This time of year, you’ll see plenty of articles about how to have the happiest holiday season ever. You’ll find no shortage of advice on how to deck your halls, craft handmade gifts, start beloved traditions and dazzle at parties.
That’s all well and good, but I want to make things much simpler for you. Today I’m going to share with you one tip that could make this the least stressful holiday season you’ve ever had. It’s free. It doesn’t require crafting or cooking skills. It works no matter which holidays you observe. And it doesn’t have an expiration date. In fact, I hope you use it well after the last New Year’s celebrations have wrapped up.
What’s my magical tip?
When people get on your nerves, assume that they’re not doing it on purpose.
Trust me, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to try out this mental shift in the coming weeks. What if you stopped assuming things like this?
- Your husband leaves all gift shopping to you because he doesn’t value your time.
- Your friend posts pictures of her perfect decorations and gift-wrapping to make others feel inferior.
- Your brother is always late to gatherings because he’s trying to tick you off.
- Your mom only picks at the holiday meals you prepare because your cooking isn’t fancy enough for her.
The truth is, we’re all pretty self-involved. We don’t think very much about the ramifications our actions have on others. Unless a person has shown you before that he’s malicious (in which case you’ve got a whole other issue going on), it’s more likely that he just doesn’t know how he’s affecting you.
When you assume someone is being clueless instead of downright nasty, the whole situation suddenly feels a great deal lighter. You let go of resentments and start seeing constructive solutions.
Getting Past Assumptions
Since this blog focuses on how to strengthen your marriage, I would especially encourage you to stop assuming your husband has bad intentions when he does something that disappoints or irritates you.
The holiday season can be a time of high expectations, so it’s prime time for assuming the worst!
Let’s go back to an example from above:
Your husband leaves all gift shopping to you.
You’ve been assuming you know the reason for this behavior. You’re absolutely certain that it’s because he doesn’t value your time, so he’s intentionally passing the gift shopping off to you.
But what else could be behind his behavior?
- Maybe he thinks you love gift shopping.
- Maybe he believes you think he’s terrible at choosing gifts.
- Maybe his own mom did the shopping for their family and he just assumes that’s how all families do it.
- Maybe he doesn’t realize how long it takes and that it affects your schedule that much.
It’s also possible he really doesn’t value your time, but it’s important to be sure that’s the case before you work off that negative assumption.
Sometimes it’s easier to start by assuming your husband isn’t doing anything to you on purpose and just letting him know how his actions affect you. That could sound like:
With both our families growing, we’re gift shopping for more people now. Taking care of it all is leaving me pretty stressed. You’d be helping me a lot if we could start dividing up the gift list.
As an experiment this week, pay attention when your husband or anyone else pushes your buttons. Notice whether you automatically assume the worst about their behavior. If you do, try replacing that assumption with the belief that the other person isn’t trying to hurt you. How does that make you feel? Let me know how this mental shift works for you during the holiday season and beyond.
I’m a big fan of psychiatrist Daniel Siegel. You may remember a past blog post where I shared some of Siegel’s advice about what to do when you “flip your lid.”
Today, I want to talk about another strategy from Siegel. You may have heard of his Connect and Redirect method in the context of parenting. But the ideas behind it can strengthen your marriage (or any other relationship, for that matter).
The key thing to remember about Connect and Redirect is that any interaction will be more fruitful and satisfying if you take a moment to establish emotional connection before launching into what you need.
In our marriages, though, we often forget this step. Because we’re all so busy, it seems easier just to “cut to the chase.” We also tend to take those we’re closest to for granted and be much more abrupt and less tactful with them than we are with other people.
But taking that extra moment to build connection pays off. It helps your spouse get into the mental space where he can truly hear what you’re saying and engage with you.
Make Connection a Habit
Establishing connection doesn’t take long and it’s not complicated. Loving touch and positive eye contact go a long way. So does acknowledging what’s going on with your husband before you bring up the topic you want to discuss. You don’t have to reserve this communication technique for big, important discussions. It’s just as handy when you’re dealing with the routine concerns of family life.
Compare these two interactions:
- Your husband arrives home clearly still stressed from work or his commute. You shout from the kitchen, “The cable’s out again – what are we going to do about this?”
- Your husband arrives home looking stressed. You greet him with a quick hug and kiss and ask what’s up. He says traffic was much heavier than usual during his drive home. “Ugh! Frustrating!” you commiserate. “When you’ve had a chance to unwind a little, I want to talk to you about maybe changing cable providers.”
In the second interaction, you’re letting your husband know that he’s cared for and that he doesn’t have to put his defenses up. You’re making it easier for the two of you to work together for a solution to the cable issue.
As I said earlier, sometimes we have to be deliberate in giving our spouses the same consideration we automatically show our friends. If you know this area is a trouble spot for you, you may want to remind yourself to frame things with your husband the same way you would if you were talking with a friend. If, for example, you needed to reschedule your weekend trip with a friend, you’d probably take a minute to check in on her life and see if it’s a good time to talk before you told her about the change in plans. But you might be tempted to skip those “niceties” with your husband.
Remember, though, that we all need reminders that the people we care about care about us in return. When we get them, we show up more fully and give more generously. The time you invest in nurturing that feeling of connection is well worth it.
How do you and your spouse reconnect at the end of the day? Are you eager to see each other, or are you tense and afraid, not sure what kind of reception you’ll get?
Some people steel themselves for a daily litany of complaints from their spouse. Maybe they’re the target themselves, or they just have to listen to a lot of vitriol about their spouse’s job. Others might dread discovering the latest thing their spouse has messed up: He probably won’t bring in the trash can from outside. And, I bet he forgot to pay that bill I reminded him about AGAIN this morning!
Those first few minutes when you see each other again at the end of the workday set the tone for your whole evening. If you’re feeling trepidation, instead of anticipation, it’s worthwhile to put some energy into making this time of day more positive.
What Goes Wrong after Work
The circumstances of our busy lives set us up to be snippy and even confrontational as we end our workday and start our evening at home. As I write in my book Strong Women, Strong Love, it’s not your imagination: Our lives really are getting more stressful and demanding.
And we have less of a buffer between our family life and our life outside the home. Commuting has never been fun, but at least it used to serve as kind of a decompression zone between home and work, where we were free of the demands of both. Today, if you use mass transit or carpool, you’re probably trying to squeeze in a few work tasks during your commute. If you drive yourself, chances are you’re answering calls from the office or checking emails and texts at traffic lights.
That all sets you up to still be caught up in the day’s dramas and demands when you get home each night. And it makes harder to really “see” your spouse and show up for each other.
Set the Tone for the Evening
Here’s some advice for getting the evening off to a good start. Concentrate on making the first moment that you see your husband after work a really positive one. Just for that moment, put aside any resentment and stress that are lingering from the day and focus on initiating a connection with him. This can make a real difference in how the two of you interact the rest of the evening. It might feel like extra effort at first, but it will quickly become a habit.
Making this shift is a lot easier if you practice some self-care before you get home. Stress makes us defensive and zaps our communication skills, so think about how you can use your own commute to calm and replenish yourself after your day. You could practice breathing exercises or swap out talk radio for music that makes you happy. You may be able to set your phone so that it automatically disables calling or texting while you’re driving.
Coming home and reconnecting with your husband can be something to look forward to instead of dreading. How can you be more intentional about your post-work time this week?
Money problems are a common source of stress for American families. Consider just a few statistics:
Unfortunately, couples with ongoing financial difficulties tend to take their anxiety out on each other. As I wrote in my book Strong Women, Strong Love, research shows that couples under high stress for extended periods magnify the negatives in their relationship and have trouble remembering the positives. They get defensive and anger more quickly at each other’s faults. No matter how well they usually communicate with each other, they have trouble drawing on those relationship skills because they’re overwhelmed.
Whether you’re dealing with credit card debt, lost income after a layoff, a large emergency expense or ongoing difficulties making ends meet, it’s important to protect your relationship from the stress caused by financial problems. Here are a few steps you can start implementing right now.
- Realize it’s normal to feel fearful during a money crisis, and be aware that fear changes how you think and behave. For example, if you fear what might happen if your husband doesn’t find another job soon, you might start micromanaging his job search, even if that’s not how you usually act in your relationship.
- When you’re stressed about money, it’s more important than ever to maintain habits that help you stay calm. This supports your own health and wellbeing, and it helps you stay connected with your partner when the going gets tough. A couple of things that help many people get to a calmer place when they’re stressed are deep-breathing exercises and mindfulness practices to stay in the moment instead of spiraling into worries about the future.
- Remind yourself that this is a temporary situation. When you’re very stressed about money, you might feel overwhelmed and hopeless and have trouble seeing possibilities for change.
- Collaborate with your partner to find solutions. Work as a team to plot how you’ll get a new job, start tackling your debt or pay off that surprise bill. You’ll maintain, and maybe even deepen, the sense of trust and respect in your relationship.
If you aren’t going through money troubles right now, talk with each other about how you can prepare for a rainy day. What would you do if one of you lost your job? Can you change your saving or spending habits now so that you’ll be in better shape if a crisis does hit? These conversations might not be the most fun way to spend your time, but they’ll protect your financial health and the health of your marriage in the long run.
You may have read articles before stating that parents are not as happy as people who don’t have children. Of course, that’s not everyone’s experience with parenthood. But it’s a finding that we tend to explain away with conventional wisdom like “Well, having kids is hard. That’s just what parenting is.”
But that not may be the case.
First, the bad news. According to the latest research on the topic, the happiness gap between parents and nonparents is larger in the U.S. than it is in other developed countries. But here’s the new wrinkle on this topic: Researchers say that it’s possible to close the happiness gap through new policies on work leave and childcare.
It’s rare that social scientists can explain a phenomenon so completely, the lead researcher, Jennifer Glass, PhD of The University of Texas, said in an article for Quartz. But in countries with most family-friendly policies, parents were just as happy as nonparents.
So what does this mean for us parents here in the U.S.?
First, consider something that Glass says about U.S. parents in the Quartz article:
They often find parenting fulfilling, and wouldn’t have it any other way. But their stress levels tend to be high, which can overshadow any happiness to be gained from shepherding another human being through life.
Parenting in our culture is stressful. You aren’t doing something “wrong” if you are having a hard time meeting the demands of parenthood! Because stress comes with the territory of parenting, try these strategies:
- Get support. Be proactive in seeking out support, both emotional and practical. In other words, you need both friends you can confide in about the challenges of parenting and friends who can take your kids to soccer when you can’t.
- Strengthen your marriage. Also, look for ways you can continue to nurture your marriage so that you and your husband can support each other. You need a strong connection with your spouse to weather the stresses of parenting.
- Ask for help. Much of the work of parenting, such as managing the logistics of your kids’ lives, still falls disproportionately on women. If there’s an imbalance of parenting duties in your relationship, ask your husband directly to take on more responsibilities. It’s better to ask for help than to simmer with resentment!
- Advocate. Finally, you can advocate at your company and beyond for policy changes that help parents. Glass’ study found that paid sick and vacation leave were especially powerful ways to increase happiness.
Are you up for an eye-opening project?
Here’s what I want you to do: Think about what’s really important to you in life, and then make a list of those priorities.
Next, take a few days to track how you actually spend your time. It’s important to get some real data here, not just your estimates on where you think your time goes. Try to be as accurate as you can. (If you like tech tools, try a time-tracking app.) Make sure that you’re noting how much time you spend on your key relationships: your husband, your family, your friends.
The third step is to compare your priorities list with the information from your time-tracking. Are they in alignment? What’s taking up more of your time than you expected? And what’s getting less attention?
Your results might surprise you — you spend that many hours on Facebook? — and inspire you to rethink how you use your time.
As you do, pay special attention to your relationships. Marriage, family and friends likely ranked high on your priorities list, but you might have discovered that you’re shortchanging them.
Giving more time to your relationships is the most powerful way to improve your life. That’s not just self-help happy talk! The impact of our relationships is shown by science.
Take a few minutes to watch this TED Talk by Robert Waldinger, the latest leader of a 75-year study on what makes for a good life. Waldinger says in his talk:
What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we’ve generated on these lives? Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.
Based on that study’s findings, when you devote time to strengthening your relationships, you can expect the payoff to be greater physical and mental health. The researchers in Waldinger’s study even successfully predicted how long subjects would live based on the quality of their relationships at age 50!
Your marriage is especially important:
It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer.
Think about how you can best use the time available to you to nurture your relationships, especially your marriage. You may even want to continue tracking your time and noting how a greater focus on relationships affects your happiness. Even if you add just a few minutes of quality time with your husband each day, it can make a big difference.