Does this sound familiar? His or her mother is coming for the holidays, and all you hear in the weeks leading up to the visit is, “We need to start cleaning up before my mom gets here.”
For one couple I know, “John” and “Lisa,” this is an annual ritual, and hardly a festive one. John’s mother has high expectations for how a household should be run, and his wife doesn’t share them, which causes John a lot of stress. Lisa resents the insinuation that she’s a poor housekeeper. In her opinion, a house should be clean but can still look like people actually live there.
For many couples, this is not necessarily a problem related to visiting relatives, they—and the stress of the holidays—can exacerbate it. Why? If one partner grew up with parents who placed a high value on orderliness, they may worry they’re not living up to their expectations and fear being judged. For the other partner it can be even worse: Lisa, whose own parents are more laid-back-about housekeeping, feels she’s being accused of downright slovenliness.
Worst of all, things come to a head at the holidays mostly because of household conflicts that go unaddressed throughout the year, building toward a full-blown argument at the worst possible time. When asked to spend some time getting the house ready for John’s mother, Lisa is ready with a counter-offensive. “What about all those tool boxes scattered in the garage that you never seem to use?” she demands to know. It doesn’t take long for the conversation to become an angry tit-for-tat: He points to the laundry room, where clothes tend to pile so high it’s hard to distinguish between what’s dirty and clean. In truth, both had some bad habits that allowedclutter to accumulate or messy areas to become overwhelming. However, it’s always easier to see someone else’s mess than your own, which is how fights over housework often get started.
The good news is that there are some easy fixes that can reduce the stress, even this time of year. If you and your partner have similar arguments, here are a few tips to try:
- Communicate early and often when a part of the home feels out of control. For Lisa, what looked to her like junk in the garage got under her skin, but her non-confrontational nature made it difficult to express that. For John, the clothes on the laundry room floor bothered him, but since laundry was Lisa’s domain, he was reluctant to complain. Yet the issues kept creeping up anyway. John would gripe about never being able to find a clean pair of socks. Lisa would suggest that straightening the garage would be easier if she could just dump half of John’s stuff on the curb. Instead, each of them needed to come out and say, in a non-confrontational way, what bothered them. The best way to guarantee your gripes will remain unanswered is never to air them in the first place.
- Work on troublesome household chores together. Sorting and folding laundry together can be a pleasant-enough chore done together while watching a favorite TV show in the evening, while, tackling the garage together actually helped this couple feel closer. Approached this way, chores were no longer “his” and “hers” but a more neutral “theirs.”
- If you have kids, involve them. At first Lisa balked at having the kids straighten the playroom, probably because her parents rarely held her accountable for her own childhood messes. But once they tasked the children with picking up after themselves in simple ways—clothes in the hamper, toys in the toy chests, and so forth—she felt a lot better about having extra pairs of hands. She also felt good about teaching her kids good habits she’d never really learned herself while growing up.
Best of all, once John’s mother arrived for the holidays, Lisa felt less like she’d been working to please a picky guest than someone who’d joined with her husband to make their house more functional and pleasant to live in year-round.
The holidays should be a festive time of joy and togetherness, not a source of tension between you and your partner. If you find yourselves rehashing the same holiday squabbles each year, consider seeking the help of a relationship counselor to get it worked out once and for all. The Orange County Relationship Center counselors look forward to connecting with you.