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How to avoid the very worst yet most common holiday fights

Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, is a clinical therapist, and the author of three books, among them, Love Lessons from Bad Breakups and The Complete Marriage Counsler. She gives love advice on programs including Today and HuffPost Live, conduct...

'Tis the season to fight like cats and dogs — unless you try these couple-tested tactics

Holidays are supposed to be perfect, blissful, full of sentiments like “How lucky I am to have you in my life” and “How wonderful to be one of those rare couples that aren’t at each other’s throats over the holidays.”

Supposed to be. But here are the potential quagmires and how to sidestep them.

1. On the outs over in-laws

Probably the number one cause of dissension that befalls married couples as the winter season nears is, “Whose house should we go to for the holiday?”

“Most of the year my husband and I are like the proverbial two peas in a pod. Come the fall we start having our annual blowup,” says Debra. The 26-year-old New Yorker, married four years, explains, “Both sets of parents live out of state and Tim and I each want to spend Christmas in our childhood homes. We mostly wind up alternating — one year, his parents; the next year, mine — but the ‘loser’ never gives in gracefully!”

More: Use this flowchart to decided where to go for the holidays

When the one who gives in does it grudgingly and the one who gets his or her way gloats, the real loser is the partnership. Happy marriages are those where each person truly cares about the other’s happiness and is open to the art of making concessions — i.e., “I so appreciate that you are going to my family this year — I will do all the cooking and cleaning for a week when we get home as a thank you.”

The suggestion I made to Debra and Tim is one they have embraced for this season — to start their own holiday tradition and invite both sets of parents to come visit. Debra says happily, “Tim and I finally feel like grownups.”

2. The spendthrift versus the cheapskate

A survey sponsored by McGraw-Hill Federal Credit Union discovered that less than 25 percent of couples are immune to the plague known as fighting over holiday spending. About half surveyed said they used some kind of deception to hide purchases, such as opening a secret charge account.

Sara, 34, and married six years, says, “Paul was always on me that I am over the top when it comes to gifts. I’d get furious at him for being so afraid to open his wallet!”

More: 7 Common couples' fights that are completely normal

The best solution: Have a discussion of what the holidays mean to each of you. In Sara’s case it takes her back to childhood and how excited she was to discover the bounty waiting for her under the Christmas tree. When Paul was 10, his father lost his job a month before Christmas, so holidays became something to celebrate with great restraint.

Once you understand where each person is coming from, set a holiday spending budget for each of you and the type of gifts these allowances will be geared toward purchasing. Be specific about your expectations and wishes.

Sara says, “I made it clear I wanted an item of jewelry — it didn’t need to be Tiffany but something nice. Paul bought a lovely bracelet. He told me he wanted us to have a night away and I booked us into a lovely bed and breakfast. The best gift, though, is we’re no longer fighting about gift-giving!”

3. One celebrates, the other doesn’t

Lynn says, “I love all the traditions — getting the tree, decorating it, singing carols. Ben is like Grinch in the corner sighing dramatically, 'Can’t wait till January.'" Married 10 years, she explains, “His attitude sucks the joy out of the season for me! Which is exactly what I tell him and then we fight.”

The best fix here is for each of you to take turns explaining to the other why you feel the way you do. Growing up, Lynn’s family didn’t celebrate the holidays and she always felt like she missed out on all the fun. Ted was so sick of the way his parents ‘bought into the merchandising of Christmas’ that as an adult he craved keeping things simple.

More: Here's how much sex you need to have to stay happy

Listen to your spouse but don’t try to change his mind. Empathy is always the gateway to a true compromise. Lynn started using her ear buds when she listened to holiday music and Ted hung up mistletoe so he could win some kisses. They also began hosting a holiday party for their friends since socializing was something they both enjoyed.

Finding a middle ground is best accomplished by open and frequent communication.

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