The Conversation Every Couple Should Have Before Their First Family Holiday
When it comes to the holidays, there are often many different people with differing expectations—which can require management, especially if you are managing both you and your partner's families.
Spending time with in-laws or with one's own parents may induce feelings of dread, insecurity, or anger that make the holidays stressful for couples. There might be political differences that cause tensions. There may be issues related to gender, sexuality, or race that cause hurt feelings or conflict. You or your partner may feel unwelcome or not accepted into one another's families. There may be wounds from the past with certain family members that trigger reactivity and conflict. There might be personalities in the family that trigger you. The list is endless.
When we partner with someone, we also partner with their family, which can be a wonderful or challenging aspect of being in partnership. "Every marriage is a cross-cultural experience regardless of whether people are from different or the same cultures," renowned relationship researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., once told CNN in an interview.
The holidays can bring mixed feelings and expectations about this new family culture, especially when it comes to in-laws or your partner's family. Often this universal aspect of partnering with someone's family can lead to initial feelings of culture shock.
When we partner with someone, we also partner with their family. Often this can lead to initial feelings of culture shock.
Let me paint you a little picture of what this culture shock can look like. A couple that I was working with came into the office after Christmas and began to process a recent conflict related to the holidays.
Brenda said to me, "When we got to Christmas dinner her family had ordered pizzas! Everyone sat around the living room with plates on their laps watching It's a Wonderful Life! No one talked to one another, and everyone was on their phones the whole time." She looked at me with desperation as tears began to stream down her face.
She continued, "Christmas with my family is all about a home-cooked meal at a beautifully decorated table. There aren't any phones allowed at the table, and everyone engages in conversation with one another. I sat there the whole time feeling so scared, sad, and angry. Like, is this going to be what the holidays are like forever? I don't know if I can agree to that."
Meanwhile, her partner, Ellen, sitting next to her on the couch began to become more and more agitated. "This is my family's holiday tradition! You sound so superior and dismissive of my family. It's really hurtful!"
If you identify with elements of this story, or with any of the challenges that come along with negotiating two different worlds, try using the following structure to engage in a preholiday dialogue with your partner:
Acknowledge that you are different people with equally valid subjective realities.
While this might sound obvious, this is the necessary foundation to begin your dialogue. You might start by saying, "I want to share some of my needs, feelings, and boundaries with you. I know that you may have a totally different perspective, and I'm invested in hearing where we agree, and where we differ."
Describe your observations.
Bring intentionality and objectivity to your language and explain the situation from your point of view. "I notice that often when we go to your family's house, people sit in front of the TV, and people don't engage in conversation with one another."
Name how the situation makes you feel.
Share how the situation, behavior, or dynamic affects you emotionally. Focus on "I" statements and steer clear from blame, shame, or criticism. "When no one is talking to each other, I can feel sad."
State what you need. Include boundaries here as well if you have them.
Here you can ask your partner for what they can do to respond to your stated feeling and need: "It would mean a lot to me if you sat next to me on the couch and talked to me about the movie, the food, or anything so I don't feel so uncomfortable and lonely."
Remember, though: Your request is not a mandate. When we clarify and express our needs, it doesn't mean that we will always get what we want from our partner. However, it is the only way that they can know what we want and for them to determine whether or not they can respond to our expressed needs.
The bottom line.
It takes time for couples to adjust to one another's families. It's totally normal for couples to begin to see their respective families in a different light as they experience each other's different family cultures. It takes time to learn how to communicate, prioritize the relationship, clarify boundaries, adjust expectations, and accept one another's differences.
If you and your partner carve out time to sit down and explore your needs, boundaries, and negotiate differences, you can create a plan that can serve as a touchstone for how to best support one another. Preemptive holiday conversations with your partner can create a feeling of connection and security with one another that can help you both navigate bumpy terrain.
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Jordan Dann, MFA, LP, CIRT, is a dynamic and innovative psychoanalyst, writer, and educator. Her training in Gestalt Psychotherapy as well as her many years coaching and directing actors has fostered her desire to help individuals become more connected, self-aware, free, and expressive. As a licensed psychoanalyst in private practice, she works with individuals, couples, and conducts case supervision in New York City. She is a graduate of the Gestalt Associates for Psychotherapy, an IMAGO couples therapist, and a Somatic Experiencing (SE) practitioner. She has a BFA in acting and MFA in theater education from Boston University.
As a coach, her 20 years career in the nonprofit sector deepened her commitment to help people reach higher levels of fulfillment, truth, effectiveness, and joy in their work lives; and to help create intentional working environments so that people feel safe to communicate, play, create, resolve conflict, and get work done.
As a theatre educator, she has taught at New York University, Boston University, Colorado Mountain College, Dreamyard Art Center, Stella Adler Studios, and Cap21. As an experience architect and program manager, she has worked with the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, Shakespeare Society, Aspen Institute, and Theatre Aspen.