Regardless of where you are in your relationship, if you’ve entered the stage of seeing each others’ families, then you will inevitably find yourself in some sort of conversation regarding the holidays. Whether that is deciding that you each want to do your own thing without one another, or coming to some sort of agreement on how to split your time as a couple between each of your families. There is no “wrong” way of doing things, and let’s be honest, navigating your own family can be challenging at times, let alone navigating your partner’s family.
To gain some insight on how to navigate these often uncharted waters, I spoke with Chicago-based Associate Marriage and Family Therapist Teresa D’Astice, who broke the process down into more digestible steps.
The first thing D’Astice suggests is to sit down and have a conversation that acknowledges that this can be a hot topic and that each partner has valid reasons to want to spend holiday time with their families.
“Talking about each individual’s experiences around holidays can remind a couple that both experiences can exist (dialectics are so important!),” she explains. “What are the expectations each partner has for each other? How is this showing up in different areas of your life? Where do the expectations come from?”
Some families don’t find it super important to get together on the exact holiday, another family may have a tradition of getting together on the day after Thanksgiving, but establishing upfront if you both choose to spend the holidays together is super important and can help avoid confusion and hurt feelings later.
I spoke with a handful of people in my life on this topic and heard wide-ranging perspectives when it came to expectations and where those expectations come from. One person shared that she and her significant other agreed they both value and enjoy seeing their families on Christmas Eve, so they go their separate ways for that specific holiday.
Another one of my friends shared that she and her fiancé are inter-faith (with one partner being Catholic and the other not religious), so they decided to do Thanksgiving with the non-religious family and do Christmas with the Catholic family.
After acknowledging, D’Astice shares she would encourage couples to explore the meaning, emotions, and dynamics behind each partners’ celebration, what the event means to them, and expectations each partner holds from their family of origin. What do their families expect out of them on the particular holiday or event?
This is where things can get tricky AF. Everyone has that one family member who will have an opinion. An opinion if you don’t show up, an opinion if you do show up but with a new significant other in tow and forgot to include their name in the White Elephant — this list can go on and on.
On the other hand, there may be a family member from your partner’s family you simply are not interested in seeing. Whatever your specific situation may be, ultimately, you and your significant other should discuss this before you pull into Aunt Becky and Uncle Jesse’s driveway because we all know getting wine drunk at a family holiday is way less fun when you’re mad at your partner for not reading your mind.
Finally, if you and your significant other have tried to discuss and negotiate, but ultimately are still running into issues, D’Astice explains it may be time for deeper therapeutic work. This doesn’t necessarily mean couples counseling — it could be just one partner on their own or both partners separately.
“Are outdated familial expectations and roles getting in the way of making a decision?” she asks. “Having conversations from this perspective would hopefully bring down some of the defenses around familial roles and expectations that seem so close to our identity.”
Navigating familial relationships into adulthood can be complicated on its own, but bringing in another whole set of years of baggage (fun fact: we all have it!) with your partner’s family can get complex.
“Overall, my one piece of advice is to keep in mind that each partner’s experiences are valid and deserve to be heard and understood by their partner,” says D’Astice. “Wanting to spend time with one’s family with a partner is a complex decision because of how many people are involved! These complications are not always personal — they make sense!”