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Beware of the Christmas couples crisis that can torpedo your marriage

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...

The pressure to be perfect can and will ruin your relationship if you let it

Yes the holidays are joyous, spiritual, love affirming, chockfull of perfect, It’s a Wonderful Life moments… at least on screen. The reality: Attempting to achieve the perfection we imagine everyone else is experiencing can create so much pressure it’s no wonder ‘Santa Season’ is one of the two peak times of the year for relationships to crash and burn. (The other is around Valentine’s Day.)

Many people go into a Christmas-induced tailspin, thinking, ‘Why isn’t my life the way I thought it would be at this stage? Why don’t I feel happy? What’s wrong?’ To find an answer, they often pin the blame on their mate. Chaos can follow.

More: 9 Questions you should ask before you get married

But here's how you can get through the holidays without taking an impulsive action you might regret.

Soul search

Before talking to your mate (and certainly before screaming at your mate), do some honest and painful reflection. Are your feelings of angst and dissatisfaction due to long-simmering, unsolvable problems in the relationship? Or are they due to voids in your life that only you can fill?

My patient Denise (all names are changed) said late November last year, “I’ve been seeing all the holiday decorations going up and feeling such emptiness in the pit of my stomach. Usually I look forward to holiday time with Sam but this year I’m not looking forward to spending Christmas together. I keep picking fights. Maybe I want him to leave.”

As we spoke, the 44-year-old came to see that lately she’d been feeling life’s opportunities were passing her by, she wasn’t a child anymore who couldn’t wait for Christmas morning to unwrap all her presents. She felt old and jaded and at a loss on how to change things for the better, so it seemed easiest to pin the cause for her pain on her husband of 15 years.

More: 9 Gifts for your spouse that look expensive but aren't

Easiest but not the true cause. When she was young Denise had dreamt of being an artist but put those dreams aside to forge an income-producing career in retail. Now, she realized, "I need to go back to art school. It's not too late."

This Christmas she and her husband are celebrating Denise’s painting being selected for a neighborhood art gallery show.

Have this conversation

If indeed there are issues in the marriage that are troubling you, It is essential to talk to your mate, not squelch the dissatisfaction until it erupts in an explosion of verbal venom.

To that end, the conversation should not be in blaming mode: “It’s your fault I’m not happy” but an honest, open exploration of feelings.

Here is how 30-year-old Sandy approached a potentially difficult conversation with Phil, her husband of two years: “Honey, lately I’m feeling that we are on different paths. I like being home in the evening; you seem to prefer being out at parties and all kinds of functions. Let’s talk things through before we start drifting apart.”

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

It turned out that Phil felt he’d be missing out if he didn’t attend every holiday-oriented opportunity that came his way. His childhood Christmases were spent running from one extended family member’s house to another. Sandy wasn’t a ‘party person’ and much preferred quiet times by home and hearth.

The two compromised — Sandy agreed to accompany Phil to a party a week, he could go to another event or two on his own, and the rest of the week they would spend together at home.

Set goals together for 2016

‘Tis the season to set individual resolutions. Why not set goals as a couple for the New Year as well? What areas of your lives are working well and what areas need some attention?

Beth and Sam have been following this ritual for five of the seven years they’ve been married. Beth, 33, says, “Setting resolutions together helps us not take the relationship for granted.”

Perhaps the two of you are ready to begin saving to buy a house, or perhaps you want your husband to stop ‘joking’ about your cooking skills (or lack thereof) and he wants you to stop interrupting him when he tells a story. Schedule check-ins every quarter to see how these resolutions are going.

Remember, marriage takes effort every season but especially at the time of year when there is such pressure to be jolly!

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