One of our favorite topics to explore in our relationship is expectations. Along the journey of our marriage we figured out that expecting things of the other and not verbalizing them leads to tension. About ten years ago our youngest son began to speak about a POA—a plan of action—on weekends or when we were on vacation. It has become the mantra in our relationship as we are planning holidays, vacations and even our individual agendas on a given day. A discussion about expectations early in the day can eliminate a lot of tension later. The holidays are a time when expectations can differ greatly and need to be discussed. We thought it might be good to help you look at holiday expectations by posing some questions for you to discuss with each other. If you can look at them honestly and truthfully you might have holidays that are less stressful and in January look back and realize that this year was different. Things were more peaceful and enjoyable.
- Who decides how the house will be decorated?
- Who decorates outside? Who inside?
In general Rita does the inside decorating because she likes to do that. Bob carries bins up from the basement, helps where needed and makes suggestions. He does set up with our grandchildren the Nativity set that belonged to his family. We cut a live tree together, something we did with our children. Bob puts the lights on the tree and we decorate it together. The outside decorations were Bob’s idea but we work together to put them up.
- Who sets the budget for shopping?
- Who decides who gets gifts?
- Who is responsible for most of the shopping?
- Who does the gift wrapping?
- What expectations do you have for gifts from/to each other?
At various times in our marriage we did different things. When Rita was at home she often did the shopping during the day after we had had some discussion about what we were going to buy. When Bob was teaching at the college he could get away during the day and do some of the shopping. When Rita worked and Bob was retired he did more of the shopping. In general, Rita thinks about the gifts further ahead than Bob. We have discussions and then shop, together or alone. Bob considers himself totally inept at buying gifts for women in the family and leaves that to Rita although he is interested in what she buys. As regards gifts for each other, while we set a budget in various years, one or both of us often overspends-partially because it is the only holiday for which we buy a major gift for each other. Only giving of a gift at Christmas is something we adopted from our parents.
Food prep and clean up
- Whose responsibility is food—menu planning, purchasing, prep, baking and clean up?
- Is alcohol part of your holidays? Whose responsibility is that?
In our early marriage Rita took care of most of this. As we approached Christmas one year Bob decided he would cook on Christmas Eve and Rita did the desserts. We went to a children’s Mass together, everyone stayed dressed up and we had a wonderful dinner that started a tradition. To this day, Rita is the activities director in the kitchen. As our children have grown and have families of their own, holidays have changed.. While some of our children may actually spend Christmas day with us some do not. However, they all come to Chicago and spend several day’s at our house. For years, other than Christmas Eve, Rita still took the responsibility for menus, much of the food prep, and clean-up for three meals a day. One year when her job was very demanding and the group had grown to a dozen or more she was overwhelmed. After a family discussion, the kids decided to each take a day when the food planning, purchasing, preparations and clean-up was their responsibility. Everyone pitches in and lots of great conversation takes place around the island in the kitchen, but the major responsibility for that day rests with one family. It has made things easier and we have great meals because everyone prepares their best dinner. Rita makes great pies which everyone looks forward to eating. Often, after a great meal no wanted dessert so a few years ago the suggestion was made that we have a small dinner and really enjoy the pie. Now we have a soup and pie night. The fun part is that everyone is involved. Bob and the boys make soups and nearly everyone is part of helping make everyone’s favorite pies. Rita makes the crusts and the grandchildren get involved in measuring and stirring. It is a wonderful family time. One of our granddaughters even wrote about this when she was asked to write about her favorite thing about the holidays.
- When do you spend time with each of your families?
- Who decides?
- Does this cause tension?
- Do you ever have time for just the two of you? And your children?
From our first Christmas after we were married, we decided to have Christmas Eve together. We often opened our gifts to each other and then made the trip to Ohio and arrived for midnight mass. We spent part of Christmas day with each of our families. After the kids were old enough to understand Christmas we told our parents that we would celebrate Christmas Day at our house and then travel and spend extended time with our families. Since our parents have died and we have large extended families who now have multigenerational families of their own, we no longer spend the holidays with them, but get together with extended families at other times during the year.
- Do you send them?
- If so, whose responsibility is it to purchase, address and mail?
After many years of writing a traditional Christmas letter we’ve decided this year to no longer send cards. In recent years Rita wrote most of the cards and Bob printed address labels and helped get the addresses and stamps on the envelopes.
- Do you go to Church?
- When and with whom?
- Who decides?
Christmas Eve mass was part of our family tradition as long as we had children. When children and grandchildren are with us we still attend an afternoon or early evening Mass. When we don’t have young children with us, we usually go later in the evening.
- Other than decorating, what expectations do you each have about preparing your home for the holidays?
- Who is expected to do this?
For years, Christmas preparation meant major house cleaning as well. This was predominately Rita’s responsibility, but as the kids grew they were expected to help as well. Bob pitched in where he could. Today with just the two of us here, the house doesn’t need major cleaning before and when everyone is here we have learned to be less particular. We live with some clutter and often find someone doing laundry, vacuuming, picking up and loading or unloading the dishwasher at most any time of the day. After everyone is gone we give ourselves a gift-we have a cleaning service clean the house.
- How much of the holidays are spent in front of the television?
- Who decides when or how much?
As the children were growing up sports were never part of our celebration. Today some like to watch a little football but it is never a big focus of our time together. Those who really enjoy football often record a game and watch it later, when other activities have calmed down.
- How do you decide how much money your budget will allow for the holidays?
- Beyond gifts how much money do you have to spend for food, travel, entertaining?
- Do either of you have a problem keeping the budget you’ve set?
Early in our marriage, Christmas time and money often stressed Bob out. We would set an approximate budget, but it was easy to let it get out of hand and that put pressure on the budget during the months after Christmas. We haven’t really changed the process, but our finances have improved and that takes off some of the pressure. When the family is with us, food and alcohol costs are shared with the children. Even though the group has grown (seventeen this year), we still like to purchase a gift for each of our children, their spouses and our grandchildren. We have started to reduce the amount we spend on each person.
While we are not sure if we have identified every category where expectations exist for the holidays, and our resolution may be different from yours, our goal was to encourage you to have a conversation. Some of you may have already discussed many of these issues and have come to some working arrangement. We suspect though, that in many relationships one person may think that it is all worked out while the other is seething inside because s/he thinks s/he bears the entire burden for the holidays.
As you can see, we do not divide things equally. Like us, other commitments in your lives may require that one has more responsibility than the other in certain areas. One may have a greater talent and desire to do things in one area than does the other. The important thing is that you talk about it and have come to some agreement about sharing responsibilities.
We wish you a holiday season filled with fun and joy with each other and your families.
Your comments are appreciated. We have a chapter on Expectations in our book, Forever and a Day, An Invitation to Create a Marriage that Lasts a Lifetime. Available at Amazon.com. Also available for Kindle and Nook.