This issue may be one that sneaks up on you. When you’re in a new relationship, you anticipate at least some conflict over such issues as money, sex, communication, etc. But the holidays? Come on, how hard can that be? Well, as veteran couples can attest, how you handle the holidays has the potential to be pretty explosive.
And it makes sense when you think about it. After all, we’re talking about two things fraught with tons of emotion: family and rituals. You and your partner are both likely bringing some pretty strong feelings to the table, and you may not even realize it. And when your individual expectations for the holidays don’t match up, that’s when some serious relational tension can crop up.
The most obvious answer is to take turns: her family this year, his the next time. But it’s not always that simple and easy; life is usually more complicated than that. Plus, when you throw in the pressure and expectations of family members, it can get especially sticky. Your parents want you to come home and sleep in your old room; your brother and his wife want their kids to be at their house for the holidays; and your sister is suggesting a trip to the mountains. It’s awfully tough to find a way to negotiate all these schedules. And that’s just you. We haven’t even brought your partner into the equation yet.
So what do you do? Well, you communicate, you compromise, and you do your best. Here are some principles to get you started.
Principle #1: Let the relationship vote.
When you two are having trouble making a good and fair decision on an issue like this, keep in mind that there are three votes to be considered: one for you, one for your partner, and one for the relationship. You should each get a chance to make a case for your own position, but then make sure that your relationship also gets a vote—and this vote breaks the tie. By doing this, you’ll emphasize the fact that you’re on the same team and that your commitment to each other is more important than your individual agendas.
Principle #2: Consider the context.
Fairness is a great principle to work from in situations like this. But sometimes, being fair means not taking turns. For example, do you live closer to her family and spend time with them on a regular basis? Then maybe his family gets more time on holidays. Or have you spent more time with his side of the family during past holidays? Then make a decision that lets you get to know her side equally well. The point here is that you want to consider as much of the context as possible. Don’t limit yourselves to simply asking, “Whose family were we with last Thanksgiving?” Instead, ask which option makes the most sense, considering your current situation.
Principle #3: Be creative.
Be willing to “think outside of the box” as you try to make fair and equitable holiday decisions. After all, there’s no rule book that sets down unbreakable guidelines you have to adhere to. So use your imagination. Maybe you could each see your families separately, then carve out some time when you do something special for just the two of you. Or maybe you take a “three-point trip” where you see first your family then your partner’s before heading home. Or pick a neutral location where you invite both sides. Or stay where you are and have both families come to you. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that there are only two options to choose from, either of which is going to leave at least one of you upset. Instead, challenge yourselves to plan the holidays in a way that feels good to both of you and that’s good for your relationship.
Principle #4: Communicate with your family.
Don’t let family stresses stress out your relationship. Of course family is important. And it’s important to honor parents and siblings, not to mention tradition and inherited rituals and customs. But your romantic relationship is a priority as well. And depending on exactly how serious the relationship is, you may need to explain to your family that you want to do things a bit differently this year. Obviously, it’s best if you convey how important your partner is in a way that’s kind and respectful to your family. But even if they don’t understand, there may come a time when you have to make a decision to go your own way, even if it means missing the New Year’s Eve service you’ve always attended in the past.
In the end, it’s all about finding a healthy balance or, to be more precise, finding healthy balances. It’s great that you want to be true to your family, to your partner, and to yourself. But as you probably already know, that’s not easy to do.
So, consider your own desires, along with how important your relationship is to you—what kind of vote should it cast? Then talk through your options with your respective families. After you and your partner have weighed the desires of as many people as you can, make a decision together. It will probably require compromise, sacrifice, and conflict resolution, but remember that the holidays are about being with the people we love. The important thing is to find a way to make your holidays together as meaningful as possible.