The holidays are a time to celebrate and have fun with family and loved ones. Traditions come to life and good times are to be had by all. But what happens when two families are forced to become one during the holidays?
A milestone in any romantic relationship is your first holiday together and making new memories to share in the years to come. Yet each individual has their own family and friends, along with customs and traditions that are near and dear to their heart.
Now, conversations and compromises are in order. To help things go smoothly and avoid any holiday tension, Brides spoke with Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort for some tips and tricks to help you have a truly happy first holiday as a couple.
Communication is Key
It may seem like a “now” issue, but handling how to split the holidays can actually affect your relationship in the years to come, says Cohan. So if you find yourselves arguing or intentionally avoiding the uncomfortable task of planning how to spend the season, you’ll want to think again.
“A lack of honest communication and a solid understanding of each other's priorities, concerns and values can reverberate into the whole relationship for years to come. Patterns set early really do matter,” she says. So make honesty, listening, and empathy top priorities.
Don’t fret, though, as Cohan believes, “Brides and grooms-to-be, as well as newlyweds, can cultivate pre-holiday planning habits that set themselves up for better marital conditions for years to come.”
To start, recognize that while you each are forging a path for the future together, you both come from equally important families that may or may not have special traditions—and you can’t expect one another to simply leave them behind. Instead, find a balance.
A Learning Process
Whether your backgrounds are alike or similar, familiarize yourself with holiday customs, traditions, and recipes from each side. You may find that some lend themselves to easy compromises.
Cohan explains, “People might find themselves with a partner who was raised very similarly or perhaps very differently. We might have become attracted to and married someone with a very different background and initially felt eager to learn about that but when the holidays approach, we might find ourselves under more pressure from our own families and our partners for how to make this all come together.”
If you have never missed a Christmas Eve away from your parent’s house, but for your partner, the importance is more on Christmas Day—problem solved. If, however, you both feel strongly about a specific day, it may be time to rotate, split the day if distance allows, or forge ahead with an entirely new experience of your own.
In most situations, there is room to negotiate. Though, Cohan points out, “Obviously, differences in religion may impact and complicate decision making and planning for holidays, but it need not even be about those issues that are seen as more potentially charged.” She says that blended families, different casts of characters and personalities, geographical distance and the practicality of trying to see a lot of people across many miles at times can also make things more complicated than they need to be. Especially when you factor in costly, crowded, and unpredictable conditions (like winter weather!).
Regardless of having to hammer out the details, the number one most important thing to keep in mind is that you should really be handling the holidays together. “The worst thing is when one person decides it is all too much bother and too much work and says they will go on their own to see their own family,” Cohan says. Doing so does not send the message to each other or to the respective families that the couple is in this together.
How to Find Solutions
What works for one couple may not work for you, but remember that there is always a solution. “We have all heard of couples who switch off holidays and switch between families and that can work for some people, but it is not necessarily the best way to handle this,” advises Cohan.
She says, “One person may feel more strongly about being with their partner and their own family of origin on Thanksgiving than Christmas and the other person may not care as much or may really prefer Christmas—switching back and forth would not accomplish anything in a case like that.” Instead, she suggests it may be more meaningful and productive if you look into what you both want and need rather than what the larger culture dictates.”
It’s also important to remember that whatever course of action you take this year does not dictate the future, nor does it set in stone how to proceed for every holiday season to come. Instead, view it as a trial and error experience. “Couples also benefit from trying various ways of doing this before settling in and committing to, or announcing, that this is how they will continue to do it,” Cohan says. “As a new couple, it is good to give yourselves the flexibility to borrow what works and then tweak and create brand new special traditions.”
Keep in mind the reason for the season, after all. When you feel yourselves getting tense or stressed, Cohan says, “Couples benefit from expressing gratitude to each other for all the big and little things in life, and doing this during an engagement and early on in a new marriage is particularly helpful.” Remember that love, kindness, and gratitude are the driving force behind the holidays.
And don't forget about self-care. During the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it’s important to take time for yourselves as a couple, too. While it’s easy to get lost in holiday plans and family gatherings, be sure to prioritize time dedicated to enjoying the new family you are creating together. Cohan suggests this may involve going on a day trip somewhere new, going into nature, or taking a yoga class together.
The Bottom Line
It all boils down to compromise, communication, and honesty. “Handling the holidays gently, firmly, kindly and fairly for each other and in relation to each person’s family of origin goes a long way,” says Cohan.
Practicing these skills now is also great practice for the future—for example when couples may go on to have children and will juggle demands for attention from grandparents and extended family and will need to set boundaries.
It’s all part of the beautiful growing process that is being a couple in love. So, do your best to embrace this holiday season with an open mind and heart.