There are points in every year where relationships come under extra pressure: Summer holidays, new school terms, Valentine’s Day of course, Christmas. According to the mental health charity, Mind, one in three of us actively “dreads Christmas”.
Ruth Perl, founder of LoveRelations and relationship psychotherapist, says: “the cultural pressure many of us feels to provide and enjoy the “perfect Christmas” puts an almost unbearable strain on relationships”.
Consumerism is often cited as the cause of festive misery. The average British adult spends £1,000 on food and presents alone, for the Christmas period, but for some, the figure is double, with the cost of alcohol, travel to and from Christmas events, party clothes and beauty treatments.
“Financial pressure can be a huge strain on a relationship,” says Ruth Perl. “We have clients at LoveRelations who have very different ideas to their partner, as to how much should be spent on family presents or entertaining”
Ruth maintains that if a relationship is under strain already, the Christmas period can bring it to breaking point. “It’s not just the added financial pressures,” she says, “it’s the expectation some partners feel to have the perfect Christmas.”
“TV, magazines and social media pumps out images of happy families, in perfect houses, with piles of beautifully wrapped gifts. We are shown endless recipes for perfect entertaining, a whole host of ideas for decorating the perfect house, not to mention article upon article about party dress diets and weight loss tips in the run up to the big day. The pressure can feel relentless,” she says.
Ruth describes one couple working with LoveRelations, for whom Christmas “perfectionism” was driving them further apart. “Caroline has often suffered with low self-esteem during the eight year marriage,” she says. “The couple has struggled with the disparity between Caroline’s modest earnings and her much higher earning husband, Mike’s salary. In a recent session, Caroline admitted that she was dreading December, with its expectations that she should lose weight, fit into a party dress, cook a perfect Christmas dinner and above all, radiate joy and happiness.”
“Meanwhile, her husband was seething with unexpressed rage at the amount of money, from the joint account, her believed his wife was “wasting” on gifts for her nieces and nephews. He was full of resentment at having to pay for what he saw as unnecessary decorations for the house.”
Ruth says that this level of animosity between a couple is not uncommon, in the run up to Christmas. “Women feel the pressure perhaps more than men, to produce this wonderful Christmas. Many feel an unreasonable level of expectation to provide wonderful food, to be a gracious hostess in a beautiful home. All of this can really damage someone’s already shaky self-esteem.”
Paradoxically, Christmas is a time when any shadow behaviour – addictions, affairs, even family tensions and in-fighting – is thrown sharply into relief. “It’s often during the extended holiday period that couples really start to see the other’s excessive drinking, or food addiction, for example. Any partner who compulsively uses work, will be restless and irritable during the Christmas period.”
Ruth advises that all couples, whether in couples therapy or not, should regard Christmas, as a “flashpoint” in the relationship. “I would encourage everyone to talk to their partner and try and agree budgets for presents, entertaining, and going out, for example. I would also encourage anyone who is feeling the festive pressure, to share this with their partner – ask for help, ask for permission not to have to produce a six course lunch, if this is a stressor.”
She says: “Be mindful too, that areas of our lives that our painful – whether it’s divorce, childlessness, difficulties with families – can be unfortunately highlighted in the projected joy and happiness that is the image of Christmas.”
“I recommend, whether in individual therapy or in couples therapy, that clients take time to look at which areas of their lives are made worse by the “fantasy” Christmas. One couple we work with at LoveRelations, is struggling with infertility. For them, Christmas – with its images of happy children and loving families – brings up all their shame and isolation.”
Ruth says: “We encourage both partners to explore all the difficult thoughts and feelings which come up for them around Christmas. In making their difficulty as conscious as possible, they are able to step aside from the pressures of the perfect Christmas and just enjoy the bits they can. The need to pretend that everything is OK has shifted.”
“There’s something in this for everyone,” she says. “If we are able to see and admit that we are struggling in the face of unrealistic expectations, then we can step aside from this Christmas perfectionism. Perfectionism and happiness rarely co-exist.