Traditions and Families: Tips for a Stress-free Holiday Season as a Couple

Navigating the holidays as an individual is tough enough. As relationships develop, many of us begin to stress over how to tackle the holidays as a unit. Discussing family holidays with your significant other is an absolute necessity before the year’s biggest gatherings–Thanksgiving, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s–roll around. If you are just now encountering this topic, consider these concepts to determine how and where to spend your holidays with the in-laws:
  1. Visit with your significant other, verbally and in writing, emotions about parents, holidays, traditions, and how they’re spent. Include major national holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and all special occasions (Super Bowl, World Cup, Olympics).
  2. Explain how you spent the holidays as a child. Which aspects did you enjoy? Which would you like to change? If the two of you were raised in different countries or cultures, what holidays could you learn more about? For example, a spouse who grew up in England might not realize the significance of Thanksgiving and Independence Day to a mate who was raised in Canada or the U.S.
  3. Consider how much your parents and in-laws want your family involved. Is a birthday or anniversary more important than a holiday to your parents? Is Thanksgiving crucial to his? Be open to the in-laws, but not controlled by them.
  4. Begin creating your own holiday traditions with a balance reflecting both families. For example, spend the holiday morning with your parents and evening with your spouse’s if the distance permits. Next year spend the holiday at home as a family.
  5. Change the plan as needed. Flexibility can help avoid disappointment when family expectations aren’t met. Consider inviting relatives to your home instead of agonizing over travel. Plan a holiday vacation to break the cycle of expectations.
Despite these steps, holidays may still be stressful. Consider the following:
  1. It’s easier for you and your significant other to adjust your holiday expectations, than for parents to adjust to years of important traditions. Openly share your ideas and hope for calmness during holiday times by saying “I value time with you.”
  2. Develop realistic expectations of holidays with the in-laws. Wishful thinking generally leads to hurt feelings and disappointments. Personality differences, physical limitations, and philosophical disagreements with relatives don’t disappear just because a holiday arrives. These factors are more pronounced under holiday stress.
  3. Holiday gift-giving can be a source of conflict and hurt. Gift exchanges can easily get out of hand, creating hardships for family members who lack in financial resources. Be resourceful – for example, give holiday and birthday gifts to immediate family members, and exchange names for other relatives. Consider single gifts to family units.
  4. Start the conversation early. Begin planning how and where you and your immediate family plan to spend the holidays several months in advance, and communicate with your relatives. The earlier the notice, the less likely you are to upset others.
There may be no specific right or wrong way for families to spend the holidays together, but there could be better ways for you to approach holiday traditions and expectations. To keep those days worth celebrating, remember these tips:
  • Aim to make holiday times enjoyable and memorable.
  • Balance the development of your own traditions with those of your families-of-origin.
  • Focus on time spent together rather than amount of money spent.
Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is an award-winning entrepreneur, cross-cultural trainer, and the founder of Access to Culture. In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management from the HOFSTEDE Centre, she serves as a Chinese Ceremonial Dining Etiquette Specialist in the documentary series Confucius was a Foodie, on Nat Geo People. She is regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, and Fortune. Her Amazon #1 Best Selling book in International Business,  Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, (3rd printing), was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. She’s a winner of the British Airways International Trade Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards.
Photo Credit: Personal Creations