By Jon Beaty

After we got married, my wife Tami and I had our first holiday conflict over whose family to spend Thanksgiving with. Tensions flared as we defended our positions.

Five hours of freeway separated our families. Tami is an only child. She couldn’t imagine her parents enjoying Thanksgiving without her. My parents were divorced, but I had shared Thanksgiving dinner with my dad and grandparents for the last several years. My younger brother had moved away to be closer to our mother. I felt a responsibility to spend Thanksgiving with dad.

Holiday stress can make this time of year challenging for couples and families. Dr. John Gottman’s research on thousands of couples reveals some useful tools to handle conflict and keep your holidays happy.

Accept Your Partner’s Influence

Accepting your partner’s influence will help to avoid escalating conflict. Dr. Gottman has learned that women tend to be better at accepting influence than men, but men who learn how to listen to and respond to their partner’s influence stand to benefit with a happier and longer-lasting marriage than those who don’t.

There’s good reason for men to listen. Results of an American Psychological Association survey show women are more likely than men to report increased stress during the holiday season. Sources of stress include lack of time, lack of money, and pressure to give or receive gifts. The results of increased stress can make a woman feel sick and tired, and lose interest in sex.

A couple who listens to each other, and takes into account each other’s wishes and feelings when making decisions, will have much happier holidays. Look for the parts of your partner’s point of view that make sense to you, even if you disagree. Consider each option from their perspective and validate their emotions.

Solve Your Solvable Problems

The choices couples face around the holidays can create situational problems that are solvable. Children may insist on gifts that aren’t affordable. An invitation to an event may conflict with other plans.

Dr. Gottman has identified a five-step model for solving these solvable problems. The skills needed can be learned with very little training. Most of us have these skills already:

  1. Soften your start-up
  2. Learn to make and receive repair attempts
  3. Soothe yourself and each other
  4. Compromise
  5. Process any grievances so that they don’t linger

Dr. Gottman describes the details of each step in his book The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work.

Communicate About Your Unsolvable Problems

Some holiday conflicts occur over perpetual problems. These problems may result from religious practices, beliefs, or family traditions. For example, conflict may arise over whether to celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas when one partner is Jewish and the other Christian, or over whether to serve poultry or tofu when one partner loves turkey and the other is a vegetarian.

When a couple isn’t able to find a way to accommodate the differences that arise over a perpetual problem, they fall into what Dr. Gottman calls gridlock. Relationship gridlock, like freeway gridlock during rush hour, can evoke feelings of dread, frustration, anger, and panic.