The holidays are over, it's chilly outside, and you might be starting to get a little stir-crazy—which does not always mean good things for your relationship. In fact, January is the most popular time of year for Americans to file for divorce. Yikes! But don’t worry, you and your partner can get through this, and spring is right around the corner. If the January blues (or any month, really) are getting you down, we’ve got the expert advice you need to not only survive, but thrive and come out stronger than before. These therapists, relationship experts, and dating coaches have seen it all, and are here to help.
So what is it about January that makes relationships tough? Here’s a hint: It’s not just the cold. “Couples tend to have challenges during the winter season as a result of the three holiday F’s: Families, finances, and frustrations,” says Chris Armstrong, certified relationship coach and founder of Maze of Love. November and December bring with them two major holidays back-to-back, piling on all sorts of stress. Think about it: You’re spending more than usual on travel and gifts, as well as dealing with family dynamics, all while you weather difficult scheduling, complaints, and hard-to-handle relatives—which can really reach a boiling point by the time January rolls around. Says Armstrong, “Keep in mind that couples very rarely separate because of five weeks of holidays. There is usually mounting frustration already, with the holidays as a tipping point.”
Adds Carolyn Cole, LCPC, LMFT, NCC, “Many couples just want to get through the holiday season, then break up afterwards if that’s their intent, and the holidays can really intensify any feelings of dissatisfaction or frustration.” And don’t forget Seasonal Affective Disorder and pre-existing depression. “These can manifest during the winter months, and if one partner does not understand this, it can create rifts in the relationship as they see and react to their partner’s depressive behaviors.”
Addressing the challenges that January presents requires a combination of approaches, both those to deal with the stressors you know you’ll be facing and those to try and avoid those pitfalls as much as possible.
Here are some strategies to try in your own relationship that will help you get through the winter together.
Don’t Accept Stress and Pain as “Normal.”
“Too often, we accept family pain, financial struggles, anger towards and from spouses, etc. as normal,” says Armstrong. “But when we see it as normal, we accept it instead of addressing it, causing us to survive for a time but letting tension build until things boil over. Instead of saying ‘it is what it is,’ see the stressful aspects as challenges that are worth being dealt with.”
Don’t Go to Bed Angry.
You’ve heard this before, and it’s a good tip to keep in mind. “Going to bed angry doesn’t solve problems, it just delays addressing them,” Armstrong explains. “Continued delays cause feelings to build up and eventually explode come January.” Instead, commit to and follow through with a plan to never go to bed angry. “Even if you can’t solve the issue that night, agree to revisit it the next day, kiss each other goodnight, and embrace while falling asleep.”
Develop Silly Safe Words or Phrases.
It’s especially hard to deal with tense moments when you’ve got an audience of family members around. “If you’re in an awkward or uncomfortable situation, walk by your spouse and say ‘unicorn,’” suggests Armstrong. “This will let your partner know there’s a moment you want to talk about (and laugh about!) later.” A safe word enables you to create an opportunity for dialogue once you have some privacy, and can key your S.O. into a moment when you might need some help or back-up. So why a silly word? “It’s a great way to counter an otherwise hard or stressful climate!” says Armstrong.
Buy a Symbolic Present
Dealing with a stressful moment? Don’t brush it under the rug—acknowledge it! “Buy your partner a gift that’s a reminder of a moment they had that you acknowledged, or one you experienced together,” says Armstrong. “The point is to give the gift to your partner when they’re at a low point and need a reminder of your support, as well as a good laugh. It should be meaningful, but also humorous and obvious.” Think a rubber chicken to mark a Thanksgiving dinner run a-fowl (sorry, we had to!) or a pack of chocolate cigarettes in honor of that uncle who just insisted on smoking in the living room.
Create a “Things To Do” Jar
Don’t let the holiday season get in the way of date night. “Take turns writing down things you’d like to do as a couple, then put them into a jar,” says Cole. “Pull out a slip for a fun and spontaneous date night idea to break up the monotony and pressure.”
Talk About It
“If you notice something is off with your partner, start a conversation,” Cole advises. But don’t just ask what’s wrong. “Phrase it in a supportive and constructive way. Try something like, ‘You don’t seem like yourself and I’m worried about you. Is everything okay?’”
Have Regular Check-Ins
Whether it’s the holiday season or a random Tuesday night, don’t forget to check in with your partner to see how your relationship is doing. “Talk about what is going well, what needs improvement, and what you can each do to make things easier for one another,” says Cole. “Ask what you can do to help your partner feel more loved.”
Of course, the best way to deal with a tough season is to be ready for it in advance. “Focus on the root causes and tackle them long before the holidays arrive,” says Armstrong. “Take some time to review your finances and set a reasonable and realistic budget for holiday spending. Start saving early so you’re not blindsided by your credit card bill.” Worried about the potential for conflict with your family during Thanksgiving dinner or on Christmas morning? “Have an open conversation about why you’re anxious about an upcoming gathering, and determine ways you can both lessen the stress of the trip. Talk about it a few months early and have several follow-up conversations so you can address concerns in a more lighthearted way, all while reinforcing how you’ll get through it together.”
Learn from Last Year
There’s more to it than just surviving this year—you’ve got to do it again next year, too. “Discuss what went well, as well as what can go better next time,” Cole says. “Would it help to plan a relaxing activity (like a quick getaway somewhere warm) or to schedule weekly date nights so you can share some quality time?” And think about what you might need from your partner that you may not have gotten this time around. “Talk about ways you can support one another, and start a plan for next year so you are set up for success.”