‘Tis the season, again! The holidays are upon us and celebrating the holidays as a couple certainly has its challenges. Check out our 7 Tips on How to Navigate Holidays As a Couple!
Holidays can really put a toll on your relationship. Whether you are dating, just got engaged, or you’ve been married for years, the holidays can be a time of celebration and joy or can become a sticky situation to navigate as a couple.
For many people, you find yourself being most loyal to your family of origin and naturally love to spend most, if not all, holidays with your own side of the family. So, how can you make the holidays as a couple work and agree on how to split them up between your two families? Here are seven quick tips on how to navigate holidays as a couple.

1. “The Holiday Talk” for the Couple

It is essential to take the time and have a conversation, in advance, about what the holidays mean for each of you. This may be your first holiday season together. Or you may feel differently now that you’re engaged. Or, if you’ve been married for years but have always had issues during the holidays, ask each other curious questions such as: how were the holidays for you growing up, what is your perfect idea of a Thanksgiving, what was your saddest holiday? You want to go into these conversations with curiosity, compassion, and empathy. You’re asking these questions to really listen and understand your partner’s lived experiences growing up and what their future expectations are. You should not come into the conversation listening to change the other person’s mind or point out faults in their experiences. You’re also not having these conversations to come up with an agreement just yet. Instead, you’re listening and sharing so that each of you can understand the other better.
During this conversation, you may come to a deeper understanding of why certain holiday traditions are so important to your partner. At the same time, you may also hear how much they need your support to get through the holidays with certain family members that are triggering to them. So again, listen to gain understanding. Don’t be afraid to validate your partner’s feelings in their experiences. Slow the conversation down to allow your partner to process their feelings as they come up during the discussion. Take time to let everything sink in, ask clarifying questions if you don’t fully understand something.
Having this conversation will allow you to understand each other and recognize what is important and unimportant during the holidays. Giving yourselves the space to have this conversation with enough time will take the pressure of resolving any differences about the holidays in a short amount of time. If you are both on the same page after having the Holiday Talk as a couple, you will be able to create a plan without difficulties.

2.   Agree to Disagree about the Holidays as a Couple

If you are stuck in differences about the holidays, recognize that those differences might not be resolved within a couple of days. So be kind to each other’s differences, as it might take each of you a lot of time to change attitudes about the holidays.
You as the couple are “team A” while each of your families is team B and C. Team A will focus on creating a game plan about the holidays. Put your energy into playing along with each other instead of against each other. That will give you a better chance for team A to win the game. For example, the game might look something like this: we won’t celebrate Christmas this year, could we celebrate next year; we will celebrate Thanksgiving and go on that vacation that you’ve been asking us to take for Christmas; we will spend Hanukkah with your family, but we will secure a hotel to sleepover so we can have some privacy and decrease our stimulation from family.
Be mindful that whatever differences you have about family dynamics and how to spend the holidays as a couple have long been ingrained within each of you. Setting high expectations on your partner and believing you each will get your 100% idea of a perfect holiday together is unrealistic and unfair. Strive instead for compromise where you identify what you would like the holidays as a couple to be, and allow your old traditions to influence while letting some of them go. This will help you both to set the stage a little higher and make changes for next year because the hope is that there will be more holidays together as a couple.
While splitting up the holidays may not feel ideal to you, it may be the best choice for you as individuals and, therefore, as a couple. Keep this option on the table if feasible. When couples become gridlocked on family plans, it can be helpful to just create separate plans and come together afterward to share about each person’s experience.
What you decide this year may not be the decision for next year. For instance, you may choose to spend extra time with one partner’s family than the other due to having a close family member terminally ill. Or you may base your travels and whose family you visit based on financial obligations to the traveling, and next year your financial situation may look different. It is important to have these types of conversations each year until you find a groove that seems to fit the two of you.

3.   Couple = Family

Think of yourselves together, the couple, as your own family. Remember, team A. If you think of yourselves as a family, it will help you feel empowered. The beauty of a couple is the two of you can create something new to the liking and joy of both of you. New families get to make their own rules as they build their own rituals and traditions. As you are individually a part of your family of origin, you are also forming a family of your own, as a couple, where you get to be in charge of making the holidays a joyful experience for you both.
If you have children, you may want to take their opinions into consideration. A child may not like specific family members and may not feel comfortable going to their home. A child may get overly stimulated with their cousins and have behavior or sleep issues after visiting them. During these conversations, you want to be sure to take in the needs of your children. That may mean giving up on traditions you adore because they are not a good fit for your children. This is essential, and here is why. Considering your children’s feelings about how they like to celebrate the holidays will teach them the importance of respecting their voices and decisions when they simply do not want to celebrate the way others do without any fear of repercussion. Your children will turn into adults, and with parents like you, that choose to do something different than your own parents, the level of stress your adult children might have when they have to come up with a plan to split the holidays with their partners would be minimal. The hope is that freedom will allow for future holiday celebrations where all your adult children want to come over and their parents because it brings them peace and joy. Again, do what is best for your family, Team A.

4.   Use Each Other As a Shield

Lean on each other for support. After all, a healthy relationship is where our partners help us make changes and support our growth as individuals. Maybe your partner is better than you at recognizing difficult things for you during the holidays. Identify something that you are unwilling to put up with during this holiday season, and with the support of your partner, practice doing something different, like setting boundaries with family members. For instance, you are both saving for a house and are keeping your spending to a minimum. Thus giving to all family members will really take a toll on your financial goals. Instead of you each individually telling your family members that you will not participate in the gift exchange, break the news as a couple “we (our family) will not be participating in a gift exchange this year.” If there is any backlash, the hope is to face it as a couple and not as an individual.
Allow your partner to help when things become too triggering. When your mom gets on your case about something – the way she always does -, come up with a signal for your partner to step in and redirect the conversation or stand up for you. Have your partner build you up about your job to your disapproving parents. While we would love if our family members could hear things from us and respect us, sometimes it’s easier for them to pallet and listen when it comes from an outsider.

5.   Self-Care

Self-care during the holidays is equally as vital as giving your energy to your family or each other as a couple. Ultimately, if you are not feeling your best, you cannot be or give your best to those around you. So, identify with your partner one or two things that would be helpful for each of you to do if interactions become too challenging to deal with during the holidays. For example, you may choose an early dismissal from your partner or family member after enjoying dinner. Or, it could be as simple as a “code word,” where you give each other permission to remove yourself from a situation that you neither want nor have the energy to deal with.
For instance, in a political conversation where you are feeling triggered, you might say, “Oh shoot, I forgot I have a deadline to finish this quick task for work. I will be back, everyone.” On the other hand, if you feel like being more direct, “I’d rather not talk about this topic today.” Using past experiences of how things have gone during the holidays should be your point of reference in what can and cannot happen and how you plan to take care of yourself and each other when it does happen again, especially if you have not seen things to change or improve. Remember, you are a team. Support your team by giving time outs, tagging each other in or out when necessary, and celebrating the wins together.
Taking time off from each other as a couple or your family member(s) during the holidays should not be seen as selfish or looked down upon; it is called self-love. However, do not force yourself or your partner to enter into a toxic situation for your mental stability. First, identify tools to heal the wounds that your family has clearly shown you that they are capable of creating. Next, implement these tools either individually or together as a team.

6. Limit Substances

The holidays are a time to celebrate, and there are no surprises that alcohol and/or drugs are being used during happy moments, sometimes excessively. Some of us love using substances during holidays (e.g., for happiness or coping), and others dislike those who use them uncontrollably. Now, you, as the couple, already know which category you might fall into. Again, use your past experiences to develop a plan on what might or might not happen. If your partner tends to get a little too tipsy and then loves driving home, not allowing you to take the wheel when you clearly have not had a drink, find an alternative way for transportation. It could be public transportation, grabbing an Uber/Lyft, or making arrangements for someone to pick you up/drop you off. If there is an agreement between the two of you that you would only drink a bottle of wine, and you do not follow through with the end of your deal, then your partner has the right to (fill in the black with your partner’s choice).
The same dynamic will apply if you are visiting family members who tend to use substances in excess. Do not put yourself or your partner in an unsafe situation. Be cordial and excuse your presence before others start having one too many drinks, and you are already aware of how that ends up. Biting more than you can chew would only leave you and your partner filled with disappointment or possible resentment. The holidays are not the time to expect family members to change or have a conversation with family members about how their substance use behaviors affect you. Practice removing yourself from the situation instead, as those who tend not to limit their substance use are not in control of their behaviors.

7. What day is it today?

If all the above fails, it might be helpful to remind each other that people will be people, with all of their expectations, perspectives, and traditions, whether on a holiday or a random day like November 8th. Open the door to kindness and compassion. Close the door to any outside pressure and unrealistic expectations on yourself or your partner during this season. You, as the couple, may not be able to keep everyone happy during the holidays. Thus, prioritizing each other’s joy on Thanksgiving Day, and choosing to visit your family of origin on black Friday instead, is honoring where your energy is spent and your power as a couple.

Navigate Holidays As a Couple!

The holidays can be a fun but sometimes stressful time. By having open couples communication about where each of you stands surrounding emotions, thoughts, and expectations, you are putting yourself in an excellent position to have the holidays be fun and less stressful.
Moreover, you are participating in an exercise that allows the two of you to become closer through understanding. Allow your partner’s stories to permeate you. Delve into deep support of your partner if they describe something that traditionally is very tough for them during the holidays. If you have tried to have conversations about the holidays but can’t seem to come out on top and compromise, having a therapist help you through these conversations may be helpful.
Please reach out to us, as our couples therapists in Philadelphia are specially trained in communication and can help you get to the compromise you’re looking for and need to get through, not just the holiday season but all family interactions.