Thanksgiving Day is the kick off for the holiday season extravaganza. Thanks to the media, we know how to cook the juiciest turkey, sweetest candied yams and best pumpkin pie. We also know where to find the best deals on holiday gifts at 2 am the morning of Black Friday. Sound stressful? It is, but for most people, none of that compares to the stress of navigating family differences and strife during the holidays.
Most of us have a Norman Rockwell vision of what Thanksgiving should look like, but that's just not the reality for most families. Tempers are lost along with the keys to the minivan, we think we're being nice only to be accused of being condescending. As spiritual teacher Ram Dass has said, "If you think you're enlightened, go home for Thanksgiving."
One thing that often surprises new couples is how difficult it can be to share the holidays with each other's families when you're in a relationship. We naively think that because we love someone, we are going to love their family and they surely will love us. What happens when that isn't the case? I remember my first Thanksgiving away from my family. I was living on the other side of the country, and traveling back home for a long weekend wasn't feasible. I spent the day with my then boyfriend and his family. I also spent much of the day sitting in the bathroom crying. It was so strange to be away from my family and the customs I had grown up with. I found his family distant and aloof. I also found some of their traditions weird (as I'm sure they would have found mine.) The most inconceivable part of the day by far—they didn't even serve mashed potatoes with Thanksgiving dinner!
Not that my family is for everyone. That same boyfriend came home to meet my family the following summer. My parents hosted a barbeque for the extended family that lasted a full 12 hours. I found my boyfriend quietly reading a book about 4 hours into the day. He couldn't understand what we could possibly talk about for that long, (and remember, we still had 8 hours to go) and I couldn't understand why he would rather read than socialize.
I've learned a bit about combining families since then. While we all need to be true to ourselves, having empathy and understanding when it comes to our partner's family is incredibly important in creating a solid, lasting relationship. Here are 5 things to protect your relationship when going home for the holidays.
Respect Family Bonds
While you and your partner love each other very much, you have loved your original families for far longer. Those relationships are complex and wrought with unspoken expectations. The reason our parents and siblings are so good at pushing our buttons is because they were the lead designers in creating then. It is unrealistic to expect those family dynamics will change overnight. Accept that this is a normal part of the process and be gentle with yourself and each other. Realize that as you continue to create a life together, you will each be better equipped to challenge the status quo.
Expect Stuff Will Get Triggered
Don't take it personally if your partner changes or becomes more child like when spending time with her/his family. It is difficult not to fall back into old, familiar patterns. Sometimes we do this with our parents but we can also do this with siblings. Old power struggles and rivalries for attention can pop up unexpectedly. Never underestimate the power of birth order in a family. Take it in stride and be encouraging if your partner starts to feel like a kid again.
Deal with Conflict Privately
When you do need to talk about something with your partner, talk about it off line. Resist the urge to argue, debate, or worse, correct your partner in front of family. Family members won't be able to stay neutral and over time alliances could form that will be difficult to break. It is important that you and your partner present a united front to others so that our original families begin to understand and respect the bond the two of you have committed to.
Decide What Works For The Two of You First
Figure out what is best for the two of you and your growing family before committing to any obligations with your original family, even if it means challenging the status quo. If one of you has family in the south and the other in California, you can't possible spend the holiday with both families. You'll need to come up with different plans that allow family time in new ways. Some families won't like change and they will push back, perhaps encouraging guilt for wanting to create traditions with our new family, but hold your ground. Include your original family when you can as you create new traditions.
Be the Spokesperson With Your Family
Be willing to run interference with your family. If you are the kind of person that avoids conflict, this can be difficult but is extremely important. You need to be the one setting boundaries and keeping your original family in the loop with changes. If you back down and allow, or even encourage, your partner to play that role she or he will be seen as coming between you and your family. Over time this can create very toxic relationships within the family which I would not wish on anyone.
Growing up is hard and we have all been surprised at the times when we regress back to children in relation to our original families but growing up is a process. It will continue well into adulthood and holidays are sometimes the most difficult times to be a grown up with our families. We have years of holiday traditions that include expectations and solidified roles we play on our families.
Be willing to explore and discuss your needs with your partner. Be kind to each other when you do regress or when other emotions get triggered by the holidays. Identify what will and won't work, be reasonable with each other, and go for the best solution for everyone. Then sit back and enjoy the holidays with the one you love the most.
Kanya is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a Private Practice in Paoli, Pennsylvania. She is a highly sought after Relationship Expert and author whose work has been syndicated by the Huffington Post and Fox News Magazine. Kanya specializes in coaching single women who are ready to create meaningful relationships and helping couples deepen their levels of intimacy and closeness. Find out more about Kanya and download her new e-book for women.
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