The (Not So) Brady Bunch?: Negotiating Blended Families During the Holidays


With the holiday season in full swing, a lot of us our probably pulling out our hair trying to coordinate holiday visits with family. Balancing your family and your partner’s family is difficult enough; now factor in the fact that these days many of us have to unexpectedly juggle multiple families. Suddenly, the most wonderful time of the year becomes anything but!

Although we may expect our family-of-origin to incur small changes in adulthood, we often believe it’s going to be us who changes the family system through cohabitation, marriage, and/or adding children. We don’t expect our parents to be the ones throwing a wrench into the family system. But, due to parents passing away and the new trend of gray divorce, many adults are confronted with a familial shift they were not expecting.

Parents passing away or separating often lead to remarriage. Although remarriage and its consequences have been studied extensively in families with adolescents, less attention has been paid to how adults cope with their parents’ remarriage.

Just like children who have to assimilate into a stepfamily, adults have to grapple with numerous changes, including creating boundaries with the new “family” member, managing their other parent’s reactions to the new family form (if the parents divorced), and figuring out how to retain some of the essence of their “original” family in the face of change.

Additionally, adults with children have the added struggle of figuring out what role their parent’s new spouse or significant other will play in their children’s lives and what their children will call this new person.

These changes are overwhelming on a normal day, but the holidays tend to exacerbate these issues. Adult children are upset that rituals are changed or altogether abandoned, parents may feel jealous that their children are spending time with the other parent and his/her new spouse, and adult children may “feel caught” in the middle of this. Adult children have to manage all of this while simultaneously trying to manage their own lives, nuclear families, and in-law relationships.

Holidays are a time for coming together; unfortunately transitioning to a new family form can make having a holly jolly holiday a bit of a challenge. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. Although it takes some work and a lot of coordination, you can get back to decking the halls instead of each other!

Talk It Out: The first step is to have an open conversation with your parent(s). I’m not saying it’s going to be an easy conversation, but it’s important to put your issues or concerns on the table. Your parents may not know that you’re hurting or upset, so it’s important to let them know how you are feeling. Too often, families brush these issues under the rug because they don’t want to cause conflict or tension. However, this can backfire and lead to lingering resentment and hurt.

In a calm and respectful manner, let your parent or parents know how you are feeling and what your wishes are for the holiday season. You may even want to try our handy X-Y-Z statements to focus on a specific behavior and situation and diffuse any potential defensiveness.

Additionally, let them talk too and listen to their perspective on the situation.

Even if you don’t entirely see eye-to-eye, disclosing your feeling and thoughts can be an extremely cathartic experience.

Do Onto Others: Integrating a new member into your nuclear family as an adult is no small task. There’s the uncomfortable question of what to call this person; questions regarding boundaries; and concerns regarding how to be close without feeling as if you’re “betraying” your other parent.

My biggest advice is two-fold. First, follow the golden rule, even if it’s difficult. How did your parents treat your spouse or significant other when he/she entered the family (or how do you wish they did)? Second, do what’s comfortable for you.

I’m not saying you have to start calling your parent’s new spouse “mom” or “dad” or tell him/her you love him, but you should be warm, kind, and accepting to the extent you are comfortable with.

If your parent is happy and this person is going to be around for the long haul, there is no sense in fighting it. Not only will being kind and attempting to incorporate this newbie into the family system help you establish a strong relationship with this new family member, it will also strengthen your relationship with your parent.

Create and Adapt Rituals: Rituals reflect our family identity. As a result, families feel very protective of their rituals and any attempt to change one often is viewed as an attack on the family. However, it’s important to be flexible and learn to adapt existing rituals and create new rituals as well.

You cannot pretend that your previous family didn’t exist. In fact, it’s that experience that made you and your parents who you are today. So don’t feel shy talking about or even engaging in existing family rituals with the new spouse. However, it is important to include this person in the rituals so you don’t create and “insiders” versus “outsiders” divide. If your family wears matching pajamas on Christmas, then the newbie needs a set too.

Additionally, create new rituals with the new family member. Perhaps there is a ritual from his/her family that he/she wants to share with you, or maybe there is a new tradition you can create that is unique to your new blended family. Although this may seem strange at first, it will go a long way in establishing goodwill and a strong relational foundation.

Again, these behaviors will also strengthen your relationship with your parents. Even if they don’t explicitly acknowledge your attempts at integrating their new honey bunny, don’t think it goes unnoticed or unrecognized.

Be Flexible: Finally, it’s important to be flexible both structurally and cognitively. In other words, you have to be flexible with how you celebrate the holidays and how you think about these changes.

If your parent’s new spouse has children or a family, chances are they’ll want to spend time with them too. As a result, your celebrations will have to be modified (as well as theirs). Although it’s very easy to be hurt and upset over these changes, try to go with the flow. I’m not saying be a doormat and be pushed aside come holiday time, but it is important to show that you are willing to make adjustments.

Maybe you alternate dates or years for celebrations. For instance, you get Christmas Day this year, but next year your parent spends that day with his/her spouse’s family. Or, if you’re lucky, maybe you get the whole gang together! Whatever you decide, just know that although it’s hard, the payoff will be worth it and this will soon become the new norm.

Also, it’s important to change how you think about your new family form. It’s completely normal to grieve your former family and to feel hurt and resentful about the changes that are occurring. However, it’s important to eventually let go of those negative feelings and thoughts, not only for your own personal wellbeing, but for the wellbeing of your family.

If you only think of your new family negatively and complain about it, then you’re never going to be happy with your new family form. However, if you start to view this change as an opportunity then you may have a more positive outlook on things. Perhaps you can learn something from your new family member, or maybe this change will make you focus on your relationship with parent(s) in ways you never have before, resulting in a closer parent-child bond.


Changes to your family in adulthood are difficult. You may feel a great sense of loss for your former family and resentment toward the new family. However, by changing your thoughts and behaviors you can slowly work toward accepting and even enjoying your new family form, which is a great gift that lasts long beyond the holiday season!

Until next time,


Are the holidays giving you a headache? Submit your relationship question to Sylvia Says! 


In-Law Relationships: A Holiday Survival Guide

When Irving Berlin wrote Happy Holiday(s) he must not have had a job, financial stress, or in-laws! As we’re all aware, the holidays provide us with a time to reflect on and celebrate our relationships, but they also can be extremely stressful. We stress over finances, hectic work and social schedules, holiday weight gain, and our family relationships.

One of the most contentious relationships come holiday time tends to be ties with our in-laws (and our own parents). We struggle over adapting rituals, being included in traditions, and splitting time between our family-in-law, our family-of-origin, and our nuclear family.

Holidays with in-laws (and parents) are stressful for several reasons. First, loyalties are often implicitly tested during the holiday season. Spending a holiday with the “in-laws” may be seen as a betrayal to the family-of-origin. Second, holidays with extended family members require change. Rituals and traditions, which reflect a family’s identity, often have to be modified to accommodate new family members. Third, deviations to holiday norms may elicit uncertainty, which can be detrimental to in-law and marital relationships.

It’s important to manage in-law issues effectively because research consistently shows a direct link between the climate of in-law relationships and marital satisfaction. In fact, a recent project my colleagues and I worked on demonstrated that children-in-law’s uncertainty and dissatisfaction within the in-law relationship is linked to dissatisfaction within their marital relationship.

Additionally, a recent study which followed married couples for 26 years found that couples were less likely to divorce if husbands had close bonds with their in-laws. Conversely, wives that were close to their in-laws had a 20% greater chance of divorce. This doesn’t mean that wives can get away with keeping their distance, but does suggest that we need to be mindful of how we negotiate our in-law ties.

Collectively, these results demonstrate the importance of managing our in-law relationships. The holidays are a great place to start establishing boundaries, creating new rituals, and fostering the development and maintenance of strong in-law bonds. The tips below may help you ensure that your holiday season is merry and bright!

Stop: When we feel uncertain or that someone, such as our in-laws, is interfering with our goals, rituals, and routines we tend to be more reactive. As a result, we may say and/or do things that we later regret.

If you feel overwhelmed or upset over a holiday issue with your in-laws (or your own parents), stop and take a personal time out. Take a moment to collect your thoughts and gain control of your emotions. Pressing pause will also allow you to reflect on what is really bothering you, rather than lashing out at your spouse, in-laws, or parents.

Once you’ve had a moment to cool down you have some perspective on the issue and will be able to more calmly communicate what upset you and why.

Collaborate: Traditions are one of the best things about the holiday season. However, the moment we say “I do” we are merging our families and our traditions. It’s important to be open-minded and have a collaborative rather than self-centered attitude when it comes to holiday traditions.

Be open-minded to trying new rituals that mean something to your sweetie pie and his/her family. Additionally, you may want to introduce your in-laws to traditions that are important to you and your family. They’ll get to know you better and feel included, which in turn may make them more eager to have you join the family fold.

It’s also important to make sure that your parents are open to including your honey bunch in family traditions (and in-laws, if you so desire). If they’re hesitant, stay firm and let them know that you’re a package deal now. You can’t include one without the other. This may end certain family traditions or force them to modify existing ones, but your loyalty lies with your spouse now and you have to present a united front.

Listen: You may have heard the phrase “read between the lines,” but it’s equally important to “listen between the lines.” If your sweetheart or in-law brings up an issue he/she is having, try to listen to what he/she is really getting at.

What is the real reason your mother-in-law is upset that you’re not coming for Christmas? Is it that she may feel like she’s losing her child or that she just doesn’t want to change? Is your wife’s dismissal of your family’s traditions really just a reflection of her hurt feelings at not being included in them?

When you engage in perspective checking and paraphrasing (e.g., “What I hear you saying is…” or “You seem upset that my family…”) you not only make sure that you’re on the same page as your relational partner, but also show that you genuinely care.

Build: Although it’s nice to be inclusive and try to accommodate all family members, sometimes you have to establish boundaries. If driving to four holiday dinners or spending two-weeks with your in-laws is not your idea of a good time, don’t let your family guilt you in to doing that.

Instead, acknowledge their feelings, explain your perspective, and then offer alternative options. Perhaps you celebrate the holiday a few days early or a few days late, or make a one-week rather than two-week trip. But provide multiple options and try to reach a compromise.

If you don’t establish boundaries, you’ll never be rockin’ around the Christmas tree.

Celebrate: With all the holiday hub-bub it’s important to not lose sight of your own nuclear family. Whether you’re a two-some or a family with children, it’s important to create your own traditions and rituals and take time to celebrate with one another.

Wine: Not whine, but wine, vino, the good stuff! If all else fails pour yourself a glass, or two, or heck just take the whole bottle. Everything is better when you’re sitting by a fire, sipping some wine, and thinking of your happy place!


The holidays can be stressful, but they don’t necessarily have to be. Following the tips above will help you want to deck the halls and not each other!

I’d love to hear how you handle your in-laws at the holidays! Tell me your thoughts in the comments!!

Until next time,


A Blue Christmas?: Managing Grief During the Holidays

“I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on that.” The words of this timeless Christmas song are haunting when a loved one isn’t home for the holidays because they are no longer physically with you. Whether this is your first Christmas or your fifteenth without a loved one, as many of you know, the pain still lingers.

Like me, you probably cope fairly well with your loss throughout the year then suddenly find yourself overcome with sadness come the holidays. One reason for this surge of sorrow is the fact that holiday rituals are closely linked to family identity. When these rituals are altered or, unfortunately, abandoned it highlights the fact that your loved one is no longer with you, and even calls into question who you are as a family.

This year marks my fourth Christmas without my mom. Despite the time that has lapsed, I still yearn for holidays past when we hosted elaborate Christmas dinners and spent hours together in the kitchen prepping, cooking, and cleaning, all the while laughing. I still miss her excitement on Christmas morning as she lit the Christmas tree and turned up the carols, even when I was in my late-twenties and my now husband joined us for his very first Mikucki-Christmas. I still get choked up knowing that her stocking will not be hung by the chimney with care, and when people ask what I want for Christmas I quietly think to myself: my mom.

Although it may seem that I have a very blue Christmas because of my mom’s absence, it is not (entirely) the case. Over the years, I’ve found numerous ways to celebrate her throughout the holidays. And although I do have at least one breakdown every season (last year it was on a treadmill at the gym!), I try to use her love of all things Christmas as inspiration for making my holidays cheery and bright.

Whether this is your first holiday without a loved one or you’re, unfortunately, a seasoned pro, the holidays can be full of mixed emotions. Therefore, it’s incredibly important to take care of yourself and do what feels right for you and your family.

So, what can you do to cope with missing a loved one during the holidays?

Acknowledge your feelings: Research suggests that it’s important to acknowledge your grief and mixed emotions about the upcoming holiday. If you suppress these emotions and act like all is well you may not fully cope with your grief, regarding that holiday, until years later. Don’t suppress your emotions, embrace them. Know that it is okay to feel sad and miss your loved one. It is completely normal to face the holidays with trepidation rather than cheer following a loss. Knowing that the holidays will be rough will help you set realistic expectations.

Do what feels right: The first holiday without a loved one is especially rough, so celebrate that first holiday in whatever way makes you feel good. If ditching the annual Christmas potluck and going on a vacation works for you, do it! Or, if staying at home watching old home movies with a few family members makes you feel better, go for it!

Or, have a Plan A and a Plan B and wait until the day of to decide which plan to enact. Plan A might be joining the family for the traditional feast. Plan B might be going to your loved one’s favorite restaurant with a small group. If you wake up on Christmas day and want to be surrounded by family, then go with Plan A. But, if the day is too much to deal with, go with Plan B.  The key is celebrate those first holidays in whatever way will get you through it. Take it from me!

A few weeks after my mom passed away Easter arrived. Mistakenly, we hosted Easter. That day was long and miserable as we played host while trying to cope with our fresh feelings of grief and the missing presence of my mom. As a result, we decided to do something radically different for Christmas. Christmas was one of my mom’s favorite holidays and the thought of celebrating it that first year without her was unbearable. So, we left for Colorado on Christmas day. Being away from the traditional holiday gathering allowed us to deal with our grief as an immediate family and we didn’t have to play host or put on a happy face.

Don’t act tough: Whether or not you end up participating in a traditional holiday celebration, don’t apologize for feeling emotional. It is OKAY to cry, to get upset, and to be sensitive. Don’t hide your tears or pretend that nothing is wrong. If it makes other people uncomfortable, oh well! Hopefully individuals you are celebrating with are compassionate and supportive as you go through the ups and downs of holiday grief. I get teary eyed at least once (minimum!) throughout the day on both Christmas Eve and Christmas (and a million times leading up to those days!).

Don’t ignore the elephant in the room: Often, family or friends will avoid talking about the deceased love one in a misguided effort to protect you. However, most people enjoy talking about their loved one. In fact, research shows that individuals not only love talking about deceased family members, but also enjoy being surrounded by their artifacts.Sharing stories or recounting memories is a great way to stay connected to your loved one. So share your favorite Christmas memory or funny story.

Every time I tell my husband about how my mom would take bites out of the cookies I left for Santa and wrote a beautiful, handwritten note for me “from” Santa every Christmas morning, I am transported back to my childhood and can feel my mom’s arms wrapped around me.

In addition, if you know someone who is missing a loved one during the holidays ask them to share their favorite Christmas memory or story of that person. They will appreciate the support and the chance to celebrate the memory of their loved one.

Incorporate your loved one into the celebration: As time passes it often becomes easier to celebrate the life and memory of your loved one, and you can do this in ways big or small. Display a cherished holiday decoration that was your loved ones, make their favorite recipe, or donate items or volunteer your time to their favorite organization. My Papa’s Christmas star adorns our Christmas tree every year, and my mom’s cherished snowmen are scattered around the house. I can’t help but smile and feel connected to the both of them when I look at their items and the memories they evoke.  

The holidays can be an extremely trying time. It’s important to take care of yourself and celebrate your loved one in a way that is appropriate and meaningful to you.

Also, remember that your loved one is always with you, as Nancy Tillman writes in her book “Wherever You Are: My Love Will Find You:”

And if someday you’re lonely,

or someday you’re sad,

or you strike out at baseball,

or think you’ve been bad…

just lift up your face, feel the wind in your hair.

That’s me, my sweet baby, my love is right there.


In the green of the grass…in the smell of

the sea…in the clouds floating by…

at the top of a tree…in the sound

crickets make at the end of the day…


“You are loved. You are loved. You are loved,” they all say.


Until next time,


Don’t Let the Grinch Steal Your Christmas: Setting a Holiday Budget

Black Friday, Black Saturday (this was new to me this year!), Cyber Monday, etc… Although these days have different names, they all mean the same thing—spending money! And, if you’re like most people in this economy you don’t have tons of it to go around, which can be especially stressful come the holidays. Combine the regular amount of holiday stress with financial stress and you’re having a Blue Christmas!

Not only can money matters stress you out, they can put a strain on your relationship too. Money issues are often a major source of conflict in marriages. Some research even suggests that arguments about money tend to be more problematic and frequent than other issues, including raising children and division of household chores. Conflicts about money also tend to have a longer lasting impact on relationship satisfaction than arguments about other issues.

Interestingly, money is often considered a taboo topic leading people to avoid financial discussions. Failure to talk about finances can lead to arguments when you and your sweetie pie’s spending habits don’t match up or disaster when one partner doesn’t tell the other about debt or financial delinquency.

Although finances can strain your relationship at any point in time, the gift-giving season may bring this issue to the forefront. Not only do you want to find the best presents for your friends, family, and significant other, your honey bunny does too.  In addition, couples may want to feel that their family or friends are getting an “equal share.” If you spend $150 on your mom, your sweetie pie may feel that his mom gets that amount too. But, add in a couple of stepparents, stepsiblings, plus friends, and each other and your holiday budget is about to burst. So, what’s a couple to do?

There are several strategies couples can enact to ensure that their holiday gift-giving budget doesn’t get out of whack:

Talk to one another! Seems pretty obvious, I know; but, many couples don’t talk about money, which can lead to big time trouble. Have an open discussion about where you’re at financially and what is a realistic holiday budget. You may realize that you have more Christmas money to play Santa with or that you need to do a little DIY. But, you’ll never know if you don’t talk about it.

Set a budget! It’s important to have a budget in mind when shopping for holiday gifts, especially if your list is long and you’re checking it twice.  This can get tricky, however, when it comes to buying presents for individuals outside of your immediate family. You and your spouse may agree on how much to spend on each other and/or your children, but have very a different idea of what is an appropriate amount to spend on parents and adult siblings.

Maybe you’re used to spending hundreds on your parents, but your spouse doesn’t exchange gifts with her family. Try to meet somewhere in the middle. You shouldn’t be expected to give up giving gifts to your parents, but your spouse shouldn’t be expected to go along with an extravagant gift is she’s not comfortable with it or if it’s not in the budget.  So compromise and let your finances, not your emotions, be your guide.

In addition, if your gift giving protocol changes now that you’re attached, you may want to give your family a heads-up. Let them know that you and your spouse have decided to tighten your Santa suit belts, so gifts won’t be as extravagant as they’ve been in the past. It’s important to make sure you let your family knows this was a team decision, which it should be, and you and your spouse appreciate their understanding.

Trust each other! After you and your honey have set a realistic holiday budget, stick to it. It may be hard to not buy an extra present or two, but those little add-ons will not only derail your budget, but will also diminish trust between you and your partner. If you ignore the budget you and your significant other set you’re sending a message that you don’t care about what s/he has to say. So be a team player and stick to the plan!

Think outside the gift box! Don’t think that you have to buy everyone a gift or give a physical gift at all. If you have a large extended family try starting a grab bag or Yankee gift exchange.

Also, do something rather than giving or getting something. Research shows that the thrill of a new item wears off rather quickly, but the joy from doing something can last a lifetime. Instead of buying Dad another box of golf balls, why not get tickets to see his favorite band either just you and him or as a family? And instead of buying your wife a meaningless sweater, why not spend that money on a babysitter and have a dinner, just the two of you?  My husband and I, for example, typically set a $25 gift limit and then treat ourselves to a nice evening out. Getting all dolled-up to enjoy a romantic evening with my hubby is better than any material gift I can think of.

But, if you still really want to give a big-ticket item discuss alternative options with your sweetie (maybe a 32” versus 40” TV) or devise a plan to save in other areas (not going out to dinner or buying a new outfit for a holiday party) if you really want to make that big purchase.

Holiday gift-giving can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be. By following these simple steps you and your sweetie pie can spend less time fretting about finances and more time hanging out under the mistletoe!

Until next time,



Home for the Holidays?: Sharing Your Holiday Game Plan

Thanksgiving is a little over a week away and this may be the first time many parents and adult children are negotiating Turkey Day with a new child-in-law/spouse. Last week we talked about how couples can make a “holiday game plan”; well, parents are part of this equation too. Just because you and your sweetie have made a game plan it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be accepted (on the spot) by everyone, especially parents. Parents’ reactions to holiday plans can either make you grateful for your family or make you want to hide under the covers until the cranberries have been passed. But, with a few simple steps you can help your parents get on board with your holiday plans.

Before we take a look at how you can talk to your parents about the holidays, it’s important to understand where your parents are coming from. Although parents expect (and hope!) that their children will pair up, leave the nest, and have somebody else pay their bills someday, it’s still a difficult transition for many parents. Pre-spouse, parents are often the number one people you turn to for advice, the people whom you automatically spend holidays with, and the people who know you best. When a spouse enters the picture all of that changes.

Not only do you now have your own nuclear family that you want to foster, you also have parents-in-law and an extended family to tend to.  This leaves parents with a lot of questions. In fact, my research shows that parents have a lot of doubts about the parent- and adult child relationship, including how their child is going to split time between them and their in-laws and how family rituals, including holidays, are going to change.

Research suggests that family rituals, especially holiday rituals, are linked to family identity or what it means to be family. When rituals change, the family, in essence, changes too. And, after 20-something odd years that can be a hard pill for many parents to swallow. However, how parents react to this change affects their relationship with their child and child-in-law and the relationship between the newly married couple. Parents’ reactions, however, are likely linked to how you talk to them about these changes. So, what are you to do?

First, talk about what’s happening. You should talk to your parents early about what you and your spouse plan to do for the holidays. Don’t wait until the week of Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve to tell your parents you won’t be attending the annual family event or that you’ll be leaving early to head to your in-laws. The earlier you start talking the more time you have to come up with alternative solutions and deal with the inevitable range of emotions that your parents (and you) may experience.

Some parents roll with the punches and easily adjust to new holiday routines; others may have a more difficult time. It’s important that you empathize with your parents and talk about the bigger issues that are at the root of their sadness or frustration over holiday changes. Although most of us experience some questions when we become an extended family, we rarely talk about these issues. However, it’s important to address these concerns with your parents. Is your mom’s anger over not seeing you on Christmas Eve rooted in her fear that your relationship is changing as a result of your marriage? Or is your Dad’s sadness over modifying Hanukkah plans a result of his feeling that you’re no longer “Daddy’s little girl?”

Second, be understanding of your parent’s emotions. A child’s marriage not only stirs up questions for parents, it also stirs up emotions, such as jealousy, sadness, or fear. Although it’s sometimes difficult and uncomfortable to see your parents upset, it’s important that you let them express how they feel and really listen to what they’re saying. Research on emotional support suggests that it’s important to acknowledge your parents emotions, ask them to elaborate on how they are feeling or why they are feeling that way, and validate their feelings. Comforting your parents can make them feel better, improve your relationship, and make changes to holiday plans easier to deal with. A small price to pay for holiday peace!

Third, show appreciation. Let your parents know how much you appreciate their flexibility and how happy it makes you. Seeing you happy may help them get on board with your holiday plans.  In addition, let them know that you’re disappointed to have to change plans too. Sometimes parents feel that they are forgotten when their child marries, so letting them know that you are bummed out about these holidays changes too may be all they need to know you still care and may make them realize that they aren’t just an afterthought.

Finally, think outside the “gift” box! Come up with an alternative celebration or a way to modify your existing family traditions. I know some families that celebrate Christmas with one side of the family the day after Thanksgiving because it’s the only time they are all together and don’t have other family obligations. Maybe instead of Christmas dinner with your family, you do a Christmas brunch. Or, maybe both sides of the family can celebrate together? The more the merrier.

Figuring out how to manage two families and their expectations and rituals is a concern and challenge for a lot of married couples. Effectively communicating with your family is the first step in eliminating holiday stress.

Until next time,


Check back Thursday for Sylvia Says: Relationship Q & A

Holiday Season = Holiday Stress?

The trick-or-treaters are gone and you’re finishing off the last of your Halloween candy, so that can only mean one thing: Thanksgiving is a few weeks away and so is the start of the holiday season. Although the holidays may conjure up images of family love, togetherness, and tranquility, most of us know that reality does not always mirror fantasy. In fact, holidays can be extremely stressful, partially because of our families!

One issue that tarnishes the holiday season for a lot of couples is how to divvy up the holidays between their two families. Let’s face it, most of us prefer to spend holidays with our own families, engaging in wacky traditions and eating our family favorites. And guess what? So does your partner. Even though your honey bunny loves your parents and your odd ball cousins, he or she would probably rather be in the comfort of his or her own family just like you want to be celebrating with yours. So what’s a couple to do?

Although this may seem like the start of World War III, it’s important for you and your partner to have an open and honest
conversation about your holiday wishes and desires. This is not the time to voice all your dislikes about your mother-or father-in-law or tell your spouse that his or her family is just plain weird. Nope, this is the time to work together as a team and make a “holiday game-plan.”

Holiday game-plans differ by couple and no one plan works for everyone. My husband and I, for example, alternate most holidays based on year. This year Easter and Thanksgiving are with my hubby’s family and next year they’re with mine. Christmas Eve is always celebrated with my family in-law and Christmas day we enjoy festivities with mine. For us, this works wonderfully. For other couples, this would spell disaster.

So, how do you come up with a plan?

Well, the first thing you need to do is talk with your partner. Sadly, this conversation can go from hero to zero in about 6 seconds flat, so how you talk to your partner is important. Research on conflict management offers some guidance as to how to have a successful “holiday game-plan” conversation:

First, timing is everything. Research suggests that the setting has a big impact on the outcome of the discussion. Cornering your sweetie the moment he walks in from work or while shopping in a crowded store is probably not ideal. Instead, try bringing up the topic when you both are relaxed, in a good mood, and have the appropriate amount of time to devote to this discussion.

Second, watch your start up. Start up?! Yes, how you start the conversation will set the tone for the remainder of the discussion. A conversation that starts with a contemptuous start up such as, “I refuse to spend Thanksgiving with your family, so you need to tell your parents that they just have to deal with it” will probably end differently than a conversation with a soft start up such as, “I know we both want to spend as much time with our families as possible during the holidays, so I was hoping we could work together to come up with a game plan.” I know what you’re thinking, Sylvia, this sounds so contrived; my partner will just laugh in my face!

Well, that’s what I thought at first too, but once you and your partner start using language like this it will become second nature and help strengthen your bond because you both feel heard and validated. Plus, research demonstrates that soft start-ups eliminate blame and contempt and help couples manage conflict more successfully.

NOTE: Remember, your tone is important too. Saying anything, no matter how carefully worded, in a condescending or snarky manner will probably have the same outcome as telling your partner where his/her mother can shove that turkey leg.

Third, mind your p’s and q’s. Even though you’re having this conversation with someone you can be yourself with, you still need to be polite and respectful when talking about your partner’s family. In other words, don’t call his mother a big fat #&$%! or don’t call her dad a drunk….well, you get the picture. Even if your spouse has uttered these very phrases in the past, defaming or slandering his or her family is a sure fire way to start a fight.

In addition, don’t insult or criticize your partner. Research suggests that insults and criticism are one of the most dangerous
weapons relational partners can use on one another and it can have disastrous results, both immediately and for your relationship in the long haul. (Get this, some research suggests that for every one nasty comment you make to your partner, you have to say 5-20 nice things to reduce the damage!) So, now is not the time to call your spouse a mama’s boy who doesn’t care about you or tell your partner it’s time to finally “cut the cord!”

Instead, try using what researcher John Gottman calls the X-Y-Z statement, “When you do X, in situation Y, it makes me feel Z”. For example, “When you won’t compromise about Thanksgiving, it makes me feel like my needs are not important to you.” X-Y-Z statements allow you to focus in on aspecific issue (rather than generalize), suggest that change can happen, and express how a behavior made you feel (instead of blaming or criticizing your partner, which causes defensiveness).

Fourth, compromise. Relationships aren’t easy and there is always give and take. You cannot always get your way and you are going to have to make scarifies, that’s life, that’s love. Maybe you have to give up your favorite holiday this year, but you get it back next year.  And remember, you don’t have to stick to the calendar if that will make your life easier. Maybe you can start having a post-Thanksgiving bash the day after, munch on leftovers, and help your in-laws roll out their Christmas decorations. Get creative and start creating your own holiday celebrations as an extended family.

Fifth, make a plan and stick to it!! Don’t let your parent’s guilt you into changing your plans by claiming that Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Hanukkah is now ruined. Remember, your partner/spouse is your priority now and you made this decision as a team, so you gotta play by team rules.

Finally, don’t forget yourself in all of the holiday hoopla. Be sure to carve out some time for the two of you and, if you have children, your immediate family. My husband and I, for instance, have a fun Christmas Decorating celebration. We get the tree, some fancy adult beverages, a spread of tasty food, and have our own celebration to kick off the season,just the two of us.

But what if my spouse won’t budge!?! If you really can’t come up with a solution, first try taking a break. It’s a myth that you shouldn’t go to bed angry or walk away from a fight. Go to sleep, take a walk (but not a hike!), and give each other some space. Sometimes we get so overwhelmed that we literally stop thinking and start acting a fool (or, in fancy research terms, we experience emotional flooding). When you feel that you’re getting nowhere, tell your partner you need a break to clear your head, but that you want to talk about this again in 20 minutes. It’s important that you verbalize this and don’t just walk away or storm off (that’s called stonewalling and it’s a big relationship no-no).

In addition, during your break don’t think of all the things you’re going to say when you get back in the ring, instead think about how much you love your partner, what drew you to him or her, or a pleasant beach where you’re all alone in a hammock with a cold beverage in hand (hey, whatever works!). The point is, cool down don’t rev up! If after much discussion and time you are still at an impasse you may want to contact a relationship counselor to help you and your honey work through the issues that may be impeding your ability to make a holiday game-plan.

Now, this isn’t just a one sided process. Parents (in-law) also have to compromise too. Next week, we’ll talk about what parents (in-law) can do to make the holiday season joyful for all!!

Until next time,


**Check back Thursday for Sylvia Says: Relationship Q & A

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