The holidays can be a time of great joy and good food, but can also be a source of tension in our relationships. In this episode, Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt, the Relationship Doctor, provides advice on how to navigate difficult conversations about where to spend the holidays this season.
The holiday season is meant to be a time filled with joy, friends, family, and good food. In fact, Thanksgiving in particular is one of the happiest days of the year. All of the social rituals and expressed gratitude on that day are linked to reported increased happiness and reduced feelings of stress for 68% of Americans. In the last year in particular, many of us felt the strain of missing out on holiday experiences due to COVID-19. The social connection during this season is something that many people look forward to.
However, with the holidays comes certain expectations for how people ought to experience each holiday. We feel obligated to see family, to travel long distances, and to celebrate in particular ways. This sense of obligation may lead romantic partners to feel competing ways about how they should be spending each holiday. Do we go to my family or your family? What did we do last year? I don’t like the way your family celebrates this holiday. You don’t want to be interrogated by my nosy Aunt this year. We want to create our own traditions in our own home for the holiday.
Navigating these competing concerns can be difficult. Whether it’s your first holiday as an official couple or the 15th time you’ve had to decide where to go for Thanksgiving, these decisions may invoke a sense of anxiety or discomfort. This is particularly true for people who have fought about this in prior relationships or in their current relationship during the prior holiday seasons. So, how can we more effectively navigate this?
Navigating milestone conflicts
The holiday season is a set time every year that we can expect to encounter. Research tells us that when an event is associated with recurrent conflict, like fighting with your partner about where you are spending the holidays, it can preemptively produce anxiety or worry in anticipation of that conflict occurring. This worry may spark intrusive, or ruminative, thoughts about the issue and/or your partner. This conflict can feel high stakes and produce overly emotional conversations because they center around meaningful relationships in your life or touchy subjects, like your family, money, or your faith.
First, if you are experiencing preemptive worry about a conversation you need to have, the worst thing you can do is stew in that worry. Avoiding discussions around an issue prolongs the amount of time you will spend experiencing negative feelings. It will also create mounting pressure around what will be an inevitable conversation (the holidays are coming and decisions need to be made!). Tell your partner that you are worried about this conversation and that you don’t want to fight, but you do want to reach a resolution. Then, give yourselves a space free of distractions, like your phone, the TV, or children, to have a conversation about your holiday plans.
Second, focus on the facts and creating equity. Your family has different holidays that are important to them and certain expectations for when and how you celebrate them. With this, there is no perfectly equitable solution that will work for every family. Your goal should be to identify and solidify your plans for the holidays you are intending to celebrate this year from early November to New Year—this time period includes many holidays across varied cultures and religions. This should be a practical conversation rather than an emotional one. If you have solidified plans for any of the holidays, put that on the table to start.
Now you should be left with whatever holidays you need to set plans for. If you have to decide whose family to see, you should try and be fair. Consider whose family you haven’t seen in a while, financial or time constraints that may prohibit those plans, and who you will be spending the other holidays of the season with. Are there holidays you would prefer to be with family or with friends for? Are there others you’d prefer to spend alone together?
If you start to get emotional, give yourself time to cool down. Identify what is making you upset. Is it that you are feeling unheard? Is it that you feel the plan isn’t fair? Start the conversation back up with the reason for why you felt your feelings. “I started to get frustrated because I felt like my concerns about spending most holidays with your family instead of my family were not integrated into our holiday plans this year.” Allow your partner to respond to that concern.
Sometimes there is an inability to be equitable in making these plans for unbiased reasons. For example, perhaps it will cost a substantial amount of money to see one side of the family, and you don’t have that money to spend for this holiday season, whereas the other side of the family is a one-hour car ride away. Instead of dismissing those concerns as something you can’t solve, you can try to make plans for the following year. “Since we can’t see your family this year, we can make an active effort to save so that we will be able to next year.” You can also try to come up with creative solutions for this year, “I know how hard it is that we can’t see your family this year, so we should set up a special time on the holiday to talk with them.”
What if you don’t want to see family at all?
Maybe the issue is not that you and your partner don’t know where to go for the holidays, but instead, you don't want to go anywhere. One study found that people who spent Thanksgiving of 2020 with one person compared to multiple people, like a spouse or friend, compared to a whole family, saw no statistically significant difference in improvements of Thanksgiving-induced well-being or how satisfied they were with their company. That is to say, spending time with just one other person on the holiday can produce similar well-being outcomes to spending that time with a large group of people.
So even if you don’t want to spend the holidays with family, you should try to spend the holidays with someone. If you aren’t in a relationship or aren’t able to be together with your partner for the holidays and you don’t want to see family, you have the ability to choose who you want to spend your time with and who will bring you the most joy. As the research shows, spending the day with just one friend is better than spending it alone. If you don’t want to leave your space, you can also try to do a virtual holiday where you set up a video chat and invite people to cycle in and out throughout the day. Even if people are at different gatherings, it can be fun to pop into a virtual gathering together for a moment.
If you and/or your partner are feeling dread about seeing family or traveling to see family during the holidays, don’t just do it out of a sense of obligation. If you are worried about your family’s feelings, you can set a time to be passed around a larger family gathering on a video chat or on a phone call to get some time with each of your family members in lieu of an in-person presence.
Being with one person who you want to be with can provide just as much joy or satisfaction as being with a large group of people. And, in case you need to hear this: if you and your spouse don’t want to travel for the holiday, or don’t want to attend a huge gathering, you don’t have to—it can be just as satisfying to spend the holiday together as a couple.