She Said, He Said: Holidays can tax a relationship, but don’t let it ruin the season

Lori Ann Kret and Jeff Cole
She Said, He Said

Dear Lori and Jeff,

My wife and I have two kids. We regularly talk about parenting, and usually discuss how we’re going to handle upcoming situations, which is why I’m now completely at a loss for how to manage the current fight we’re having. My wife and I agreed in early November that we were going to buy a modest amount of useful/thoughtful presents for our kids this year. I believe the focus on the holidays should be more about family and gratitude than gifts. My wife said she agreed. I just recently learned that my wife went crazy buying clothes, toys and electronics for them. When I asked her to return some of the items, she said our children are good kids and deserve to be spoiled every now and then, and we have the money to do it. Her arguments are valid, but not to the point. I’m so frustrated with her. How do we resolve this so it doesn’t ruin Christmas?


Frustrated Daddy Claus

Lori and Jeff: Holidays can be wonderful, joyous occasions with opportunities for gratitude and appreciation. But without compassion and understanding, they can be sources of stress and tension.

Lori: It’s a commonly held belief that our partners (and their words, choices and behaviors) drive our feelings and experiences in the relationship. But the truth is you have full power to have a great Christmas, despite this conflict. It would be great to have the perfect resolution for you in which she says you’re right and returns the gifts. But even more wonderful would be to look at this discord as an opportunity to learn more about each other, and to practice holding onto yourself, which is the ability to regulate your own emotions, and to stay grounded in the bigger picture reality of life. It starts by recognizing that your feelings are not determined by your interactions in the world (or with your partner), but rather by the stories and meanings you create about those experiences. Your thoughts determine your emotions. If you think, “My wife went behind my back, she doesn’t respect my wishes, she doesn’t care about what’s important to me …” you’ll create anger, frustration and resentment. If instead you change your story to, “My wife is generous and loves our kids, I’m not sure what’s going on for her right now, and we’re both wanting a good Christmas for the family but going about it differently …” you’ll feel more connected, curious and grateful for what you have in the marriage.

Jeff: Most disagreements that couples have are made up of two components. One involves all of the content — the details, facts and figures. This content is usually what we argue about and is what we call “above the line.” The second is made up of all the emotions that are connected to the content, including the stories we create about it. This is what we call “below the line.” In most cases, disagreements cannot be resolved above the line because what’s really at play are the emotions lurking beneath.

Money tends to be a topic that holds more weight below the line (sex is another). In your case, with a financial element to your disagreement, you really need to look below the line for your resolution. Ask yourself (and eventually ask your wife) what emotional needs might be driving her choices. Maybe she’s feeling guilty for having spent less time with the kids this year and is trying to make up for the lost time. Or there could be something going on between the two of you where she feels powerless and is using this situation to re-assert her power. You also have to ask yourself what emotions are driving your position and your need to be right. Bottom line is that to find resolution, you can’t just spar over the content — you have to discover the emotions that are keeping each of you from finding common ground.

Lori and Jeff: How do you keep this argument from ruining Christmas? You don’t let it. Not by sweeping it under the rug, but by diving deep and seeing what emotions and stories exist for both of you. You take responsibility for your own emotions, and you choose to have a warm, loving, joyous holiday together.

Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to and your query may be selected for a future column.


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