Let’s Talk About The Holigays

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Emily McGaughy

While the holidays bring much to celebrate – vacation days from work, the best sales at our favorite shops, and a string of cocktail parties – stress remains to be an inevitable part of the season.  We struggle to find the time to shop for our loved ones and the money to afford those perfectly thoughtful gifts.  We often find ourselves working longer hours to be able to actually take those coveted vacation days while those days off are spent working through the seemingly endless holiday to-do list – shopping, cleaning, decorating, cooking.  And, if you’re one half of a couple, you know that we can easily share and absorb the stress of our partners leading to the very opposite of what this time of year is actually about – love.  

I asked a group of individuals from varying backgrounds and relationship dynamics – married, dating, queer, straight – to share some of the seasonally specific challenges they face as couples.  Here are some of the responses I received:

“Seeing both families. A lot of driving and not enjoying the holidays because it is stressful.”

“My wife’s parents are divorced and one parent believes we should spend more time with her over the other one. She doesn’t want to do split days. But the Dad is open to whatever makes us happy. The holidays in our house are very hard.”

“Not enough couple/alone time, tension by not talking about the stresses which leads to resentment which bleeds into intimacy.”

“Figuring out how to spend our time with both sides of the family.”

“Finding the time to see everyone.”

“Making everyone happy on both sides of the fam. We end up racing from house to house. It’s exhausting.”

See a trend here?  While the pressure to please our loved ones is something most of us have accepted as holiday tradition whether we’re single or in a relationship, the stress can pile on when we feel obligated to please our partner’s loved ones in addition to our own.  

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This year will be the ninth holiday season I’ve spent with my wife and, along the way, we’ve learned a thing or two about the inevitable pressures that arise between November and January.  My parents are divorced, but my family is relatively small.  Char was raised by a single mom, but her extended family is huge.  My mom is nothing if not a planner, so arrangements with her are calendared far in advance.  Char’s family is easygoing, so holiday details are generally made closer to the actual date.  She has the larger family; I have the most parents (mom, dad, stepdad, dad’s girlfriend).  And we have 10 nieces and nephews (5 on each side).  In sum, it’s a lot – a lot of people to shop for, a lot of people to see, a lot of expectation.  Let me be clear and express my gratefulness for having our families live in the same state within an hour drive, not to mention how blessed we are as a married lesbian couple to actually have a place to go during the holidays.  And though most of the pressure we feel is self-inflicted, it’s still very real.  

First, I’d like to address navigating the holidays for the new-ish couples – those of you in the not so serious, probably not living together yet, just dating phase.  DO NOT allow the nostalgia of the season to pressure you into a premature holiday symbiosis.  So, you’ve had a girlfriend for 3 months.  Fabulous!  That doesn’t mean you should schedule a photo shoot for a family holiday card just yet.  And it doesn’t require that you attend each other’s family gatherings.  In fact, I’d say don’t.  You have plenty of time for that.

So, get on that plane to your mom’s house in the Midwest alone.  Order a pinot grigio.  Take a selfie before the flight funk ruins your blow-out and send it to your significant other.  Text each other throughout the day; share funny stories and family drama.  Enjoy the separateness you have as a new couple.  Miss each other.  Before you know it, 5 years will have passed and these first holidays you’re spending as a couple will seem like another lifetime.  I assure you you’ll look back on this time of your relationship fondly; you’ll be thankful that you didn’t rush into family life before it was time.

And now for the LTRs, the married folks, the fully committed for the foreseeable future: remember you’re an adult.  Remember you’re entitled to make your own decisions.  And remember to hide your favorite bottle of wine from the rest of the family because they will drink it and they will pretend they didn’t know you brought it.

Setting the tone for how you will navigate the holidays as a couple is solely the responsibility of you and your partner.  If your lifestyle is busy and requires planning family gatherings far in advance, initiate the conversation on setting a date and time – even if the gathering isn’t in your home.  My wife and I generally broach the subject on Thanksgiving as it’s a time when most of the family will be present and in a place where they’re thinking about the upcoming holiday season.  Do your due diligence, be flexible, be reasonable, but also – be fair to your partner and yourself.  If your family or your significant other’s family can’t be cooperative and accommodating of your schedule and lifestyle, it’s not your job to make up for their lack of consideration.  Take care of the needs of your partner and yourself first.  Ensure you’re not being asked for more than you as a couple can give or more than what’s justifiable.  

And above all, prioritize your relationship.  If you’re in a place as a couple in which an agreed upon commitment has been made, the holidays are not just for your respective extended families.  The holidays are for you.  Know that you’re entitled to create your own traditions and reserve time for the two of you.  I’ll go so far as to say that you must carve out at least a little time to share as a couple.  This time of year brings about an infinite amount of distractions and stress which can take a toll on a relationship.  Be intentional about caring for your significant other.  Go out of your way, even more than usual, to make them feel special and loved by you and request they do the same for you.  

Within the first few years of our relationship, Char and I started a Christmas Eve tradition just for the two of us.  Every year we have dinner at home, exchange gifts, and watch one of our favorite movies – “A Home at the End of the World.”  It’s something for our family and our family alone and, after so many years of this tradition, even our extended families know that Christmas Eve is sacred.  We set the precedent.

Regardless of your relationship status, expectations ruin everything.  And the holidays are rife with expectation.  We expect to feel a certain way.  We expect our homes to look a certain way.  We expect our Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year celebrations to go a certain way.  And even though things never play out the way we expect, we continue to hold on to expectation.  It steals our joy, it steals our peace, and it steals our ability to be present.  The loved ones you’re with, the traditions you’re creating, the relationship you’ve built, the moment you’re in – are all that matter.  This season, forfeit the expectations and live in the now.  The present, this very moment, without expectation, is the best present you can give to yourself and to those you love.

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