During my senior year of college, I somehow ended up on an extended road trip with my girlfriend’s father. I don’t remember where we were going—a rafting trip maybe—but we were the only two people in the car, so I decided to use the ride to do a little investigative research.
My girlfriend's father was a pastor, and I figured he likely had special access to some deep wisdom. He most certainly knew more about relationships than I did. So, thinking I was being subtle, I asked him this “hypothetical” question: What one piece of advice would you give someone before deciding to get married?
His answer surprised me: Be sure to spend the holidays together at least once. I’m sure I was expecting something more grandiose, but this simple advice was both practical and profound. Ultimately, that car ride informed lot of my thinking about making a marriage work. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but these days, whenever a young couple asks me about about taking the next step, I usually start with his simple wisdom which always leads to more complex themes.
The holidays are a great opportunity to put your whole relationship under the microscope. They’re loaded with family expectations, symbolic rituals, financial pressures, and competing priorities. Also, they expose some of our core values around gratitude, generosity, faith, and self care. The holidays invite us to be the best version of ourselves, but they also have a sneaky way of exposing the worst. Spending the holidays together will give you a crash course in what Dr. John Gottman calls the Sound Relationship House, which is characterized by building friendship, managing conflict, and creating shared meaning—essentials for a relationship that will last a lifetime.
Toward that end, here are a few things I’d encourage you to try out as you and your partner navigate the rest of the holidays together over the next few weeks.
01. Tell your stories.
The holidays are fertile ground for memory and meaning. Take some time to talk about what the holidays mean and what values they hold. Tell the story of your family. Talk about your best Christmas ever, your worst New Year’s Eve. Talk about the rituals that make this time of year unique and special for you—and the things that make it hard. The holidays are strategically positioned at the end of the year, making them the perfect time for reflection. By telling your stories, you can make meaning of your experience and, more importantly, build friendship through conversation.
02. Practice resolve.
You’re likely to have some sort of conflict over the next few weeks—some expectation not met or some fear confirmed. If you don’t, I’d encourage you to find something to disagree about, or some difficult decision you need to make. Whatever the conflict, work to resolve it. Practice offering and receiving forgiveness. Practice finding common ground. Conflict is inevitable and easy. Reconciliation and resolution require hard work and intention, and you must build this skill. Consider it a holiday gift to your long-term relationship. This is also the perfect time to articulate your resolve about the new year. Who will you be as a couple? How will you grow? What problems will you solve? Or re-solve?
03. Be creative.
Part of what makes the holidays wonderful are the rituals and traditions that resonate with symbolic meaning. It’s also part of what makes it hard for young couples, especially when you consider your families. You’ll be tempted to try and fit everything in and to ensure that you both get what you need. But what you need is each other. Use the opportunity to get creative about new rituals. Introduce a new tradition that belongs to just you. Replace, “This is what we always do” with “What new thing can we do this year”? Building rituals into your own relationship—whether for Christmas, or weekly, or daily—can help you subtly begin to redefine “family” as you create your own bonds and solidify the foundation of your life together.
Be sure to spend the holidays together at least once. I’ll never forget that advice in the car or the conversation that followed. A few years after that road trip, my girlfriend and I got married on a sunny Saturday in August—but not to each other. We do share an anniversary date, but by then, we had broken up, met our matches, and starting building new futures with more suitable partners.
It won’t surprise you to learn that we never did spend the holidays together. We told our stories, but not on purpose. To be honest, I’m not sure we even knew our stories at 20 years old. I know I didn’t. Most of our conflict was either avoided or glossed over. We spent New Year’s Eve together once, but we didn’t resolve anything. We imagined marrying but not building a life together. I’m certain we’re both better off.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to make a relationship work. And when people ask me for one piece of advice, I usually start the same place my girlfriend’s father did. Whether this is your first or fifteenth year spending Christmas together, I encourage you seize the season anew.
I’d love to hear how it goes for you. Feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me @kzbrittle. Happy Holidays!