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What the Grinch and expectations have in common

Christmas is in full swing. A time full of festivity, family, and giving, it’s also a time full of expectations.

Family, friends, co-workers, spouses, neighbors, and strangers all have expectations of you. You have expectations of yourself.

Expectations change our experiences. But they also set us up for disappointment.

So where do our expectations for the holidays come from?

Today, society’s holiday messages represent a cultural push and pull toward “idealized togetherness.” We’re saturated with Norman Rockwell scenes of family gatherings, Currier and Ives scenes of a winter wonderland, and Fifth Avenue’s illusions of all the happiness money can buy.

It’s a time of year that inflames emotions with a definite positive tilt -– we’re supposed to be at our best, expected to look our best, wear our best, serve our best, and display our best.

And it’s a time of year when it feels like our relationships are under a microscope. “We-ness” expectations run rampant.

“We” should want, feel, and think the same, or at least very similarly, things about the holidays -– how they’re celebrated, what they mean to us, what we think about them.

Photo by kevindooley

So with all these holiday expectations running rampant, how do they impact your marriage?

Think about your relationship patterns around the holidays:

  • Who plays the role of Santa while the other plays the Grinch?
  • Does one person rack up debt that the other works all year to pay off?
  • Who gets giddy and who fights the blues?

Basically, how do your holiday differences reflect unresolved issues that simmer the rest of the year?

As you go through the holidays, try these things:

1. Observe your roles.

Patterns are the hallmark of human behavior -– we are what we repeatedly do. The way to change this begins with identifying our patterns, because we can’t change what we won’t acknowledge.

Make the most of the holiday season by recognizing your patterns and the roles you play.

When you’re more aware of your role, you’re better empowered to change it, if you wish. As you watch things unfold throughout the holidays, ask yourself what expectations you carry into each situation.

Photo by in later days

Are you the person that feels like things are supposed to look like the scenes on the postcards? Is everyone supposed to get along (even though they can’t every other day of the year)? Is your three-year-old supposed to be extremely grateful for the pair of socks he receives from Aunt Sally?

2. Let go of expectations.

Expectations are planned disappointments because we are too attached to the outcomes. When we go into a situation with a desired outcome already set in our mind, we will wind up disappointed.

The key, then, is to let go of expectations and allow things to unfold in the moment. After all, the moments when we are truly surprised, grateful, and happy are when the unexpected happens.

“Gratitude is the key to happiness and anything that undermines gratitude must undermine happiness. And nothing undermines gratitude as much as expectations. The more expectations you have, the less gratitude you will have.” -Dennis Prager

3. Be present in every situation.

You’ll more fully experience each situation when expectations are reduced and events are allowed to simply unfold. You’ll connect more with your children. You can listen and spend richer time with your spouse. You’ll give of yourself more freely.

When you are more present and engaged, you can give your family the greatest gift of all – your presence and your love – with no strings attached! And what a great holiday gift that will be.

The Grinch tries to rob us of holiday joy. So do expectations.

What role do you play around the holidays? How will you give of yourself this Christmas? What expectations will you let go of?

Reading Time:

3 minutes





  1. Jennifer Margulis

    I appreciate all the wisdom in this post. I recently spent time with family. Even though it was mostly for work, all of these holiday issues started cropping up. I really worked beforehand (by talking to friends and my spouse and by meditating and reading good advice like yours) to have no expectations. The visit was much more loving and smooth than it would have been if I had expected more. That said, I did wish for more: more real closeness, more curiosity on their part, less criticism. But I was as present as I could be and enjoyed the time together. Then I felt very relieved to come back to my own family where I feel much more loved!

  2. Elissa

    This post is right out of one of my yoga classes. When my yogi speaks of expectations, she also discusses the concept of non-attachment. Not detachment or of disinterest, but of not attaching. It has many facets in yoga but in this situation, it would be similar to holding something very fragile – like an eggshell – in your hand. Non-attachment is the ability to hold the shell comfortably and safely. Attaching to the situation would be holding too tightly or not being soft or flexible enough and the shell breaks.

    If you hold to tight to your expectations and desires, you will break something – your holiday spirit, your kid’s heart, your relationships. Be soft and flexible with yourself and those around you so that you can relax and enjoy what’s happening.

  3. Alicia Bayer

    Great advice. I was really taken by the line about one spouse buying all sorts of things that the other spouse had to work all year to pay off. We only buy presents with extra money we have put aside and never take on debt for them, but that thought made me realize how easily Christmas could start a domino effect of bad feelings and stress between partners.

  4. Jenna

    I think I change roles depending on who I’m with. I wish I was more like Santa than the Grinch. I definitely need to work on this more.

  5. Kate

    My thinking about little kids is that they don’t have to be grateful for practical gifts or things that they just aren’t interested but they do have to be polite. Being grateful for the thought behind a gift like socks is just too advanced of a concept for the wee ones. Personally I’m just hoping to get through the day with less than 5 tantrums from my 20 month old. We’re lucky because he’s a real people person and loves parties so I think we might be ok.

  6. Kids Ride On Toys

    Great insights … and ones that apply throughout the year too although arguably peak at Christmas with all the added stresses and pressures you mention.

    From my own experiences, those situations / endeavours that I have approached without big or specific expectations have led to greater enjoyment on all fronts … likely because mindset and awareness led to being more open minded for possibilities, able to adapt when things unfolded differently than planned / anticipated, and not setting oneself up for disappointment if a different outcome unfolded.

    That is not to suggest one doesn’t have desires, wants or needs concerning the outcome but rather to add more balance and awareness into the mix for greater enjoyment, happiness and less stress.

  7. Alison @ Femita

    Amazing tips Corey, I was thinking about this whole concept of ‘idealized togetherness’ a while ago and really enjoyed your article on it. I’m all for romance, but I see many people around me, and I must admit especially women, having a distorted view on what it means to be together, be it with your partner, kids, friends or family. It’s ok to argue, it’s ok to disagree. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect. Respect each other and each other’s point of view and all will be ok!

  8. Courtney

    Bravo! And, thank you. My family comes tomorrow and you just took a bunch of weight off my shoulders. Goodbye, expectations. Hello, Merry Christmas!

  9. priest's wife

    a lot of food for thought- thank you

  10. Michelle @ The Parent Vortex

    I had a difficult time letting go of expectations today. Lack of communication + differing expectations = conflict.

  11. Living the Balanced Life

    Expectations can be the biggest robber of joy in your life and in your marriage. I have tried in our almost 30 years of marriage to reduce my expectations of my hubby, or if I felt I needed to, I expressed those expectations that I had so that we can work towards them together, rather than me having hopes dashed.

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