"We're fighting about the holidays — again," said Kim, 36, a soft-spoken brunette who runs a children's music school. "I sound like the Grinch, but I hate this time of year. I'm irritable and depressed, and I feel so much pressure to do it all 'right.' I worry that people are judging me: Does the table look festive enough? Did I use the correct silverware? It's all so overwhelming."
"The problem is, my husband rejoices in Christmas and loves nothing more than having his large family together — and all staying under our roof, " says Kim. "For his sake, I want to be the perfect hostess, smiling as I prepare a wonderful feast, graciously chatting with our guests. But the reality is, all I want to do is crawl into bed. You'd think that after 10 years, Steve would understand. Why does he insist that we celebrate as one big happy family when we're anything but?
"My relationship with Steve's kids from his first marriage isn't great. I get along well enough with Paula, 23, who lives out of town. But Justine, 26, lives nearby, and she's disliked me from day one. Although I had nothing to do with Steve's divorce, our wedding shattered her dream that her parents would reconcile. We're cordial, but it's tense. We see her and her husband, Eric, once a week, even more often during the holidays. Last year, Eric marched into my kitchen and proceeded to tell me I must 'tent' the turkey with foil, or it wouldn't brown properly. His know-it-all attitude really gets under my skin.
"I don't have the ability to hold my own with Eric — he's so in-your-face. Just once, it would be nice if Steve stood up for me. I think he's too afraid of alienating his daughter. For instance, if I make a joke at the dinner table, Eric will reply with a condescending, sarcastic comment, like, 'Oh, you think that's funny?' Steve never says a thing.
"I also told Steve that this year, I don't want a tree. Steve is great at decorating, but I'm always left to do all the cleanup. I also told him that I refuse to cook for everyone. I don't want the pressure, and I don't want all those cookies or pies in the house. The fact is, when I was 16, I became bulimic. After four years, thanks to a terrific therapist, I was able to get my illness under control, but weight continues to be a sensitive subject for me. Steve knows about the bulimia, but he doesn't understand how stressful it is for me to prepare and serve these elaborate meals. I don't know why I never said anything before — maybe I didn't want to ruin the festivities for him — but this year, I'm too sad to pretend.
"Steve was angry when I announced I wouldn't be cooking. When he gets mad he never yells, he just gives me the silent treatment. I often can't find the words to explain how I feel either, so I shut down, too.
"The fact that I'm often exhausted doesn't help. I work seven days a week as a music teacher, which I love. Music has always been my lifeline. When I'm performing, I'm a different person. But my long hours deplete my sex drive. I know Steve feels rejected. To get myself in the mood, I have a glass of wine. But if I do, he says that my interest in him isn't 'real.' No matter how much I tell him that's not the case, he never understands.
"I met Steve when I answered his newspaper ad for a musician in his band. I was 23; he was 33. I played with his group for four years. At the time, Steve was divorced. Our relationship developed easily; three years later, we were married.
"Steve says he never would have guessed that my childhood was like a bad TV drama: My father died when I was 10; my mother used to smack me with a hairbrush for the slightest offense, and as the oldest of three girls, I got the brunt of her anger. To avoid being hit, I'd hide in my room. I had few friends and was never good in social situations. At 18, I left home, and put myself through community college. Except for one of my sisters, I no longer speak to any of my family. When I met Steve, I felt that my life really began.
"But now, I feel like Steve's roommate, not his wife. It's ridiculous to quarrel about Christmas trees, but even when it's not Christmas, I feel so lonely. I fell in love with Steve because he made me feel adored and appreciated; I forgot to dislike myself for a while. Now I'm scared he doesn't care anymore."
"It's not that I don't care about Kim. It's that we don't have a marriage anymore," said Steve, 46, a postal worker who moonlights as a guitarist in a band. "Kim has become increasingly distant and I don't know why," says Steve. "We never make love. She's either too tired or not in the mood — unless she has a glass of wine. I hate that; she can't feel attracted to me unless she's a little tipsy? Although I'm happy that she's happy with her career, the fact remains that we spend very little time together.
"The Kim I used to know was smiling and carefree. I was surprised when she told me about her family and weight issues, because to look at her, you'd never imagine she'd had it so rough as a kid. I noticed early on, though, that Kim was reluctant to have company over. I love having people over, even if they drop by without calling. And I love everything about the holidays; every tradition carries tremendous meaning for me. As a kid, my mother would spend weeks cooking and decorating the house to the rafters. One of my favorite times was picking out a tree with my father and brothers. I love having meals surrounded by the people I love. Now Kim tells me she doesn't even want a tree, doesn't want to cook and doesn't want people over. She's ruining the holidays for me!
"I was the youngest of four. My mother, a homemaker, and my father, a postal clerk, each had eight siblings, so to say we had large holiday celebrations is an understatement. People were always coming in and out of the house. That's why I don't mind if my cousins and their kids sleep over. But Kim hates every minute of it.
"I know my son-in-law is difficult. He's like the bully of the playground who picks on the one kid he knows he can dominate. I've spoken to Justine, and she assures me that Eric is a good man and a good husband. Kim is just supersensitive to things that most people would ignore. Yes, he's sarcastic. Yes, he's condescending. So what? It's better to let his comments slide than make a huge issue of them. I don't think it's asking too much for her to grin and bear it, especially during the holidays.
"I was flabbergasted when she announced in this dictatorial voice that this year she didn't want a tree or holiday desserts. This is supposed to be a family time — I don't want to be decking the halls by myself. If it's a question of cleaning up, I'll do it all! But while I know the eating disorder was an ordeal, it's in the past. I think she's unreasonable to deprive everyone else of holiday goodies.
"You know, I'm patient, but I'm not a saint. The holidays make her miserable, but now they're making me miserable, too. It's as if Kim's on another planet, and I can't reach her. Enough already. Why can't she be happy?"
The Counselor's Turn
"Quarrels over seemingly mundane issues often mask more serious, unexplored problems, and this was the case for Kim and Steve," said the counselor. "Neither realized that the holidays dredged up profound issues of self-esteem and confidence that prevented Kim from communicating and being close to her husband. Yet the more she anticipated holiday stress, the more anxious and distant she became. As she pulled away, Steve was left feeling rejected. My goal was to help Kim connect to those childhood emotions so she could move past them — and to show Steve how he could help her to do that.
"Kim's insecurities were exacerbated any time she felt judged, and in the swirl of holiday activities, she constantly felt she wasn't measuring up. To protect herself, she 'checked out,' by leaving the room or losing herself in her music, just as she had done as a little girl. Her bout with bulimia had served a similar purpose: By eating, Kim numbed herself to her true feelings. By purging, she gained some sense of control over her anxieties, albeit a false, destructive one.
"When they first met, Kim had been away from her family for several years. During this time, she not only had boosted her confidence by getting her bulimia under control, but she had also been able to repress many of her feelings of worthlessness, which was why Steve was so baffled by her recent behavior. However, it's not uncommon for negative emotions to bubble to the surface once an individual is involved in a happy relationship. Paradoxically, the good relationship becomes a safe place to release pent-up feelings that haven't been effectively sorted out.
"But Kim had never learned to express her feelings and really understand what she was feeling when she was feeling it. One exercise that helped Kim was writing 'feeling letters' to important people in her past. In a feeling letter — which is meant for your eyes only — you express your anger, sadness, fear, or regret. Then, you write a 'response letter' to yourself, detailing the apology you would like to hear from the person who hurt you. This process frees you to think differently about yourself. Writing a letter to her mother was a turning point for Kim. Over the next few weeks, Kim's negative feelings about herself slowly dissipated.
"We also worked on ways Kim could express her emotions better. Instead of silently disappearing, or announcing, 'I won't make the Christmas cookies,' I suggested that she learn to say, 'I wish some of the baking and cooking could be done by other people.' This simple change states her point and opens the way for problem solving.
"Although Steve had a happy childhood, his divorce left him feeling that he had let his children down. Holidays reminded him of that failure, and he placed an inordinate importance on ritual and ceremony. Unwittingly, he put pressure on his wife to create storybook memories for his family. As understanding as Steve was, he tended to minimize Kim's feelings and believe that the way he felt was the way she should feel. In counseling, he admitted he hated confrontation with his kids because he couldn't bear for them to be mad at him.
"Steve was trying to be a good husband, but he wasn't listening in the way that she needed him to. 'Listening is an art,' I explained. 'It takes practice. When you tell Kim, "You're making too big a deal about Eric's comment," or "You shouldn't feel that everyone's judging the way you set the table for Christmas dinner," you undercut her. They may not be your feelings; they may not make sense to you, but you have to respect them.' What's more, I suggested that he speak not only to Justine, but also to Eric. 'A person like that may not change his behavior, but it's important for Kim to know that you tried.'
"Steve went on to have several conversations with Justine and Eric about treating Kim with kindness and respect, and now vows to stand up and defend her anytime Eric makes a snide comment. He has also begun to visit with his daughter while Kim is at work, so that her time with Eric is limited.
"Next, we discussed strategies for handling holiday arguments. After making a list of hot-button issues (such as Kim's cooking every holiday dish and relatives staying at their house for long periods of time), they focused on those that meant the most to each of them, as well as those on which they could be flexible (Steve felt strongly about a tree, less so about desserts). Finally, they inched toward compromises that honored each of their perspectives.
"For instance: They will start a new tradition by asking guests to bring their favorite desserts, cookies, or muffins (and take home any leftovers), so Kim and Steve are responsible only for the main courses and side dishes. They've agreed that out-of-town guests can stay overnight. Everyone else will be asked to drive home. And she agreed to a tree if Steve kept his promise to help clean up. He did.
"'I'm still hoping that Kim will eventually find a way to spend more time with my family,' said Steve. 'But for now, I understand how she feels and I'm hoping in the end this will bring us closer.'
"Now that he's aware of the reasons for her withdrawal, Steve remembers to reassure his wife that everything doesn't have to be perfect, especially around the holidays when the pressure is the greatest.
"We also discussed how many busy people find the time to plan for intimate moments, and that Kim's glass of wine was one way she could segue between her job and her home life. We then brainstormed other ways they could have fun together, and they've instituted a weekly date night, such as going to concerts, the theater, and the movies. They have also decided to renovate their master bathroom and install a Jacuzzi, something they both wanted but never got around to doing.
"'Therapy helped us find ways to resolve many of our issues, not just the holiday problems, before they become insurmountable,' Kim noted. 'We worked hard,' added Steve. 'Now we're not just occupying the same house. We're actually connecting.'"
This case is based on interviews and information from the files of Joyce Dolberg Rowe, LMHC, a psychotherapist in Hull and Quincy, Massachusetts. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, December 2003.