November 2017

Holiday Manual for Couples: Keeping love alive from Thanksgiving to New Year’s

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

What is supposed to be the happiest time of the year can be a challenging time for couples. It’s tough even if you are fortunate enough to have an intact family (same husband you started with and a set of mutually conceived kids). But for those who are part of what I call a “vegomatic” family, the whole blending process can present its own set of challenges.

If you are one of those lucky people with no significant family drama who can pull off the perfect Norman Rockwell family gathering without tearing your hair out and/or taking a Xanax, feel free to turn the page now. Otherwise, stay tuned.

Since my immediate family is practically non-existent (I am one of two who has not yet been called to glory), it’s up to me to try to fit in with my husband’s family. In her book, Family, the Ties that Bind and Gag, the late American humorist Erma Bombeck said, “Families aren’t easy to join. They’re like an exclusive country club where membership makes impossible demands and the dues for an outsider are exorbitant.” To be fair, my husband’s family embraced me early and easily. It was I who struggled to find my place within their time-honored holiday traditions.

After several years trying to convince them all to come to Hilton Head Island and celebrate Thanksgiving at the beach (and even offering to do all the cooking and cleaning), I waved the white surrender flag. I am resigned to the fact that I will, once again, be eating fried turkey and canned cranberry sauce in Vidalia, Georgia. (Apparently, I am the only one who enjoys homemade cranberry sauce instead of the jelly kind in the can, and, oddly, no one in this family eats sweet potato casserole!) It’s a small sacrifice on my part, because what I realize deep in my heart is that it is not about the location or who’s setting the table. It’s not even about pumpkin vs. pecan pie. It is about not stirring the pot! It’s about tradition—a comfort zone (not mine, but my loved ones’). By surrendering my vision of the perfect holiday, I allow others to fulfill theirs.

Before you declare me a saint, let me admit that I didn’t come to this conclusion fully of my own free will. It took a few harsh words complete with slammed doors, tears and pouting sessions before I could see clearly what attitude adjustment was necessary to survive the holidays and stay happily married. Since then, my husband and I have worked out a compromise whereby we spend Thanksgiving Day with his family in his hometown, but we return to the island to spend the rest of the holiday weekend with my only “child” (the cat).

At Christmas, we juggle family visits before and after December 25, but reserve Christmas night as our own private evening of celebration and romance. Seems pretty fair, right? The next night is a family dinner in a fancy restaurant where we entertain my husband’s entire tribe, including his ex and her significant other. (Now, I may be getting closer to sainthood.)

At the same time, we have encouraged all family members, specifically my husband’s daughters, to do what feels right for them, without pressure or guilt, as they are also juggling multiple family obligations, blending traditions, and negotiating their own marital compromises. So far, this has worked out well for all concerned.

In the coming years, time and circumstances will likely dictate changes and maybe even a few new traditions. Perhaps someday I will serve turkey dinner to my family at the beach or take them all out for sushi instead. Meanwhile, I will continue to smile sweetly and try not to have a meltdown before the ball drops at midnight on December 31.

Universal tips for keeping the peace
Everyone’s family situation is different, and I certainly don’t have a magic formula for creating harmony in your home. But I have learned a few lessons that can apply almost universally. Here are some pointers to help you and your mate chart your course through the hectic holiday season:

• Design your holidays. Happy holidays start with planning, and advance agreements are key to pulling it all off without hurt feelings and resentment. Talk about which traditions are most important to you and why. Create your holiday plan around those that are most meaningful to you—individually and as a couple. You may have to work out some compromises, but by taking each other’s values and wishes into account, you can ward off misunderstandings and disappointment.

• Put your spouse first. Parents and children are important, of course—aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, and friends, too. But this is the time of year when it pays to pay a little extra attention to your spouse. Share in all holiday plans and decisions with an eye toward pleasing each other. Do that, and everything else will fall into place.

• Think we instead of me. Make it clear to all concerned that holiday decisions are made as a couple, and take equal responsibility for a mutual decision, regardless of whose idea it was. Practice using “we” statements, e.g. “We have decided to have dinner at home alone on Christmas Eve.”

• Carve out some couple time. It’s easy to get caught up in the holiday whirlwind and lose sight of your needs as a couple. Don’t forget to schedule a weekly date alone with your spouse. Put it on the calendar and make it your top priority. Be sure to save some energy for intimacy—a perfect antidote to all the holiday stress.

• Spread out the fun. So many parties, so little time! Over-obligation can lead to exhaustion and emotional distance. Agree to check with one another before accepting any social invitations, including family gatherings and business functions. If there are invitations you must turn down or you choose to decline, you might consider planning a post-holiday gathering of your own, inviting the people you care about but didn’t get to see.

• Please yourselves. When you finally realize that you cannot possibly please all the people all the time, give yourselves permission to have your own kind of holiday. Lose the guilt and do what is right for you as a couple. If it means serving steaks instead of turkey or blowing off the family dinner and going to Tahiti instead, just do it!

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