As far as holidays go, Thanksgiving is usually pretty easy to take. There are no gifts to buy, no songs you have to learn, and the main activity is eating and shaking off tryptophan-induced slumber during the afternoon football game. For couples, the main stress producer will likely be the number of guests you are expecting. But what if it’s your spouse you want to see trussed up in a roasting bag? This can turn your holiday into a tedious, week-long ordeal that is uncomfortable for all concerned. What can couples having marital problems do to make this family event go smoothly?

First – how bad is it?

This is important because one thing you can absolutely guarantee a holiday will do (if you let it) is magnify existing tensions. So you have to ask yourself, “Am I really no longer interested in my marriage or do I just need a break?” The endless damp towels on the bathroom floor are an annoyance on most days, but when company is present (especially judgmental in-laws – you know who you are) this becomes a titanic struggle for the future of mankind. This is particularly true for women, who have been unfairly conditioned for generations (yes, even now) that their worth is determined by how well-oiled their holiday machine runs. On the other hand, men (perhaps due to observing their fathers and grandfathers) often believe their only responsibility to the holiday juggernaut is to show up, be loud and scratch themselves with precision.

Maybe the answer isn’t yet clear

OK, I would suggest to you that if the answer to “how bad is it?” doesn’t immediately cause a spike in blood pressure, there is hope for both of your futures together. So now we are back to the original question – how do you get through a potentially stressful holiday situation? In my experience, communication is key, followed by expectation and cooperation. It can work like this – sit down with your spouse during a quiet moment and acknowledge that while there are unresolved issues between you, a holiday is coming up that will require hosting family and entertaining people of different ages. Then review what you both see as the different chores and events that will need to be handled during the visit. This is the communication part that lays the groundwork for all that follows because it identifies possible pain points. Following this discussion, you both will have a good idea of what is concerning (and often frightening) to the other. And now everything is less scary because it’s been defined and no longer a big mystery.

Working together

With the issues identified, we move on to expectation. You can now mutually assign tasks with agreement on how they will be completed and when. Who will be walking the dog that week? Who greets the guests at the door? Who takes drink orders and clears the table? Don’t be afraid to play to each others’ strengths when assigning tasks. For example, while the husband may be willing to learn how to iron napkins, his time may be better spent elsewhere (like frying the turkey). Getting the division of labor handled should eliminate a great deal of stress because each person has assigned tasks and the expectation that everything else will be handled by the other. This leads to cooperation, which can be the most sensitive part. Here’s your first quiz – if you see that your spouse is not walking the dog on time, do you:

  1. Whisper that the dog probably needs to go out very soon
  2. Remind him/her of what the dog will do without time outside
  3. Wait until dinner is served and wrap the leash around his/her neck

Remember, you both agreed to cooperate to get through this holiday, so gentle reminders may be needed. With guests in the house and non-standard meals being prepared, there will be a certain level of unavoidable chaos to work through. Each of you will be expected (by the other) to handle the assigned tasks on time and be flexible.

What if it doesn’t work?

Disasters can happen, but it’s up to you both to determine their significance. So your son-in-law’s pit bull became romantically involved with your new couch – who could have seen that coming, right? Maybe Uncle Ricky got so inebriated that he passed out under the table. It’s up to you to determine whether these incidents become part of family lore or another brick through the window of your relationship. If after the holiday you are still unhappy and unsatisfied with your spouse, feel free to give my office a call. I can help you discuss the next steps.