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Tidings of Conflict and Joy: Surviving the Holidays

Help with the emotions late in the year typically focuses on the “holiday blues,” but there is very little press regarding the tension and conflicts that erupt during a season that’s supposed to be about peace and joy. Intimate relationships are the proverbial canary in the coal mine — the first to be affected by stress and tension. When we are upset we typically don’t snap at our friends or coworkers; it all comes out toward our spouse or intimate partner.

“Stress” is another way of saying “demand.” When you place high demands on an engine or heavy loads on a piece of architecture, you are placing stress on the engine or the building. The same is true for our emotions. When there are demands on us emotionally we feel it as stress.

What’s interesting from an emotional point of view is that it doesn’t matter if the demands are positive or negative. Getting married can produce as much stress as getting fired.

The winter holidays can be filled with stress because of the added demands the expected celebrations create. Gifts, meals, visiting relatives, and extra cleaning all produce added pressure. Tension, frustration, irritation, and a general lack of patience are all common reactions to stress. Without an emotional cushion our tolerance level drops and before we know it we are snapping at each other over trivial issues. Our partner is unfortunately just as stressed as we are and their reaction is to snap back, which sets off conflict.

So what should be done? What can be done? Skipping the holidays may come to mind, but it is not really a valid option. The next best answer is to practice staying out of each other’s emotional upset. This technique is called monologuing.

There are 7 essential communication skills taught at Help Talking, from loving to problem solving, but the one most relevant to the season is learning how to stay out of each other’s stress. The key idea here is that there can only be one crazy person in the relationship at a time. By only having one person venting their stress at a time it prevents a relationship from feeding off negativity and becoming explosive. When your partner is stressed and you remain calm, it gives them a chance to dissipate their energy and feel better. Likewise, when you are venting and your intimate can remain a neutral sounding board it will give you a safe place to discharge.

One simple technique for creating a constructive monologue is to find an object like a tissue box or a pillow and allow that to signify who is talking and who is listening. Hold on to the pillow as long as you need in order to say everything that needs to be shared. The other person can and should make comments, but all the remarks should be focused on supporting what the person with the pillow is saying. If the person with the pillow is repeating themselves, it is because he or she does not feel heard, and the listener (the one without the pillow) will need to redouble efforts to let the speaker know he or she is being heard and understood.

This may be easier said than done. Learning to monologue can take some practice and know-how. A relationship coach or a marriage counselor can assist by stopping reactivity or defensiveness and keeping the monologue focused and productive. Before your next blowout, find a professional who understands the art of monologuing and keep your holidays and your relationship joyful.

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Tidings of Conflict and Joy: Surviving the Holidays

Brett R. Williams, MFT

Brett R. Williams, MFT has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for more than 20 years. He is the clinical director of and the executive director of OC Marriage, an Orange County, Calif. nonprofit devoted to decreasing divorce through marriage education classes.

APA Reference
Williams, B. (2018). Tidings of Conflict and Joy: Surviving the Holidays. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.