iStock_000018646392Small“We don’t have an unscheduled minute between now and January 1.”

I overheard this in the grocery store a few days before Thanksgiving. It made my stomach clench. For one thing, it didn’t sound like the speaker was looking forward to the next five weeks. For another, I know as a marriage counselor observing families at the holidays for lo these many years, that families need more time, not less right now.

Why? They need relationship repair time.

In the next few weeks, relationship problems are likely to pop up. The holidays are full of landmines. Mom’s irritated because Dad doesn’t help with the kids’ presents. Dad doesn’t want to go to both sets of parents on Christmas Day. There’s the tug-of-war between the presents you want to buy now and the financial peace of mind you want to have in January.

Then there are always a few ghosts from the past who show up around this time of year. The mom who was Scrooge-like. The dad who drank too much. Loved ones who have passed on and are more keenly missed at this time of year. Coping with emotions from the past can leave you short-tempered in the present.

It can be challenging to clear the air at the easiest of times. But with no time, plus the pressure to keep your happy face on, it’s almost impossible.

Making the holidays work is like making anything else in your life work—you have to set your priorities. But somehow at the holidays our capacity for this kind of thinking fizzles. The high-speed express train leaves the station and there are no stops til Christmas.

Some of the elements that I think drive that train are:

  • The trend of over-parenting that makes us think the more we give our kids the better.
  • Being busy as a status symbol: it makes us feel important because it means a lot of people need us.
  • Being busy as a drug: it keeps us from feeling our feelings and thinking our thoughts.
  • Our need for self-esteem: Our families are on display at the holidays. People are always asking, “How were your holidays? What did you do?” If they weren’t all that great, how many people have the guts to say so? Our desires to have a successful family get magnified.

One way to stop the train is to ask yourself: Who am I doing this for?

Because a lot of times, when we think it through, we’re not really focused on the people who are most important to us. We’re living up to the expectations of some faceless “they” or abstract standard that really belongs to no one.

Or we’re trying to impress one of the more critical members of the family. After all, it’s not your kids who care about a picture-perfect table setting.

I hope you can jump off the holiday train for at least a moment and ask yourself some key questions:

  • What really matters to you?
  • How does your family have fun?
  • What brings you together?
  • Where can you compromise with your spouse so you don’t head into the holidays pre-loaded with tension?
  • How much can you do, and still be present and genuinely enjoy your family?

Because I’d be very surprised if your family doesn’t want YOU, relaxed, happy and loving, much more than one more gift or one more dish.