If you're an unabashed binge-watcher of all the Lifetime and Hallmark Channel holiday movies, you know quite well that this is the season when a new romance can flourish under the snow-covered pines or in the midst of a sparkling light show. But for those of us already wed, we may not realize how much the holidays can affect a marriage... both for better and for worse.
The most wonderful time of the year also comes with stresses and expectations for couples: how much to spend, which traditions to keep, whose family to visit, how to be effective parents when your kids are hyped-up on candy canes and anticipation. "There are also unspoken expectations you may have of each other that can cause disappointment and rifts," psychologist Nikki Martinez, Psy.D, told HuffPost.
Social scientists and psychologists have long studied the issues surrounding marriage and the winter holidays, and their findings confirm what you may already suspect: The December whirl can either bring you closer together or bring to light the relationship strains that lie beneath the tinsel-covered surface. Knowing what research has to say about marriage at this time of year can help make you aware of the problems that can crop up and work with your partner to resolve them; it can also help to know that when you're both on the same page, you really can experience something close to a Hallmark-style holiday.
1. Giving Gifts Can Increase The Love
Remember that sweet O. Henry story, "The Gift of the Magi," in which a poor newlywed couple sell their most precious possessions to buy each other Christmas presents? Turns out, Mr. Henry had it right. According to a study conducted by Elizabeth W. Dunn and Lara B. Aknin of University of British Columbia as well as Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School, people who spend money on others are happier than folks who use their cash on themselves. So go ahead and splurge a little on each other, if you can; it'll up your happiness level and make the holidays merrier for you both.
2. Interfaith Couples Can Feel Torn
More than half of American Jews marry outside their faith, a trend which has increased significantly in the last 40-plus years, according to a Pew Research study. What hasn't changed over the years: the "December Dilemma," otherwise known as the time when interfaith couples debate how best to honor both Hanukkah and Christmas. Even spouses who don't actively practice their religion can feel strongly about recreating their own childhood rituals, which can lead to conflict and resentment. The key to keeping both the traditions and marriage strong: Don't try to do a mash-up of the two holidays, advised Keren McGinity, an associate professor and research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. "By recognizing the distinctiveness about holidays and traditions, interfaith couples can create authentic celebrations," she told Brandeis.com.
3. Your Spending Habits Can Derail Your Marriage
On the other hand, don't go overboard on gift-giving if money is tight. If you're a go-for-broke holiday shopper wed to a coupon-clipper, or if you're the one fretting about the bills after your spouse comes back from the mall, it can spell trouble. According to a SunTrust Bank survey conducted by the Harris Poll, 35 percent of couples who report feeling stressed in their partnership say that money is behind their relationship problems. What's more, nearly half of those surveyed said that they and their partner have different saving and spending habits. The takeaway: Talk to your spouse regularly about money matters, and make sure you're on the same page before making any major purchases or starting the holiday shopping.
4. You're Likely To Stay Together During The Holidays
Researchers at the University of Washington recently analyzed patterns in couples filing for divorce, and found that breakups were least likely to happen in December and November. Lead researcher Julie Brines, an associate sociology professor, explained that partners are reluctant to make such a drastic move during a period of celebration, and may even try to patch up their relationship by throwing themselves into the holidays. “People tend to face the holidays with rising expectations, despite what disappointments they might have had in years past,” said Brines. Unfortunately, those expectations don't tend to come true. The study found that the divorce rate soared highest in March, the time when the excitement of the winter holidays has passed.
5. In-Laws Can Change Everything
Many couples spend at least part of the holiday season with one or both extended families. Surprisingly, though, couples can encounter problems even when they get along with their in-laws. According to a study by psychologist Terri Orbuch of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research (as reported by CNN), couples' risk of divorce goes down by 20 percent when the husband has a good relationship with his in-laws. On the other hand, the divorce risk actually goes up by 20 percent when a wife is close with her husband's family. What gives? Orbuch explained to CNN that men create a stronger connection to their wives by bonding with their in-laws. But for women, it's trickier: Being BFFs with a mother-in-law means running the risk of having her feel free to overstep her bounds when it comes to offering advice on marriage and parenting.
6. Holiday Memories Can Bring You Closer Together
The good news: You can bring the joy of the holidays into your marriage long after the tree is taken down and the menorahs packed away. Taking time to reminisce about the fun can actually increase the intimacy between you and your sweetheart. A study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that both older and younger couples reported feeling warmth and closeness when recalling autobiographical memories, more so than when thinking about fictional relationship stories. Women also felt more intimate the more often they talked or thought about their past happy experiences. So take some time after the holidays to look over your photos together, and your marriage will flourish right through the new year.
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