It’s a classic — the flurry of calls to my office in January from couples who feel their relationship is really strained – or even on the brink. The trigger? The visit home for the holidays – it led to a major blow out fight that felt all too familiar. If they can’t celebrate the holidays together with their families are they really meant to be together? Isn’t this a sign?
Not necessarily! Going back to your childhood home is often a set up for conflict, distance, and strain in your adult relationship. Old ways of relating and managing conflict reemerge. Historical family dynamics are re-enacted without warning. A bit of anticipation and thoughtful planning can go a long way in preventing damage to your adult relationship.
The Holiday Challenges Faced by Two Couples
Sarah and Kate are the classic example. Both of their families live in other states and when holiday time rolls around the pressure is on, especially for Kate who is an only child. She is everything to her parents, they look forward to her visits all year. And when she is home their attention is all-consuming. They want as much of her as they can get and don’t particularly relish sharing this precious time with her partner.
For Sarah it’s a different issue. Until recently her parents weren’t embracing of her same sex relationship. The last time she took Kate home for Christmas the reception was ice-y and strained. All of this adds up to a holiday season with the families that is ripe with potential for stress and conflict. Both Kate and Sarah put so much energy into managing their own feelings about going home they lose sight of each other.
For Kevin and Jenna, traveling across the country with their young toddler and infant to spend Christmas with Kevin’s family pretty much guarantees tension, turmoil, and a nasty fight. Kevin and his mother (who has been a widow for many years) have a close, yet volatile relationship. His mother relies on her adult children for emotional and practical support. Kevin’s mom doesn’t hold back on expressing emotions. What this means, according to Jenna, is that every time they visit, Kevin and his mom have a screaming argument that includes threats, insults and curses. They don’t resolve anything, they just cool off and move on.
Jenna comes from a different kind of family. Her parents are happily married and were extraordinary care-takers and nurturers to their children. They never relied on their kids for emotional stability.
For Jenna, bearing witness to these arguments is traumatic. Now that they have children she finds the thought of this dynamic even more unbearable. She would prefer to spend Christmas elsewhere. Both Jenna and Kevin agree that they want their children to have a relationship with their grandmother. However, they acknowledge the even greater need to set firm boundaries so that their children will be spared this volatility and tension. They want Christmas to be magical and filled with positive memories. Even though they are on the same page about this, they are unsure and even disagree as to how to accomplish it. This tension has been the cause of Jenna and Kevin’s worst arguments. Recovery from the visits and the subsequent fall-out is painful and slow, and the damage is lasting. Needless to say, the thought of the holidays fills them with dread.
What these couples have in common is a feeling of despair as the holiday season approaches. The description sounds like post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Just anticipating the holidays brings back memories of past visits that didn’t go well. They start to re-live past events, together with the stress, anger, and hurt that occurred. Some couples replay the fights, the mere mention of what didn’t go well last time recreates the same tension and before they know it they are having the same argument.
What to do?
Planning, Preparing and Communicating Can Help You to Get Through the Holiday Visit with Your Relationship Intact.
- Don’t leave the time open ended and spontaneous.
- Plan your days, including time together away from the family, things you want to do with your children, and time for your parents to spend with their grandchildren.
- If possible do not stay with your parents and definitely don’t sleep in your childhood room.
- Go over the agenda and identify what triggers the fights so that you can prevent the triggers from taking you down a familiar rabbit hole.
- Commit to time together and periodic check ins, these can be 5 minutes but should be done at least twice a day
- Keep in mind the type of holiday traditions you are creating for your children, and be intentional – don’t leave it to chance.
- Spend some time identifying traditions from your past you want your children to have and also those you would like to change. Even if you grew up with the narrative, “there is always a family fight at holiday time,” it doesn’t have to be that way for your children.
- Let each other know if there is something about visiting your families that you just can’t do or prefer not to participate in, and be open and flexible about this.
- Ask your partner for support where you need it.
- Make sure you hold your partner in mind during the visit.
- Set limits and manage expectations with your family.
- Communicate directly to all involved as much as possible.
- All families have their idiosyncrasies and unwritten rules which must be taken into consideration. Within that, establishing adult boundaries and letting your family know your relationship and your children are your priority will send a strong message.
For Sarah and Kate there was this sinking feeling that they were lost to each other during family visits – they felt completely disconnected by the end of their stay
The solution was to plan ‘check ins’ so they could re-connect and re-group
A walk, a hug, even five minutes a day to just take a break, close the door, look at each other and ask “how are you doing?” made a huge difference.
They planned their time with the family so it wasn’t open ended – and included a few times to escape. They talked in advance about specifically what was hardest for them during these visits, they identified the triggers and then were able to ask for what they needed from each other. They let each other know “I’m still your person and I’m here with you,” which created a completely different tone.
For Kevin and Jenna it was a bit more complicated. They had to do the planning, preparing, and communicating, but Kevin also had to accept that for the sake of Jenna and his children, the fighting with his mom had to stop. Even though it was his “normal” he had to find a way to disengage. Ultimately, they ended up staying elsewhere when home for the holidays and explaining it to his mom in the most loving yet firm way possible.
Families and holidays are often less-than-perfect, but you can make the most of your holiday times together. By planning ahead, prioritizing each other and your children and making a concrete plan to do so – going home for the holidays can be a different experience for all.
Would couples therapy help improve your relationship when you’re home for the holidays? Contact Tracy Ross today to request an appointment.