By Dr. Antoinette DeLuca for YourTango.com.
You know the holidays are near when food markets start displaying gingerbread house kits! I spotted this delectable harbinger of the season a few days ago at my local Whole Foods Market. Now, real homeowners know it is prudent to winterize their house (not the gingerbread variety) before the assaults of the holiday season strike. Why not offer the same attention to your relationship before the most wonderful time of the year is upon us?
With stores readily gearing up for the festive season, now is the perfect time to work on insulating your relationship from the various challenges that can arise at holiday time. Whether you are newly married, engaged, in a committed relationship, dating or single, there are things you can do NOW to maintain a happy union throughout the most wonderful time of year.
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For a newly married couple whose families observe the same holidays, the decision of where to celebrate the big days can sometimes introduce a strain on the relationship. However, the opportunity to approach a stressor such as this in an effective and supportive way may actually be beneficial for your new marriage! According to a 2011 study conducted by researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, if a couple is exposed to a stressful but manageable experience early on, and effectively manages the unpleasant circumstance, it may serve to increase the couple’s resilience to future and potentially more significant stressors (Neff & Broady, 2011). It is related to the concept of “stress inoculation.” To put it simply, this may be a good opportunity for you and your spouse to sharpen your couple problem-solving skills.
Fresh from the celebration of your nuptials, you are now the “it couple” and naturally, both sides of your family may be vying for your presence at their holiday table. So how do you decide as a married couple which invitation to accept? Planning is essential, and the sooner the better with this one. Outline your options, and don’t be afraid to get creative.
Some typical scenarios might include:
Gathering Both Families Together
If both sides of the family live in close proximately to each other (and you have adequate space to accommodate all who want to join in the festivities), this may be the perfect opportunity to host the holidays in your new home. As your inaugural debut as holiday hosts, it is understandable that there may be a few glitches — that will take away some of the pressure. While your holiday entertaining skills might not yet mimic the likes of Martha Stewart, your family and friends will likely be understanding. Perhaps you will need to bring in folding chairs, or find that your nicest China Set does not serve all of your guests. You may even consider implementing a potluck for the occasion. Not everything will be perfect, but what will leave a lasting impression is your effort to bring together the two families to enjoy the spirit of the season.
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If the distance between the celebrations is not an issue, you may be able to enjoy the festivities with both sides of the family, just not at the same time. Perhaps you enjoy the holiday meal at one location, and dessert at another. To make it fair, you may consider a coin toss to decide which household you visit first.
However, if the families live great distances from each other, you will likely need to decide on one over the other. If this is the case, make sure to set up a schedule were you alternate holidays at the in-laws’. This way, one side of the family does not miss a visit from the happy couple on two consecutive holidays.
Whatever your options are, the key is to plan your holiday schedule long in advance of the actual holiday. You and your spouse would do well to sit down with the calendar and decide your plans for all of the major holidays for your first year of marriage. Once you have decided on your schedule, without being too presumptuous, communicate it with friends and family that are likely to extend an invitation to attend their holiday gathering. This way your loved ones have ample opportunity to prepare, too. As with any decisions in a marriage, leave some room for flexibility.
For couples in their initial year of a committed relationship, this may be the first holiday season you are spending together. Just as the newlyweds, you face the same quandary — where to spend the holidays? Additionally, there is the added stressor of being submerged into a new family culture. While holidays often bring much joy and togetherness, there is also the potential for family conflict. Should family drama rear its head at your boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s holiday gathering, it’s best to stay neutral! Now is not the time to practice your negotiating skills or align with any one side. While you want to be authentic, your focus on this occasion is being polite and pleasant company. Remember your manners and always offer to assist with kitchen duties.
For couples that have been dating regularly leading up to the holiday season, you may be especially vulnerable to the pressures of the season. Having a budding romance coincide with the holidays can often bring some confusion and spark questions that might not ordinarily come up at other times of the year. Do I buy him or her a gift? Do I invite him or her to spend holiday time with my family? What is our status?
The key to navigating these uncharted waters successfully is ample communication. Maybe it is too soon to invite your special someone to join you and your family for the holidays. If this is the case, gently bring up this topic. If you are intending to exchange gifts, express this as well. There is nothing to be gained by keeping each other in the dark. Lastly, if the holidays are putting pressure on you to define your relationship, bring this into your own personal awareness. Ask yourself: would these concerns come up at any other time of the year? If it is indeed the holidays accelerating the natural course of a new dating relationship, you might consider raising
questions of commitment and exclusivity at a later time.
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For the single set, holidays can also heap on the pressure. Think of dear Bridget Jones surrounded by all of the smug married couples. When you are sailing solo amongst a sea of couples at holiday occasions, it’s natural to experience some discomfort. Added to this, your well-meaning friends and family may shine the spotlight on your status by inquiring about your dating life or attempting to play matchmaker.
Take a deep breath and respond politely and pleasantly to such inquiries. Remain upbeat and invariably the subject will change to a new topic. If all else fails, you could always quote statistics from a recent United States Census poll. According to the stats, you are by no means alone but among 103 million adult Americans who also share your single status. Or, if you prefer percentages, 41.1 percent of all United States residents (18 and older) are unmarried.
Just as a well-constructed gingerbread house can manage to hold up through the holidays (sans a slippery gum drop or two), so can your relationship — whatever the status — with a bit of thoughtfulness and planning.
Neff, L. A., & Broady, E. F. (2011). Stress resilience in early marriage: Can practice make perfect? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 101(5), Nov 2011, 1050-1067. doi:10.1037/a0023809
U. S. Census Bureau. (2012). America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012. Retrieved October 26, 2013, from http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/facts_for_features_special_editions/cb13-ff21.html
This article originally appeared on YourTango.com: Navigating The Holidays: ‘It’s Complicated!’.