Two highly unexpected ways to save your relationship this holiday season

Avoid the fireworks.
Avoid the fireworks.
Image: Unsplash/Matt Popovich
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Here’s the way Christmas usually goes down in our family. On Christmas Eve, all the cousins —age range six to 24—gather around my mom, who reads The Night Before Christmas. Being of good grandmother stock, she reads the wholesome holiday tale with flourish. Someone secretly rings some bells, presents appear at the door, pandemonium ensues, and the littles all go off to bed.

Then, facing down presents to be wrapped and stockings to be hung, and the latent effects of too much booze and family, my husband and I fray. Our varying visions of Christmas collide, with my image of sipping whiskey, listening to Bing Crosby and wrapping heaps of presents instantly disintegrating.

We could avoid this oddly predictable annual fight. For example, we could wrap ahead, drink less, or come to some kind of truce on what the “right” approach to presents actually is.

Or we could shore up on the wisdom of two global marriage gurus, both with nearly a lifetime of dealing with sparring couples. Both experts factored prominently in the book I wrote about using behavioral economics to manage conflict in marriage. And both have pearls of wisdom on why the holidays are hard on couples, and what to do about it.

Love maps

John Gottman, the renowned Seattle-based psychologist who says that he can predict with 90% accuracy whether you and your partner will stay together, based only on a 15-minute conversation about a contentious subject, argues that the foundation of a good relationship is love maps (cheese alert!).

“The principle of building Love Maps is simply this: knowing the little things about your partner’s life creates a strong foundation for your friendship and intimacy,” the Gottman Institute says here. 

This sounds pretty obvious. Of course you should know your partner. But his point is more subtle: the small things add up. It is not just remembering the anniversary or the birthday, but knowing how she takes her coffee, or that he loves a certain pillow when watching “The Crown”. Small gestures build goodwill over time, allowing us to harbor important reserves which then serve us in harder times.

The holidays are laden with expectations, including around what traditions are important to you and your partner, and what gifts mean to each of you.

It’s an opportunity to remember she needs new running shoes, or he is forever frustrated by the crappy lids on the tupperware. It’s a chance to think about small ways to make the other person’s life a tiny bit better, framing a family picture to put on her desk at work, or buying him bike booties so his feet don’t freeze in winter. There may be meals that are important, decorations which hold historical significance, or traditions that are mapped on our brains as essential to what the holiday means. Knowing your partner’s love maps means knowing what is important to them: Christmas is the chance to showcase just how updated your love maps really are. 

Knowing my husband’s love maps would mean knowing that too many presents make him very uncomfortable. It’s not what he had growing up; it doesn’t reflect the values he hopes to impart to our kids. 

Knowing my love maps would mean knowing that picking out and giving thoughtful gifts for Christmas is part of what the holiday means to me. The pomp and circumstance of Christmas—the silly decorations and the stockings hung by the chimney with care—really are important to me.

Couples with love maps updated in real time “have made plenty of cognitive room in their minds for their relationship. They remember the major events in each other’s histories, and they keep updating their information as the facts and feelings of their spouse’s world change,” the Institute says. 

Here is a detailed guide on how to test and build (pdf) your love maps. 

Love languages

Once you nail your love maps, there’s one more thing you can do to avoid holiday fights going nuclear. Gary Chapman, a Southern Baptist pastor who has sold millions of books, has a simple but staggeringly incisive theory about why couples argue. 

He argues that we all speak a love language. The language we speak is the way we express love, and probably, the way we want love expressed to us. But more often than not, we married someone different than us, and they speak a different language. His five languages include:

  • Acts of Service: “For these people, actions speak louder than words.”
  • Words of Affirmation: “This language uses words to affirm other people.”
  • Receiving Gifts: “For some people, what makes them feel most loved is to receive a gift.”
  • Physical Touch: “To this person, nothing speaks more deeply than appropriate touch.”
  • Quality Time: “This language is all about giving the other person your undivided attention.”

This not-speaking-the-same-language naturally comes to a head over the holidays. Acts of service want help shopping and wrapping while affirmation will be looking for positive words about managing the tumult of the season. Quality time will be frantic over the multiple demands on everyone’s time, and physical touch will want to just curl up on the couch and let the chaos sweep by.

Chapman’s key bit of advice is to recognize the language your spouse speaks and try to speak that language. If that sounds easy, or obvious, it’s not.

That’s because we tend to express our love language to our partners, and then end up shocked, frustrated and consistently disappointed when they 1) don’t think it’s amazing and 2) don’t replicate it. But it’s because they speak another language.

So, get out your GPS, work on those love maps, and get started on your second (love) language. The fate of your holiday season is riding on it.