"On Boxing Day, I always turn on my computer and find a load of emails sent at about 2am when people are really cross and have had a big row," says counsellor Cate Campbell.

"There’s a lot of expectation and anticipation surrounding Christmas. We should enjoy it – but often, we don’t. It can be a difficult time for relationships."

She’s not alone in seeing a surge of emails and calls from prospective clients after Christmas and in the new year.

Many of our members report the same increase in demand.

But why?

"People have had time to talk," says Cate, who is based in Buckinghamshire.

"Some people use the time off to re-evaluate their relationship. It may be a new years’ resolution to end the relationship or do something about it. Often people want to make things better and they want some support to do that."

What causes problems at Christmas?

Christmas brings with it a heap of pressures and expectations that can cause cracks in an already fragile relationship.

Disagreements over money, family or work-life balance often come to the fore at this time of year - especially when several days of eating and drinking to excess are thrown into the mix.

Money

For relationship counsellor Julia Cole, money is the number one topic that comes up with the couples she sees in January.

"People tend to argue about money at this time of year. There can be problems when the credit card bill comes later on after Christmas. The arguments are often when partners have different attitudes towards money. It’s sometimes difficult when one partner is spending lots of money, and the other is being more cautious.

"For some people these arguments at Christmas can be symbolic of a problem that's actually present all year around."

Screens

Social media and the time spent on mobile phones and devices is a relatively new source of conflict for couples – but one that is now regularly mentioned to Julia.

And Christmas is no exception.

"This can have a huge impact on a couple. If one partner spends a lot of time on social media or on their phone not being engaged with other people, it can be a source of disagreement," she adds.

Screen time can have a big impact on a couple.

Screen time can have an impact on a couple's relationship.

Sex

Cate points out that sex can also be an issue at Christmas.

“People put a lot of pressure on themselves. They think the Christmas break and the time together will be good for their sex life. But it’s best not to put the pressure on – just see how it goes instead.”

Family

With lots of relatives spending time together, wider family strains can impact couples too.

“We see people that we don’t see for a while. Tensions arise that may have been in the family for a long time. But they come to a head when everyone is together at Christmas.

“Things from the past are sometimes dragged back up again,” says Julia, a counsellor in Hayling Island, near Portsmouth.

What can couples do about this?

All the counsellors we spoke to agree that it’s about managing expections and working on ways to reduce the pressure that people face at Christmas.

“Christmas doesn’t have to live up to the adverts on the telly,” says Julia.

“People spend a lot of time getting ready, there will have been expectations that aren’t met. It can be very tiring mentally and physically. But there are things that can be done to make it easier on your relationship.”

Discuss plans

Managing expectations and discussing plans in advance is really helpful.

Julia adds: “It’s good to have that chat ahead of time about how are you going to manage over Christmas. What’s going to be different or difficult? What could cause an argument. If money is a bit tight, do you need to manage expectations. Make plans – and talk about them. That’s the key.”

Have some 'couple time'

It’s important to ensure you get some “couple time” together over the Christmas period, say both Julia and Cate.

Try to escape for a little bit together, even if it’s just going for a walk together.

Sometimes people spend so long trying to please the extended family, they forget about spending quality time with their partner.

Be kind to yourself

“Make sure you do some things that give you pleasure,” says Julia,

“Think about what you can do that is good for you, rather than just concentrating on getting through the Christmas period. Think about what would help you relax, what makes you feel joyous.”

Be kind to yourself, adds Cate.

Make time for your relationship all year around

“People work so hard during the year, time is really precious. They expect that Christmas will be great for relationships and so there’s a lot of pressure,” says Armele Philpotts, a BACP member who is a relationship counsellor based in the north east of England.

“It’s better to do very small actions every day, throughout the year, that pull things back to the people that we love so much. We have all these marketing messages about relationships and family at Christmas – but what about focusing our attention a little bit each day on the people we love?

“That will mean it doesn’t all come down to Christmas.”

To speak to a BACP relationship counsellor, visit our Find a Therapist Directory.

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