Last year I read an article about a Christmas tree that a big UK retailer was stocking for the first time. It was a half real and half fake Christmas tree! The idea behind it was to reduce arguments between couples who can't agree on what type of tree they should have or how to decorate it.
The pictures of said tree, however, looked awful. One side was a real tree with pine needles and wonky branches covered with miminal one-colour decorations, and the other was fake, uniform and overloaded with tinsel and all kinds of mismatching baubles and bits.
It was an interesting picture to me of how not to resolve differences in a relationship. Both people want their own way and the result is a solution that won't actually please either person as they both have to look at half a tree they hate. No one wins.
Christmas is definitely one of those times when a couple's differences can come to the surface and in many cases can lead to rows, upsets and stalemates. But in this season of goodwill, peace and love where we remember the miraculous birth of our Lord – how can we make those differences work for us rather than against us, so that we (and our friends and families) can find harmony not friction? Here are some suggestions:
1. Voice your expectations and make agreements
You probably have some thoughts and ideas about what you want this Christmas to be like. How many of these have you shared with your partner? The danger sometimes is that we have unspoken expectations or we assume our husband or wife should just know what we want or need. But sadly, mind reading is not a superpower that many (or any) of us have!
Many relationship misunderstandings come from unvoiced expectations. So, why not take some time to express to each other your hopes, fears and dreams for Christmas and the holidays? Try to come to some agreements together. These can be renegotiated as you go along but it really helps to know what is in each other's hearts and minds. That way, you are more likely to create the Christmas that you both long for.
2. Focus on what's important
What is the most important thing about Christmas for you both? It can help to sit down and discuss this together. When you look back at Christmas 2016, what do you want it to have been about? If you can decide on the answer together you can then work on making sure that what you value stays at the centre of all your activities and decisions. Knowing what is important to you both can help you to prioritise and work out what or who to say "yes" or "no" to.
3. Create your traditions together
We all come into marriage or a relationship with different experiences, traditions and preferences, and these can be magnified at Christmas. We often see the way that our family did things as "normal" and it can be hard when our husband or wife's family does something completely different. When do you open the presents? When do you eat the main meal? When do you go to church? Who do you spend the day with? How do you serve others?
The great thing about forming a new family unit or couple relationship is that you can decide your own traditions. What are the good things that you would like to hold on to from your past and what new things would you like to create together?
4. Find 'us' solutions
If you are open to it and are prepared to be creative, you can find 'us' solutions to most problems or differences. Put aside your own 'way' for one moment and then brainstorm solutions until you find one that might work for both of you. One that you would both be happy with even if it isn't your ideal.
One friend of mine has completely different ideas about Christmas trees to her husband. She would like the real half of the tree I mentioned earlier and he the fake side. But they won't be rushing out to by a 50/50 tree. They have found a solution that works for them. He decorates a fake tree with the children that goes in the kitchen and they are allowed to put as much tinsel on it as they like. She, meanwhile, is in charge of the real tree that goes in their front room. This she decorates on her own with single-coloured decorations, white lights and no tinsel in sight! They are both happy with this arrangement and it is a tradition that has been going for more than two decades.
Whether it is agreeing a budget, decorating the house, choosing presents, or finding opportunities to serve – pray, get creative and find a solution that suits you both. It can be done.
5. Form a united front
Whether it is tricky relatives, demanding children, too many requests to help at church or temptations in any form – create a united front. Decide your boundaries or responses together and stick to them. Back each other up, support each other and encourage each other. It is harder for anyone to get between you if you are standing united and in agreement with each other.
6. Let go of perfectionism or being right
No one finds a control freak fun at Christmas and sometimes 'good enough' is the best result. Remember to focus on what is important to you and let some other things go.
Will anyone really notice if the bread sauce comes out of the packet or the stuffing wasn't homemade? Does it even really matter if it means you are less stressed and can focus more on the people present in front of you? What can you let go of this year? What could simplify things for you all? What can you delegate?
7. Build happy and fun memories
Christmas is a great time to build happy memories with our loved ones – memories that will help sustain us if and when difficult or tricky times come along. So, remember to have fun and to appreciate the loved ones that you are with (and those that are absent). Pause, reflect and take it all in. Turn off those distracting devices, put your 'out of office' on, switch off and tune in to your favourite people. Carve out time to be with your partner and to show them how much you love and appreciate them. Take time to play, giggle and hug. Create space to pray together and celebrate all that God has done and is doing in your lives. Make this a Christmas to remember.
Sarah Abell is a speaker, coach, author and the founder of nakedhedgehogs.com - her passion is helping people live, love and lead authentically. You can go to her website to take her free quiz and discover how authentic you really are!