Common Issues Couples Experience Around the Holidays—and How to Handle Each

Where to celebrate, how to deal with family drama, and the ground rules for giving gifts you’ll both love.

Anthea Levi

November 20, 2017

It may be the most wonderful time of the year. But the holiday season actually takes a toll on most of us—and our love lives aren’t immune to the stress. “The holidays can bring up intense emotionsfor many people,” explains Rachel Needle, PsyD, psychologist at the Center for Marital and Sexual Health of South Florida.

While the stress you’re already dealing with in your day-to-day life can affect your bond with your partner, you also have to contend with the stress that arises when you navigate the season as a twosome. Maybe you didn’t hit it off with your partner’s family, yet he wants you to spend the holidays at their dinner table. Or you can’t agree when it comes to how much to spend on presents for each other.

RELATED: 10 Holiday Headache Triggers

To help you get the through the season with your relationship unscathed, borrow these expert tips concerning three of the trickiest holiday couple challenges.

You can’t agree on where to celebrate

Deciding where to spend the holidays is a huge issue for even the tightest couples, says Needle. “When family members live far apart, this can become an even bigger challenge,” she adds.

There are a few ways to work out which family you’ll ultimately feast with. “One idea is to rotate the holiday you spend with each of your families each year,” says Needle. In other words, go to his family home for the December holidays, then head to yours during spring break. Next year, switch it around. It’s all about compromise.

Another option: Start your own tradition by inviting both your families to your home for a celebration. Or take off on a couples road trip or vacation. With this approach, you’re putting your relationship first, and neither family is getting short shrift.

No matter what you decide, Needle advises not putting off this conversation. The more time you have to work out a plan that you both feel is fair, the better it’ll be for your connection—and the fewer resentments the other person will have if they feel like they’ve been forced into going along with their partner’s plan.

RELATED: 5 Things Every Couple Needs to Do Before They Get Married

Your partner doesn’t get along with your family (or vice versa)

When your spouse and your extended family don’t see eye to eye, you can feel like you’re being pulled in two directions. The key to making it a relatively happy holiday is to tackle this situation as teammates.

If your family and your partner rub each other the wrong way because they disagree on politics, for example, vow ahead of time that neither of you will drift into political conversations or take the bait and argue about an issue. Come up with topics that everyone should be able to weigh in on without conflict—like how adorable the newest baby in the family is or the promotion you’re up for. Same goes for you if you’re not exactly besties with your partner’s family.

When you’re at his family home or he’s with your clan, have frequent check-ins so you know you have each other’s backs. “Commit to being each other’s emotional support systems during this time,” says Marissa Nelson, a Washington, DC–based relationship therapist. “The occasional hug if your partner looks stressed or a How can I help you babe? timeout goes a long way toward tackling family time as a team.” You may never convince your family to fall in love with your spouse, but if you can get through the season without conflict, that’s a victory.

RELATED: 9 Products to Transform Your Bedroom Into a Sexy Sanctuary

A word of caution: Try not to knock back too much booze during the festivities. Alcohol loosens inhibitions and ignites emotions, and a buzz can make you more likely to get vocal or create unnecessary drama, warns Nelson. Nothing jolly about that.

You’re not on the same page when it comes to gift giving

Maybe your idea of the ultimate holiday gift is to fork over a wad of cash for an item you know your partner will love. But his perfect present for you might be something a lot less costly, or maybe it’s an experience or gift card rather than a physical item. Society makes us think the holidays are all about joy, love, and the exchanging of thoughtful gifts, and for some they might be. But gift disappointment is often the reality.

People tend to have high expectations for their partners around gift giving, says Needle, so it’s important to communicate ahead of time and discuss what you actually want or need. “Rather than hoping they can read your mind, setting them up for failure and then harboring resentment towards them, verbalize what you want,” she suggests.

WATCH THE VIDEO: 5 Ways to Ease Holiday Stress in 5 Minutes or Less

Signs You’re Headed for a Holiday Meltdown


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Seasonal stress

Let’s face it. Some holiday-related stress is to be expected. Turkeys will be burned. Flights will be canceled. How you react to it determines how the holiday will be remembered. And the pressure hits some people harder than others.

So how can you become one of those people who chuckles at adversity—silly snowstorm!—instead of crying into your eggnog? Here are nine signs you could be headed for a holiday meltdown, and how to stop the implosion before it happens.


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You have super-high expectations

If you tend to feel stress year-round because you’re not meeting the expectations you’ve set for yourself, the holidays are likely to amplify these feelings. Sometimes expectations are so unrealistic they simply can’t be fulfilled.

What you should do: Focus on what is realistic—not ideal—or you risk facing major disappointment when things don’t go as planned. Perfectionists must remember that preparing for a holiday is not a one-person task; reaching out to a support system to delegate tasks can really lighten the load.


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You tend to overbook

Chances are, the holiday invitations are hitting your inbox and mailbox. Between the office party, family commitments, and one-day sales, you can be stretched—too thin. Packing your calendar with obligations means sacrificing time usually spent on other activities. Sleep and exercise—important stress relievers—could be the first to go.

What you should do: Get ready to say no to some things. Start to prioritize chores, decline some invitations, and schedule time to do holiday activities you enjoy, instead of just those you feel you have to do.


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You have family friction

If you have overbearing parents or passive-aggressive siblings, the holidays can amplify trouble in already strained relationships. Tension can escalate, especially if you are spending longer periods of time with family than you are used to or staying with or hosting family members.

What you should do: The best thing you can do? Manage your expectations. Be sure to take time for yourself, even if you are hosting visitors.


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You cut back on sleep to get everything done

You’re up at the crack of dawn to rush to the best sales and then stay up late to wrap gifts or clink glasses at parties. But the holidays shouldn’t mean kissing your good night’s sleep good-bye.

What you should do: Skimping on sleep can leave you grumpy and stressed, throw off your diet, and increase your risk of colds, depression, and car accidents. Make a good night’s sleep a priority.


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You tend to drink more when stressed

Sometimes a glass of red wine is the perfect antidote to a long, stressful day, but excessive drinking can spell trouble. Because alcohol is a depressant, overindulging could make you more emotional, leaving you more open to a major meltdown.

What you should do: Experts recommended limiting your alcohol intake to one or two drinks a day. Sure, that can be tough when faced with a mandatory office party, but if you can’t stick to your limit, do yourself a favor by ducking out of the party early.


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Your clothes are feeling tight already

Before you know it, the leftover turkey sandwiches, Christmas sugar cookies, and afterwork cocktails can really add up. Studies have shown that many people gain a couple of pounds over the holidays and can become part of a vicious cycle: Holiday eating is stressing you out and the holiday stress is making you eat.

What you should do: Enjoy holiday meals guilt-free by planning ahead for the splurge. That way you can indulge smartly without derailing your diet.


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You’re strapped for cash

If a change in your work life or finances is a dark cloud hanging on the holiday horizon, you’re not alone. Even before the economy bottomed out, Americans said financial pressures caused holiday stress.

What you should do: Although it’s tough, now is the time of year to ask for help if you need it. From meals to toys for your kids, religious groups and other charitable organizations are there to help you.


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You’re struggling with depression or another health problem.

The holidays can be particularly trying for people with depression and other mental illnesses. Feeling depressed at this time of year “can be particularly hard because we’re expected to be happy,” says Stephanie S. Smith, PsyD, psychologist at Front Range Psychological Associates.

What you should do: Being open and honest about your emotions ahead of time will take some of the pressure off of staying cheery. Talk with family members before the holidays and decide which traditions work best for you.


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You’re married to tradition

Traditions are one of the sweetest parts of the holidays. But, sorry—sometimes plans change.

What you should do: Treasure your traditions, but be open to new ones. Sometimes the holidays don’t look exactly as we remember them or how we think they should look—or taste. Take a look at how your life has changed in the past year. Be flexible and willing to compromise—holidays are about more than what you eat and where you eat it, or about a gift’s price point.

11 Tips for Avoiding Holiday Depression Triggers

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Coping with depression

It’s a myth that suicide is more common around the holidays (springtime is actually the peak). But holiday cheer isn’t a given either.

High expectations, money woes, and other holiday hazards can spell trouble for anyone, but especially those prone to depression.

With a bit of foresight and planning, however, holidays can leave you feeling up, not down. Follow these tips for a successful holiday.


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Plan ahead

Spend some time figuring out how to take care of yourself during this time, says John Sharp, MD, a psychiatrist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston.

Come up with restorative routines, such as reading a book or napping, and write them on a calendar. In between shopping and baking, make sure these routines don’t fall by the wayside.

“Figure out what basics are going to help you get through the holidays and make them a priority,” Dr. Sharp says.


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Avoid family conflict

There are a couple ways to save your sanity at family gatherings, says Jeffrey Greeson, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, in Durham, N.C.

If you know there are going to be conflicts, prepare a neutral response, such as, “Let’s talk about that another time,” or, “I can see how you would feel that way.”

Then escape to the restroom, offer to help in the kitchen, or go hang out with the kids. And it always helps to call a good friend if you need a sympathetic ear.


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Forget perfection

Debbie Thurman, a 57-year-old from Monroe, Va., suffered from depression for years, and the holidays made it worse. From decorating to finding the perfect gifts, she felt overwhelmed.

At a support group’s suggestion, she listed the simple things that really made her family happy, and she began traditions that helped the less fortunate.

“When you take your eyes off of yourself and focus on those who have far less than you do, you can’t be depressed,” she says. “I learned to be grateful for the blessings I had, and I had a lot.”


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Learn to grieve

If you are mourning a loved one, it’s a good time to talk about your feelings or reach out to support groups.

“There’s no one right way to feel,” says Deborah Jonsson, public relations manager at Avow Hospice, in Collier County, Fla. It’s not uncommon to feel angry at the person for leaving you alone or feeling guilty if you do enjoy yourself during the holidays.

“All feelings are a sign that you’re human and reflect where you are in your healing process,” Jonsson says.


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Schedule some sleep

Holiday activities easily can interfere with your sleep schedule. But studies have shown there is a link between sleep loss and depression, so you need to be extra careful about cutting back on sleep to get everything done.

Try to get to bed and wake up at approximately the same time every day; avoid large meals and physical activity such as dancing within a few hours of bedtime; and make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary, free from TV or other distractions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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Get help

When Thurman’s children were young, she and her husband lived far away from their extended family. When she needed support during “black bouts of depression,” she leaned on close friends.

She and her husband had two couples in particular that helped them through difficult times. “These friends were godsends,” she says.

“I credit them with quite possibly helping to save my life,” she says. “I also drew encouragement from a small support group of women who were dealing with depression.”


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Prioritize workouts

Exercise—one of the first activities to get lost in the holiday shuffle—should be placed high on your to-do list.

“The more stress we are under, the less time we feel like we have, and the more irritated our mood, the more we need to continue exercising,” Greeson says. “Get out and do something; it helps use those calories from rich, fatty, sugary holiday foods.”

Exercise has been shown to improve mood. Taking a brisk walk for 35 minutes five days a week (or 60 minutes three times a week) can do the trick.


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Consider your light exposure

If you are consistently tired, irritable, and down at this time of year, it may not be due to the holidays as much as to the lack of exposure to the sun, Dr. Sharp says.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, can be treated by long walks during daylight hours or exposure to a light box for about 30 minutes a day.

If you think you may be suffering from SAD, talk to your doctor about treatment options.


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Focus on what matters

The holidays shouldn’t be all about the presents, but financial woes can make it easy to lose sight of that.

Rein in the stress (and cost) by organizing a gift exchange with friends or family. You can also bake your gifts, or create traditions such as having a large potluck meal followed by a walk outside or board games by the fire.

“I think saying no is more of a relief instead of stretching and spending more than you have and still not doing enough,” Dr. Sharp says.


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Don’t binge on food or alcohol

For some, overindulgence is as much of a holiday tradition as opening gifts. Carmen Harra, PhD, an author and psychologist in Hollywood, Fla., recommends more restraint.

“Have one piece of pie, not three,” she says. “Apart from being unhealthy for your body, you will feel guilty afterward.”

Harra recommends preparing for holiday dinners by eating healthy meals the week prior. And don’t use alcohol to deal with holiday depression. Alcohol can intensify your emotions and leave you feeling worse when it wears off.


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Cut back on commitments

If you feel like you just can’t get through one more holiday gathering, it’s OK to sit them out.

“One of the things about holiday stress we forget is that Thanksgiving and Christmas are both 24 hours and that’s it,” says Pauline Wallin, PhD, an author and clinical psychologist in Camp Hill, Penn.

Wallin recommends figuring out what you need to get through those 24 hours, such as volunteering, going on vacation, or visiting a shelter or someone who is alone. Focusing on others can help alleviate depression.

Alzheimer’s Is Accelerating Across the U.S. AARP, November 17, 2017

The Alzheimer’s Association says, “Someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s dementia every 66 seconds.”

Degenerative brain disease and dementia are on the rise across all 50 U.S. states, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. As the rate of Alzheimer’s continues to escalate, more financial stress will be placed on health care programs. The trend will also increase the need for caregivers nationwide.

An estimated 5.5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The statistics are broken down by age and ethnicity and are listed as follows on their site.

  • One in 10 people age 65 and older (10 percent) has Alzheimer’s dementia.
  • Almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women.
  • African Americans are about twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementia as whites.
  • Hispanics are about one and one-half times as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementia as whites.

Another startling figure exposed by the Alzheimer’s Association (AA) is that “Someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s dementia every 66 seconds.”

The state with the highest rate of Alzheimer’s is Alaska. Cases of the disease are projected to increase from 7,100 in 2017 to 11,000 in 2025 — an increase of 54.9 percent, reports AA.

Why are rates so high there? It’s most likely due to the projected growth of Alaska’s elderly population. The older population is expected to increase to 35.6 percent by 2025; an estimated 70,900 to 110,000 people will be 65 and over.

Below is a list of the 10 states that are predicted to have the highest rate increases of Alzheimer’s by 2025.

1. Alaska

Alzheimer’s Increase, 2017-2025: 54.9 percent

Alaska may have the highest rate of Alzheimer’s, but it also has the lowest mortality rate from the disease. For Alaska, the rate is 9.2 deaths per 100,000 people. The U.S. rate is 29 deaths per 100,000, which is more than triple the mortality projected for Alaska.

2. Arizona

Alzheimer’s Increase, 2017-2025: 53.8 percent

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alzheimer’s disease was the eighth-leading cause of death in Arizona. Arizona’s older population, one of the largest of all states, is estimated to grow by approximately 29.1 percent by 2025.

3. Nevada

Alzheimer’s Increase, 2017-2025: 48.8 percent

The expected increase in the older population in Nevada is 32.3 percent, which is a much higher rate than the anticipated growth of the entire country.

4. Vermont

Alzheimer’s Increase, 2017-2025: 41.7 percent

Vermont’s older residents encompass 7.2 percent of Vermont’s population, the sixth highest among all states. The sharp increase in Alzheimer’s in Vermont is due to the large portion of people who are 75 and over.

5. Utah

Alzheimer’s Increase, 2017-2025: 40.0 percent

It’s estimated that older residents are just 10.3 percent of the population, but are expected to increase to 33 percent by 2025.

6. New Mexico

Alzheimer’s Increase, 2017-2025: 39.5 percent

Although lower than the national average, the estimated increase in New Mexico’s older population is 24.6 percent.

7. South Carolina

Alzheimer’s Increase, 2017-2025: 39.5 percent

The death rate from Alzheimer’s in South Carolina is the eighth highest in the U.S. — 40.1 deaths among every 100,000 people. Medicaid cost for Alzheimer’s patients in South Carolina reached $544 million in 2017 and is estimated to climb to $793 million by 2025.

8. Florida

Alzheimer’s Increase, 2017-2025: 38.5 percent

Florida’s older population is above average. Approximately 1 in 5 residents are 65 and older and the older population is expected to grow by 25 percent by 2025.

9. Wyoming

Alzheimer’s Increase, 2017-2025: 38.3 percent

The older population will grow from 83,000 to an estimated 116,800 in 2025.

10. Idaho

Alzheimer’s Increase, 2017-2025: 37.5 percent



Funerals: How to make smart decisions and arrangements

Nonprofit organizations offer price surveys of local funeral homes and guidance in planning a funeral.

None of us likes talking about death. Or funerals. But at some point you’re going to shuffle off this mortal coil and need a funeral. You can make things easier on your family and get the send-off you want by planning your own. To some, this feels like creepy, death-obsessed prepping. That’s probably why, according to a 2017 survey by the National Funeral Director’s Association, just 21 percent of Americans have talked with a loved one about their funeral. You’re also likely to plan a funeral for a family member at some point, so you need to know how to make smart decisions. Here are some tips to help you.

Learn what’s involved.

To plan a funeral, you need to know what happens at one. There are three general components: preparing the corpse, holding the ceremony and handling the interment. There are a range of options for each. Embalming or cremation? A full service at a funeral home, a graveside one or a DIY ceremony? Who will be there? A viewing of the body or not?  Burial in the ground or in a tomb, or ashes scattered someplace meaningful? You can get funeral planning checklists online to help you know what decisions you’ll need to make.

Plan in advance, but don’t pay in advance

Funeral homes sell plans that promise better rates if you buy a package now, years before you die. Don’t do it, says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a death-care industry watchdog group. “You can plan a funeral ahead of time without prepaying,” he says. “Planning is not the same thing as prepaying.” The drawback to prepaying, Slocum says, is you can lose your money in cancellation fees if you change plans or move away from the state where you bought the plan. “A much better approach to save money is to comparison shop at the time of death,” Slocum says. The one exception is if you’re facing a Medicaid drawdown. In that case, a prepaid funeral can be a smart move.

Find out what the average costs are.

The FCA has links on its site to itemized lists of funeral costs, by state. Check it out so you have an idea of what you can expect to pay in your area for everything from a casket to the cost of that final hearse ride to the cemetery.

Shop around.

With the average funeral costing between $7,000 and $10,000, you need to treat this like any other large purchase. You wouldn’t buy a car from the first dealership you walked into. So don’t buy a funeral without checking with more than one funeral home. You can pay thousands less just by going a few miles down the road. Call several funeral homes and get quotes. Some funeral homes are reluctant to reveal prices, but if they resist, insist. The Federal Trade Commission requires them to quote prices over the phone or in person. They are not required to give prices online or by email. You can get some pricing info online at funeral comparison sites and the interestingly named Both offer itemized lists of goods and services available at many funeral homes around the country.

Be sure you know exactly what’s in a package deal.

Funeral homes sell packages of goods and services, but sometimes there’s more wrapped into them than you want. Sometimes they don’t have all the goods and services you want. For example, a gravestone and cemetery plot may not be included in a package. Ask for an itemized list upfront, with prices for each service or item.

Buy only what you want.

You don’t have to buy a package. You can unbundle them and buy goods and services individually and combine them into the funeral you want. You don’t have to buy everything from the funeral home, either. You may save money by buying flowers, an urn or grave site elsewhere. You can even buy a casket somewhere else. The average cost of one bought from a funeral home is $2,400. Amazon will deliver a $740 casket with free shipping for Prime members. Really.

Consider joining a memorial society.

These nonprofit organizations offer price surveys of local funeral homes and guidance in planning a funeral. Many of them negotiate discounts at local funeral homes for members. They’re like a buyers club for funerals. One-time membership fees vary but generally cost less than $50. Check the FCA’s website for a state-by-state list of memorial societies to find one near you.

Talk it over and write it down.

Tell your loved ones what sort of funeral you’d like to have, and how much you want to spend. Be specific, but realize your loved ones may not be able to deliver on everything you want. “Funeral planning is not a dictation to your survivors,” Slocum says. “It’s a conversation you have with your kids (or other loved ones.) Make them part of the process.” You can make the burden of organizing your funeral greater by being too specific with your plans, Slocum says. Your family may not be able to pull off that jazz funeral you wanted, so don’t leave them feeling guilty because they didn’t fulfill your final wishes to a T.  Tell them it’s OK if plan B is a sax solo, graveside. You won’t be listening anyway