important to acknowledge that relationships are always a work in progress—and that can be especially true at the most wonderful time of the year.
“A lot of people are under the influence of romantic myths,” Linda says. “They don’t believe they should have to work at becoming the partner of their dreams. They think they only need to find the partner of their dreams. Becoming the partner you yourself would like to have is work, but it’s a labor of love. Mostly, though, it’s about working on yourself.”
The good news is that it’s possible, as long as you’re both invested and capable. “With someone who has the raw material, who has a solid foundation of emotional maturity, who shares your willingness to do the work, and with whom you have compatible values, you have a good chance of creating an optimal relationship,” Charlie says. He and Linda define optimal relationships as ones in which both people enjoy and delight in the relationship, experience a high level of trust, and have confidence that most of their needs will get met.
Even in the best of circumstances, though, meeting your partner’s needs and getting your own needs met can prove difficult to achieve 365 days a year. Here are six ways you can nurture your relationship every day—including during the holidays.
Make it a priority.
“Typically, most of us give our best energy to our work or our kids, and the relationship gets the scraps,” Linda says. During the holiday season, prioritizing your relationship may be especially difficult, but it’s important not to lose sight of one another.
Before visiting family over the holidays, have a conversation in which you anticipate feelings that one or both of you might have about being neglected, unappreciated, or jealous. “These feelings may come up,” says Linda, “but they don’t need to be disruptive if you can find the time and space to reassure each other through words and actions of your love and appreciation.”
“Be especially mindful not to neglect your partner during family events,” Charlie adds. “It’s easy to take each other for granted when there are others desiring your attention who you may have little contact with the rest of the year.”
Small gestures of caring can have a big impact. “Remember, when your relationship is cooking,” Linda says, “everything else in your life goes better. It’s the hub of wheel.”
Check in daily.
Daily check-ins might feel like a tall order during the holidays, when to-do lists are longer than ever, but Charlie and Linda maintain that taking the time to connect with your partner in a meaningful way, every day, is well worth the effort.
“People are often so busy and distracted that they don’t stop to check in with each other,” Linda says, “but it’s critically important. You have to have some meditative pauses in your day.”
Find a way to check in that fits who you are as a couple—it might be cuddling, or walking the dog, or having morning coffee together and chatting about the day ahead. “These things can really build that bond of connection,” Linda says.
Honor your differences.
Navigating differences is part and parcel of all relationships, but differences can show themselves more acutely at holiday time. More frugal partners may want to put a cap on gift shopping sooner than more lavish spenders. Extroverted partners might be psyched to attend every party, while introverted ones feel overextended.
When differences emerge, conflicts are bound to arise. And when that happens, people often sit on angry feelings, or express them hurtfully.
“We find a lot of people don’t manage differences well,” Linda says. “They suck it up; they hold grudges; they get resentful; they speak disparagingly. When we interview happy couples, though, we find that they respect their differences. They’ve learned how to speak without blame and judgment. That requires cultivating the courage to speak your truth, and the self-discipline to make sure it lands gracefully. It means learning to speak with tact and diplomacy.”
Stress levels can be higher during the holidays not only because we have more to do, but also because of the family dynamics that come into play. Visits with in-laws can cause tension. Differences in parenting styles can, too. When partners express dissatisfaction with one another, sparks can fly.
“It can be so difficult to resist the impulse to interrupt, defend yourself, or correct the other person,” Charlie says. “When we hear something intolerable, we want to remedy the feeling of pain or anger or fear. We want to shut the other person up because we’re triggered. We want to shoot the messenger.”
Charlie admits to having been guilty of this. “I eventually realized that my efforts to get rid of my anger only made things worse. When I saw how it was affecting Linda, it touched my heart. I came to see the effects of my defensiveness on her.”
To become better at listening non-reactively, Linda suggests closing your mouth and putting yourself in your partner’s shoes. “See if you can feel what your partner is feeling,” she says. “Put your own feelings aside, and see if you can understand the other person’s experience.”
Charlie encourages reactive partners to stop and ask themselves, What is it that I felt just before I interrupted my partner? “When I work with couples,” he says, “I try to help them get underneath what’s going on, to have them become more mindful of their experience and how they react.”
But whether you struggle with empathy or with understanding your triggers, make an effort—after that awkward exchange at the holiday dinner table—to give your partner your full attention before jumping in with your point of view. “Keep in mind that silently listening doesn’t mean you agree, but it’s important to allow your partner to feel heard before offering your perspective,” Charlie says.
Ask your partner, “How may I best love you?”
“People tend to give love the way they want to be loved, but what lights one person up can be a turnoff to another,” Linda says. According to her, the juiciest question you can ask your partner is, “How may I best love you?”
There are five main ways people like to receive love, the Blooms say: touch, quality time, words and affirmations (“I love you,” “You look beautiful tonight,” “I’m so proud of you”), acts of service (taking out the garbage or cleaning up the kitchen after a holiday meal, for example), and gifts.
In the season of gift-giving, consider what will make your partner feel most loved. A piece of jewelry or the latest high-tech gadget? A massage after holiday shopping? A getaway weekend for just the two of you? Cleaning the house before the guests come? Or a card with a love letter inside?
“People who are accomplished in relationships,” says Linda, “live with curiosity and wonder. They’re generous about stretching into their partners’ worlds.”
Help your partner achieve a dream.
“We all have these secret dreams that we fear we’ll never actualize in our lives,” says Linda, “but if we have someone who helps us manifest our loftiest dreams, that’s a good contract.”
As a holiday ritual (or anytime), Charlie and Linda recommend that couples write down their individual visions for a fabulous life, letting their imaginations run wild. “The visions don’t have to be identical—bring them together and look for overlap,” Linda says.
The Blooms say that when couples become each other’s “believing eyes”—believing in each other’s strength, energy, and talent to manifest a deep desire—it brings them closer together. “When you support each other in creating a dream, you develop a trusting bond,” Linda says.
Charlie believes that great relationships are like genius—1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. While there might be more perspiration during the holiday season, investing in your relationship can bestow a cornucopia of priceless gifts.
“The bonanza of benefits is more than you can imagine,” Linda says. “A great relationship is like a bomb shelter. When you have a bonded, intimate partnership, you have a buffer and an insulator. The peace of mind when you’re loved for who you are is like hitting the jackpot.”
Originally published by Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health