How to Manage the Holidays as a Couple

Part 5 of our Holiday Blog Series

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Holidays are supposed to be an exciting time filled with love and joy, a time to strengthen bonds in our relationships . The season revolves around seeing family and friends, sharing great food and good cheer.  Yet from budding relationships to the most veteran couples, it can be a time of great stress and conflict.


So You’ve Started a New Relationship

If you are in a new relationship, the holidays can bring excitement for the monumental “firsts” together.  However, those “firsts” can be accompanied by stress and uncertainty. John and Julie Gottman of the Gottman Institute have studied thousands of couples to determine the formula for success in committed relationships. They assert that it is important to discuss how you want to celebrate the holidays and what the holidays mean to you.  

The more intentional you are about your holiday rituals, the more meaningful your holidays (and your marriage) will be.  Creating rituals deepens your connection with your partner, and the Gottmans actively promote creating your own rituals as a couple or family. While each individual may have important family rituals they already follow, there are many  opportunities to create new ones together. Ultimately, these shared rituals will strengthen the bonds you share with your partner.

Where to Spend the Holidays?

It is essential to discuss which holidays are important to you both, is Thanksgiving the most important, or is it Independence Day, Christmas, or Hanukkah?  What are your expectations around celebrating these holidays? Discuss each of your priorities and find a way to equitably share the holidays together.

Is it possible to alternate where you celebrate every other year so it feels more fair? If distance isn’t an overriding factor, is it possible to split your time between both families on the actual holidays so everyone is happy? Or if Thanksgiving is more important to one family, and Christmas to another,  can you spend one with each? If you are an interfaith couple there may even be more options outside of the secular holidays. You also may want to start your own tradition and host your family and friends at your place!

Prepare Your Partner

Another area of concern can be preparing your partner to meet your family. Even if your partner has met your family only a few times, or has known them for years, celebrating with family  can be anxiety-provoking. It may be helpful to inform your partner of special family traditions and bring them up to speed on any family dynamics they may need to be aware of.

Preparing your partner can help reduce stress and pave the way for a frictionless celebration. However, if  visiting your family continues to be a source of angst, be mindful that it is only a few times a year, and even a few hours per visit at that, and  try to maintain a positive attitude going into the party.

Take it Easy

Gatherings can be nerve-wracking, but drinking too much to calm the nerves is never the answer. It’s helpful to monitor your drinking so you can always remain composed and in control. Later, you won’t regret remaining sober or limiting yourself to only one or two drinks, and the chances of a positive experience and outcome is so much greater.

Have Each Other’s Back

If conflict ensues between your partner and your family during the holiday festivities, it is important to be loyal to your partner.  David Burns’ “EAR Approach” can serve as a useful tool for navigating conflicts with each other.

EAR means:

Empathy:  Did I acknowledge what my partner was thinking and feeling or was I defensive?

Assertiveness,: Did I make “I feel” statements or blame my partner for the problem?

Respect, was I caring even if I was irritated?  

Consider “soft start-ups” meaning, when you present your need,  do so in a loving and caring way (versus launching into attack mode.)  Where can you be more flexible? Can you arrive at a compromise together?    

Enjoy Meaningful Time Together

There is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays together.  Holidays have a range of meaning to different people. It is paramount to discuss with your partner your hopes and dreams with respect to where you want to spend the holidays, what traditions are the most important to you, and what you are willing to compromise on.  The ideal scenario is to strike a balance so everyone is comfortable and satisfied.

Many couples divide and conquer with respect to the holidays and spend time apart visiting their respective families. Often they do this  because they couldn’t strike a balance between visiting their respective families, and instead of making a joint decision, moved forward independently with their own plans.  There could be other reasons, and this is not to be judged. It’s just that my hope is that because you are a couple, you continue to celebrate important holidays and family time together and find your own unique traditions and rituals!

Laura Goldstein, LMSW, is a therapist at A Good Place. To learn more about her, read her bio here.