Aftermath: Cleaning Up The Coupledom’s Holiday Mess

What Was Your Holiday Like? I counted three holiday disasters in my caseload prior to New Year’s and I expect reports of more in the coming days. Disaster may be too strong a word since I believe most “messes” can be worked on and cleaned up with help. Hence the post. But holiday pressure puts many a Coupledom in a strained position and themes that run through the relationship the previous 11 months of the calendar year, contained by avoidance and “under the rug” strategies, can burst forth like hurricane floods breaching an heretofore damaged but still holding levee, drowning folk in emotional waves of pain, convulsing The Coupledom in ultimatums, ugly exchanges and fear.

Rescue on The Way: Does it take a crew from FEMA to save this Coupledom? If so, we are in trouble. Nope, it just takes recognition that opportunity is knocking. What emerges in the early morning hours of the holiday debacle is the harsh light of reality. “We have some problems here.” The husband who drinks through the holiday, insulting friends and family, despite attempts to keep him rested and out-of-the-way, should not receive a reprieve or a pardon but an intervention based on the “reality” that “our family or marriage” is at risk, not just one or two weekends a year but daily. Tough to do but perhaps the “sober” spouse can seek out an expert on substance and alcohol abuse and explore possibilities and strategies in the company of someone who has experience rather than rely on magical thinking that a heart-to-heart between spouses will make next year’s holiday better. Interventions, or however one wishes to describe the sharp cut of reality introduced to an in-denial addicted partner, are impossible to do alone. “Process” is key here, process for the sober spouse and family over time with an expert to examine options, build courage and know that alone this is not doable. Addiction is hardwired and only those who have trained in the practice of addiction treatment should be the sort to help the family unravel the ball of poison and pain that has invaded its heart and harmed its members. Do it sooner than later, not because of the holiday mess but armed with the wake-up call it provided.

Disappointing Partners: Two components of Western holiday culture place pressure and can wreak havoc on The Coupledom: the exchange of gifts and the New Year’s Eve Kiss. We are taught shortly after birth the notion that Christmas is when one is rewarded for being good all year by the perfect gift(s) from significant others. (Hanukkah is a different story but culturally has had to cope with the Christmas culture, though never perhaps with the same “reward” notion.) It starts with mom and dad, or Santa, depending on family folklore, bestowing the gift of your dreams, wrapped in love and affirmation of what a good boy/girl you have been these last twelve months. That gift or gifts, (depending on whether quality or quantity are the family measure of reward) can become symbols of such magnitude that if disappointing in one characteristic or another, or by their absence (no gift? possible? yes) the aftermath registers an 8.5 on the Richter scale of Coupledom quakes.

The Child In Each Of Us: Is it the child in us who is crushed when a gift seems to reflect “not being known” by a spouse? Is it the child in us whose eyes lose their light when, after unwrapping the promising box, a sweater in just the wrong color or size emerges: “How could he? He knows I hate green. What, he thinks I’m a large?” Is the pressure of choosing just the right gift greater this year because the marriage is shaky, the stakes so high that paralysis sets in and nothing is purchased, no package rests under the tree? I have written before about spouses who have been assailed as unloving, uncaring and “out to lunch” because of gift choices. About partners, who become so fearful of another onslaught of accusations of cruelty and selfishness, leaving them swimming in guilt and incompetence, staggered by the force of the attack, that they resort to gift buying clichés such as flowers, or candy, or nothing. Under the Christmas tree or in the not so warm glow of the menorah, marriage themes that lie dormant the previous eleven months fly out like bats from a darkened cave to descend upon The Coupledom, whipping their wings, casting eleven months of magical thinking and avoidance asunder.

Separating Child From Elder: Who is at the controls here? The child inside us who dreams eternal of the perfect holiday of love and reward, of being known and affirmed? Or the elder who is no longer dependent on fairy tales come true to feel good, loved and important? Holidays can regress us to the child because in many ways, they are for the child, at least in our Western materialistic culture. Separating the disappointed child in us from the realistic adult takes some doing, but is necessary. Our spouses are not perfect, nor are our holidays. But they do offer an opportunity to address the patterns in The Coupledom that need attention. Opportunity knocks – let her in.

As The Ball Drops, Does The Kiss Drop Too? Next to Valentine’s Day and our Wedding Day, New Year’s Eve probably ranks as the third most romantic potential of the year for The Coupledom. Do you see what I see? A blinking red sign…stop, beware, danger ahead. The wallflower symbol par excellence when I was a young adult was to be spending New Year’s without a “date.” No one to wrap the champagne glasses around for that ultimate smooch. For the grownup Coupledom, facing a New Year with someone with whom you have “issues” can intensify the pressures, provoke some bad behaviors, such as over-imbibing or flirting with a stranger, and culminate in ugly exchanges. The bad ending to a tough year can be another super alert that this Coupledom needs to do some fact-facing. Opportunity knocks once again to pick up the shards of a shattered New Year’s and look for help, together.

Religion: Religious intermarriage is often on the rails during holiday time if spouses are in conflict about observances or feel disloyal to families of origin because they are not following family ritual. A menorah and a Christmas tree sit beside one another but attending midnight mass may seem over the top. Feelings of guilt for not honoring one’s family traditions, or embracing another’s, might cause one partner to be less than enthusiastic about joining in the rituals of their spouse, though agreement was reached years earlier as to what religious direction to take for the children. Here again, smoldering embers alight into flames during the holidays. Respecting that one’s partner might be uncomfortable, in spite of previous decisions, is a loving and generous attitude that can go a long way towards strengthening the bond. It is not easy forsaking aspects of one’s roots when the season is upon us. Anger or distrust are not the solutions. Empathy without judgment is the path.

Resolution 2012: Neither professionally nor personally do I tend toward once-a-year resolutions. I am a “process your stuff daily” oriented clinician/person so I cannot offer a list of Coupledom resolutions without cringing. My bias is more towards raising up the mirror of holiday misadventure as a suggestive pathway for The Coupledom to follow towards improvement, with the help of a specialist when the issues are significantly thorny and foreboding. The heart-to-heart, the “lets make a resolution to never,” the forgiveness again…well, that’s just not good enough. Take The Coupledom to that third place, where someone who is expert in “process” and strategy, who has no investment in either magical thinking, denial or tea leaves can guide you along a path of reality, courage and skill-building. It takes a lot of skill to run a Coupledom successfully. 

My New Year’s Wish To You All: Be courageous, choose honesty, seek out help when indicated! And please pardon my preachy tone. 

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012

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