Saturday, December 02, 2006

Holiday Reality Checks Mix

The month of December usually is a big bundle of ambivalence to me.

The dwindling of daylight to its annual minimum sets the gloomy tone. Memories of awkward post-divorce family Christmases in the 80s emerge from the attic of my mind to haunt me, sadistic apparitions that have no redeeming lesson to impart, unlike their Dickensian kindred. The crowds that clog the retail districts do nothing but fuel my misanthropy.

I lost what traces of seasonal excitement remained during my undergraduate years. I attended a college that operated on a quarterly schedule. The first quarter ended in mid-November, and classes reconvened on the second quarter just after Thanksgiving, just enough time for a few weeks of classes, with holiday sendoffs of exams.

Yet, for all of the things that I dislike about this time of the year, I've always been drawn to its sacred elements. The mystery of a divine promise, fulfilled without fanfare, has certainly inspired some of the most beautiful music ever written.

Even after I have grown tired of hearing the definitive recordings of popular carols by the usual suspects, I recharge when I hear some obscure chorale's rendition of a classical yuletide carol.

During the wee hours of Christmas morn, I've been known to tune the radio to a public station that carries the Beethoven Satellite Network, so I can hear Peter van de Graff's gentle voice introduce soothingly spiritual works, perfect for drifting off to slumber.

The tradition of mixed feelings continues this year.

It is fun to sit with the kids as they watch Rankin Bass Christmas specials for the first time, stuff you remember watching when you were growing up, but probably would have forgotten had you not overanalyzed and lampooned them in your adolescent years.

The ads for holiday sales on the TV have been especially annoying to me this year. Not only does the commercialization bug me, but it also reminds me that we have very little in disposable income. Money continues to be tight, even after belt tightening.

It's tough to let go of the feelings, and it helps me when I reflect on the reasons that the ads are there in the first place. Investors expect retailers to rack up huge sales this time of year, so they resort to bombarding the public with inducements to buy. By letting these ads foster anxiety in me, I am failing to self-validate. My sense of well being is adversely impacted by accepting a marketer's notion of what it takes to make my life complete.

My commute between home and workplace worsens this time of year because my route is choked by addditional traffic of seasonal shoppers. On a good day, it takes me 40 minutes to get from office to home, but during this time of year, it can take me an hour. Yet, amid the stop and go and lack of detour routes, I find solace in listening to things like Polyphony on XM 106.

Schnarch's discussion on desire and mobilization has been on my mind a lot. In Passionate Marriage, he says that on each side of a marital dilemma is a high desire spouse and a low desire spouse. A mobilized high desire spouse agitates the dilemma, and a mobilized low desire spouse cools the situation down. If one is the low desire spouse on an issue, it benefits the marriage for that spouse to take the lead, or at least be less resistant.

This time of year is a provides a wealth of situations where I am clearly the low desire partner. Getting out Christmas decorations from the shed, getting a Christmas tree, decorating the Christmas tree, the list goes on and on.

My wife, on the other hand, is the high desire partner. As with other major holidays, she is to the point of being compulsive. She can become so driven to do it all for the holidays that she makes herself miserable in the process.

So my goal has been to self confront and push myself proactively to be more cooperative.

I've made some progress. Last weekend, we got the tree and managed to get almost all of it decorated. That hasn't happened in a long time. I was helpful and supportive, but more importantly, I did this because I wanted to, not because I wanted to curry my wife's favor.

This is important because that approval seeking is a manipulative pattern for me. I used to expect her to do something nice for me when I did something nice for her and then get resentful when it didn't turn out that way.

I am in what Schnarch calls the "growth cycle" of my marriage, which eventually could lead to greater intimacy or to termination of the relationship. So, there is a part of me that wants to do things better because I know that there is a possibility that this could be the last chance to celebrate the holidays with things as they are.

When I struggle with mobilizing, I ask myself whether I would act this way if I knew that this was the last Christmas I would have with my family intact. It's sobering enough to get me moving, and it helps me to self confont whether my dissatisfaction is more about self absorption rather than holding onto myself.

Decoupling my actions from the goal of making my wife happy provides short term benefits. It keeps me from setting up unwritten expectations, and it allows me to self soothe when her actions don't seem match up with what I would have wanted.

For example, she hasn't been around as much this week, choosing instead to go out and run errands or spend time with friends. Rather than using that as a reminder of how she puts me at the bottom of her list, I spend my time with the kids and thinking about what I really want from life.
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