Should you break up with your partner before the holidays?

Experts weigh in on when to stay the course and when to call it quits.

Experts weigh in on when to stay the course and when to call it quits

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

If you're partnered, there's an above-average chance you've been thinking about dumping your SO lately. There's an empirical basis for the idea that people break up before the holidays. According to data gathered from Facebook, there are two yearly peaks in break-ups. The "Turkey Drop" occurs during the fortnight leading up to the winter holiday. The "Spring Clean" begins in March, a discreet two weeks after Valentine's day. 

The holiday season is upon us, and that means family get-togethers, work parties, and gift-exchanging. It means more quality time together as other activities go on break. As therapist Janna Comrie puts it, "The world shuts down and you're faced with this person for two weeks." For many, the holiday is an opportunity to build intimacy with their partner. For others, the prospect of holiday intimacy triggers a flight reaction.

Janna Comrie is a couples therapist and frequent contributor to CBC Life. Shan Boodram is a sexologist and author of the dating guide The Game of Desire. We turned to them to ask why the holiday season ends so many relationships and what to think about if you're considering breaking up yourself.

Why are the holidays hard on couples?

If your relationship is rock-solid, the holidays can build even more intimacy, but they also bring existing problems to the surface. "If you already have any conflicts over financial issues or your shared social life, the holidays will draw attention to them," says Comrie. Worse still, she says that couples who aren't happy feel obliged by all the group-festivities to pretend that they are and that's one of the hardest things for troubled couples to face. "They feel like they have to smile and play the loving couple. They don't want to hug and hold hands and kiss. They feel like they're faking it and it's taxing." 

Boodram says that "During the holidays, there's a lot of pressure on partners to be 'good' partners" and that might explain both the December and spring dumping seasons. "I guess if people didn't perform well, that's when we see another spike in March." In December, people are cutting partners who they don't want to face the test with. In March, those who failed it.

Break up or stick it out till the new year?

Comrie and Boodram agree that you shouldn't base your decision to break up or stay together on your holiday calendar. Instead, each expert offered advice on how to evaluate your relationship.

Comrie recommends consulting your "head, heart and gut." Do you make sense together? How does the person make you feel? Does your base-level instinct push you toward or away from them? She says majority rules: two out of three are the minimum to justify staying in a relationship.

Boodram suggests an 80-20 rule. "80 per cent of the relationship should be joy, unity, expansion, sex, love… the fun part of what it is to partner with someone else. 20 per cent can be disagreement, misalignment,  misunderstanding, and difference." This 20 percent is actually healthy, says Boodram, and helps us grow as people. However, if you're not getting along 40 per cent of the time, then she thinks somebody needs to do some major work or you should leave the relationship.

If you decide that your relationship isn't going to work out, Comrie that you shouldn't use the holidays as an excuse to procrastinate. "From a psychological standpoint," she says, "once you've decided you don't want to stay in it much longer... it's not healthy for you and it's certainly not healthy for the other person or the other people who are affected by the decision."

At the same time she acknowledges: "What's psychologically reasonable isn't always what's financially reasonable or socially reasonable." She hears lots of seasonal justifications for staying together, like spending one last holiday with a partner's family or staying together for the sake of the children involved. Comrie thinks that this is tricky because, "It's very hard to model a healthy, loving relationship if you're staying together for the kids … The lack of intimacy and connection that you would have with somebody is apparent." It's entirely possible to model a healthy co-parenting or co-living relationship, but if "kids do not see you do things like touch, hold hands, cuddle, etc. … You're modelling for them what they can expect in their closest intimate relationships." 

Another common way people put off a breakup is by floating the idea of attending therapy after the holidays to put a beacon of hope in the new year. Comrie says that people should only suggest therapy if they're "willing to put effort into counselling and fixing the problem" and that if they are serious about therapy, then they shouldn't wait. "Couples should start counselling when they identify that there's a problem. The longer you let a problem set in, the more ingrained the behaviours that are associated with that problem become." Starting sooner may even "give them some tools that they can use through the holiday season." 

Overall, she says the most common reason that people give for avoiding breaking up is: "They don't want to be the jerk." She says that's a mistake. As hard as it is to break up, she explains, "Stringing them along will just make it worse."

When to "get through the holidays"

It's common for couples to say, "Let's just get through the holidays." Is it ever a good idea to white-knuckle it through this period?

"If you are 'white knuckling' it'," says Comrie, "then it's probably over." However both Comrie and Boodram recognize certain circumstances under which it may be worth sticking it out.  According to Comrie, you should do this only if "the problems in your relationship are temporary and it looks like they will be resolved." She offers examples like financial difficulties, family illness and the like. If it's a situation that's likely to continue or to recur, then you have to find a way to deal with it. 

Boodram advises asking whether you can put the phrase "of late…" before your relationship gripes, as in: "Of late, they've been distant;" "Of late, they've been snapping at me;" "Of late they've prioritized work too much." She says that people change and go through tough times, and that needs to be taken into consideration given the challenges the holidays present. But if you look at your relationship problems and realize that it's always been that way, then Boodram thinks you should leave.

If you're in a solid relationship but are looking for ways to deal with the common frictions that come with the holidays, Comrie has plenty of tips. "Divide and conquer can work for gift giving," she says, "and there are a number of ways to handle this." For example, Comrie suggests dividing gifts relative to family, by gender, or by age (you take the kids, I'll shop for the adults). Comrie also suggests skipping events that neither partner actually wants to go to. Or go, but stay for a shorter time. If certain traditions are a source of friction Comrie suggests changing them so they work for your family. 

The most wonderful time of the year to break up

"It's never a great time to break up with someone," says Boodram. "Nobody has ever said 'I'm sad that they dumped me but their timing was perfect!'" But she thinks if you are going to break up with someone, doing it before the holidays offers a lot of benefits. It gets you out of family visits, extra work parties, gift shopping, and all the other things that become a burden when you're not really feeling your partner. Also, if you don't do it now, Christmas, New Year and Valentine's Day are just going to make it harder. As Boodram observes, "If you know you are breaking up, you may not want to be building intimacy over the holidays."

Finally, Boodram sees breaking up before the holidays as kind of a gift. "Everybody loves 'New Year, New Me', so give them that opportunity to pull together their whole life knowing that you're not going to be in the picture."

If you do want to give the gift of singlehood this year, Comrie explains break-up best practices here.

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.


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