We’ve all experienced that desire for the perfect Norman Rockwell Christmas – one with a beautifully decorated, immaculate home; delectable treats you lovingly baked; gifts wrapped in bows, ribbons, and designer paper stacked around your glowing Christmas tree; and a meal worthy of a four-star chef served to admiring family members and well-behaved children.

Then reality hits, and the last thing your Christmas looks like is a Norman Rockwell painting. Too many obligations and high expectations create tensions that arise from exhaustion, stress, long road trips, and competing family demands.

One of the greatest gifts you can give each other as a couple is the power to say NO — especially during the holidays. And that may include even saying NO to family members’ requests, even when they heap guilt on top of the mashed potatoes. Remember, guilt keeps you stuck in patterns from the past — and you’re trying to learn new ways to handle the holidays that will help you grow together.

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So here are a few tips to help you head in the right direction:

  • Discuss what has worked well in past celebrations and what has not. Listen carefully to your spouse’s concerns. If you find yourself becoming defensive about his or her perspective or requests for certain boundaries, take a deep breath and figure out why. Demanding your way only is not loving. Your goal is what’s best for you as a couple.
  • Work together on a joint calendar. Be sure to balance time away with time at home. Don’t accept an in-vitation to yet another event without first checking in with each other. You can say to the invitee, “I need to discuss it with my husband/wife. Let me get back to you.” Remember, your goal is balance.
  • Create one voice as a couple. This means you and your spouse are on the same page regarding time commitments, demands, or expectations. You both send the same message to family and friends. Saying “We decided” provides a sense of unity and authority on the matter.
  • If you’ve experienced toxicity while visiting friends or family, now is your opportunity to say NO more. Tell them, “We are choosing to stay home and keep Christ at the center of our Christmas. We’ll visit you either before the holiday or after.”
  • Be prepared — someone will always be upset with your saying NO. That’s okay. It’s their issue, not yours. NO has a period after it, not a BUT. You’re not required to give an explanation for your decision.
  • Develop an exit plan. For example, let’s say you agree to stay at a friend or relative’s home from 3 to 8 p.m. Then it’s time to leave. This provides time for you to reconnect at the end of a long day. And, if you have children, it guarantees they’re in bed at a decent time.

At the end of the holiday season, take time to reflect on how well saying NO worked and make necessary tweaks for next year. You might feel a lot more confident in using your NOs next year — after seeing how they transformed your Christmas into one of the most peaceful you’ve ever experienced.