One of the biggest challenges couples can run into during the holidays is family. This may be everything from too many familial commitments and traditions to a whole lot of unresolved conflict. Depending on your specific situation, it can take a toll on you personally, your partner and your relationship.
You might even dread the holidays. You might even think there are no solutions or alternatives. But there’s always something you can do. Below, two relationship experts shared different strategies that can help. If these strategies don’t make sense for your situation or ring true for you, consider working with a couples therapist to help you navigate your specific situation.
Because couples and families are constantly evolving, “it’s important to reexamine every year how your holiday plans and traditions are working for you,” said Ashley Thorn, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Salt Lake City, Utah.
For instance, she worked with a couple who was having issues navigating the holidays with their stepfamily. Each “side” wanted to spend the holidays the way they’d always done. This created tension in the whole family, and was especially hard for the couple to talk about.
In therapy they discussed not trying to talk each other out of their traditions. Instead, they focused on what traditions they could share as an entire family, what traditions were better kept separate, and what new traditions they could create.
“This gave the opportunity for the couple and the children to grow closer by sharing new things with each other, but also allowing room for them to keep some of what was theirs.”
“Too often, couples try too hard to accommodate everything that each other’s families want them to do,” Thorn said. “They end up running themselves ragged and resenting each other’s families.”
She suggested talking about this as a couple. Figure out what’s feasible with your extended family, and communicate this to your loved ones. Set clear and firm boundaries, Thorn said. There’s a big myth that you have to be forceful or rude when setting boundaries. Remember that you can be sensitive and kind. For instance, you might tell your family that you love spending the holidays with them, but this year, you just can’t participate in everything.
Thorn shared these other examples of communicating boundaries:
- “We’re really looking forward to spending time with you, and we’re also looking forward to spending time with the other side of our family. Some of our traditions fall on the same evenings, so we’re going to need to trade off attending these events every other year in order to be able to share the holidays with everyone.”
- “Throughout the month, we have several different commitments — family parties, church programs, work events, etc. It is important to us to try to balance all these different types of commitments, which means we may not always be able to attend every extended family event. We would really appreciate your sensitivity and understanding when this happens. We will do our best to celebrate as much as we can with you.”
Work as a team.
It’s important for both partners to be “sensitive to each other’s needs, feelings, and ‘baggage,’” said Orenstein, Ph.D, founder and director of Orenstein Solutions in Cary, N.C. The holidays often trigger vulnerabilities, she said, which everyone has. In healthy intimate relationships, partners “don’t walk on eggshells or skirt the issues; we take care of them head on by working together with our partner as a team.”
Couples also protect and take care of each other, she said.
For instance, one of Orenstein’s clients had a conflict-ridden relationship with her mother. She wasn’t sure if she even wanted to visit her. Sometimes, she’d isolate herself. She even talked about “going to bed” starting in October, when family members began making plans. Her husband had no idea how to help. He felt like the issue was a landmine and tried to avoid talking about it whenever his wife brought it up. He worried that he made things even worse.
Orenstein worked with the couple on spending the holidays on their terms. They decided to spend less time with the wife’s family. Instead of spending the entire weekend, they visited for a few hours. The wife was worried that she’d be pressured into staying. So they planned for an “exit strategy.”
Orenstein noted that “when [her] mother said ‘can’t you stay longer?’ they already had a polite script prepared.” They also planned on him reassuring her about the decision, since she’d likely feel guilty for leaving early. And they made fun plans for afterward.
(“By the way, he had a rocky relationship with his ex. They had the kids the next day, so it was his turn to get reassurance and her turn to help protect him.”)
Orenstein also emphasized being patient with each other and offering to help. Don’t blame your partner when they’re stressed out, she said. Instead give them “a little slack, realizing it can be a tough time for them.”
Again, don’t hesitate to see a couples therapist once or twice to help you navigate potential challenges proactively, Orenstein said.