Just last week, Tarek and Christina El Moussa — stars of HGTV’s hit show "Flip or Flop" — announced their split after two children, seven years of marriage and three years on the reality show that documented their successful house-flipping business.
The timing may not come as a surprise, given the holidays bring added stress from increased travel, financial pressures and family obligations. But do the number of divorces actually peak during the holidays?
Julie Brines, an associate sociology professor at the University of Washington, analyzed divorce filings in the state of Washington between 2001 and 2015 with the help of doctoral candidate Brian Serafini. The results, presented this year at the American Sociological Association, showed divorce filings actually peak consistently in both March and August.
The reason may actually be tied to the holidays, which can “represent an opportunity to test things out one last time,” Brines told TODAY, as couples look forward to a key moment of reconciliation as their families come together.
But, when their efforts don’t live up to expectations, couples may take a couple of months to organize their finances and prepare their families before officially filing. Brines calls this the “broken promise” explanation of her findings.
The data thus suggests there may be a key delay between a couple’s initial troubles and the moment when they finally separate or divorce. This would explain why Tarek and Christina — who reportedly were dealing with marital issues six months ago — waited until December to publicly announce their separation.
But what about couples who are going into the holidays hoping to rebuild their relationships?
TODAY talked with relationship expert Debra Macleod, author of "Marriage SOS: 30 Lifelines to Rescue Your Relationship in One Month," for some key tips for couples on how to make it through the stressful holiday season.
1. Plan early.
Make sure to plan your holidays early so that you and your spouse are on the same page and know what to expect. “But never make plans without your spouse,” Macleod added, noting men are especially bad at following this rule.
Couples also need to give themselves permission to focus on their relationship and children first, and not worry about making everyone else in their extended family happy, she noted. Planning beforehand can help take the stress out of managing the demands of blended families and different sets of in-laws.
2. Think long-term.
Keep any conflicts with your spouse in perspective. Remember that the holidays will only last for a few days, but your marriage will last a lifetime.
“Every conflict is not the apocalypse,” said Macleod. You’re going to have a million different conflicts over the next few decades — if you can figure out how to deftly navigate the little ones, you’ll start to feel as though you can conquer anything together, she added.
3. Remember that humor is a great diffusor.
Humor allows you to keep your perspective during difficult times. Macleod stressed that humor can help couples find common ground and diffuse tense situations. Just make sure, she cautioned, that it’s appropriate for the situation — humor should never be used to ignore or downplay a serious issue.
4. Put down the phone.
Try to engage with each other instead of your devices. “A lot of the resentment I see at Christmas comes from wives telling their husbands, ‘You’re not paying attention to your kids,’” said Macleod. Instead of rushing off to answer that latest text, be present in the moment, and enjoy the uninterrupted time with your family.
5. Always have your partner’s back.
The number one problem that couples have over the holidays? “People don’t feel that their partner has their back,” Macleod said. Issues with in-laws and extended families can put extra stress on the relationship.
For example, a wife may feel her husband did not stick up for her during a holiday visit to his mother’s place, or that he did not defend her against some of her mother-in-law’s not-so-subtle digs.
To solve this, try to focus on supporting one another over the holidays. Even better, “instead of competing to get your own needs met, try to compete to meet your partner’s needs,” she advised. She added that if both partners are competing to make the other one happy, they’ll create an environment of collaboration and support, rather than conflict. The couple will then make it through the holidays not only unscathed, but stronger.