It’s back: the most wonderful time of the year! The time when Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” replays over and over (and over), and people with Santa hats and big red buckets ring their bells. This is the season of hope, the season of peace, the season of goodwill, and, sometimes, the season of . . . awkwardness.
No, I’m not a Grinch set out to crush any Cindy Lou Who ideals. I love me some mistletoe, silent nights, and spiked eggnog, but studies show that the holidays can increase stress, and even the holliest-jolliest couples can find themselves navigating some interesting situations.
Through our ten years of marriage, my husband and I have learned that with a little forethought, we can rescue each other from potentially awkward holiday situations. Here’s what helps us.
01. Season’s Greetings
Figuring out the proper greeting at all those holiday festivities can be hard. Whether you’re meeting up with your man’s distant relatives for the first time or working your way through his office Christmas party, there will always be that big question: How do you greet these important yet less familiar people? I still cringe when I think of all the times I’ve accidentally gone in for the hug when the other person started to extend their hand for the shake. I’ve even gone so far as to load both my arms with babies or bags just to avoid repeating my past mistakes.
Finally, my husband and I figured out that we could preempt this faux pas with a game plan. A quick chat in the car about Uncle Jerry’s big old bear hugs or your emotive cousins’ double-cheeked kisses can help prepare your significant other for smoother introductions (and avoid uncomfortable situations).
02. Let Your Family Roast Chestnuts, Not Your Guy
The holidays are all about wonderful family togetherness. Even when your S.O. gets along well with your family, certain well-intentioned jokesters can sometimes take teasing a bit far. When your boyfriend or husband is with your family, unity should be your goal. Laughing along as your guy gets roasted by your dad could lead to tension. Remember that your own family’s idiosyncrasies may not be as easy for him to swallow no matter how good a sport he tries to be. Stay in tune with your S.O.’s shenanigans-tolerance level by checking in frequently with eye contact or a quick hand squeeze. If there are put-downs, be sure to publicly affirm your beau, and then redirect the conversation if necessary.
03. Awkward Conversations Needn’t Cause Silent Nights
Sometimes a seemingly lighthearted jab at a politician can bring the dining room chatter to a screeching halt. Be sure to prep him about any sensitive topics for your family, and ask that he do the same for you, especially with hot topics such as religion and politics. You might not be able to foresee every single potential disaster, but for those awkward times that inevitably happen, just make sure Adele is downloaded on a device close at hand.
04. Tradition! Tradition! Tradition!
Does your family come rolling down for presents in pajamas and slippers, or are they dressed in their Sunday best for a refined and elegant brunch after church? If you travel—as my spouse and I did for many years—to stay with family over the holidays, make sure that the other is aware of the holiday customs of the house. Nobody wants to be the overdressed or underdressed newbie at the family party.
05. Talkin’ Around the Christmas Tree
Doctors in a family can potentially spend their holidays fielding medical questions from well-meaning sisters-in-law (guilty!), the token techie might be asked to clean up the software on iPads and smartphones, and the lawyer could be beckoned to give his legal opinion about a property dispute. Family gatherings should be a time for everyone to relax, especially your significant other. If you see your guy stuck giving professional advice at a party, grab the nearest glass of wine, and run interference. If your spouse is the type—such as mine—who doesn’t mind talking shop with anyone interested, bring over that glass of wine anyway, and let him know how much you appreciate his kind and generous spirit.
06. Get Granny’s Gifts Right
I’m from a big family, and every year we do a Secret Santa exchange among the siblings and their spouses. Some years, my husband and I get assigned people for whom we can totally find gifts, but some years we’ve both been puzzled. Mothers-in-law, grandmas, and most teenagers in the family can pose some challenges to well-meaning gift givers. My husband and I have a system that works for us: I buy for my family, and he buys for his family. Some couples put the husband in charge of all the men on the list, and the wife shops for all the ladies. Whatever system you and your spouse devise will help minimize stress in this department.
07. Eat All the Things—or Don’t!
During this season of light, couples will spend many nights out sharing meals with friends and family. Even the holiday meal itself can produce a few potentially embarrassing situations for unsuspecting couples. If the hostess watches eagerly to see that every last bite is enjoyed, but you happen to have a particular food sensitivity, you’re going to feel awkward pushing the food around on your plate. Best-case scenario is to let your Great-Aunt Gertrude know ahead of time that your guy might look big, but he doesn’t eat his weight in food. If your warning goes unheeded, that’s when it’s helpful to make finishing what’s on your plate a team effort. My husband and I developed fairly sophisticated skills to pull off some pretty stealthy food-sharing operations. Between the two of us, we often finish dinner in the clean-plate club, much to the delight of our hostesses. This little pact we share might be in my top ten favorite things about our marriage. Whom else can you ask to sneakily eat off your plate and not look weird?
This season offers us so many opportunities to give, but I can’t think of a better gift than an awkwardness-free holiday. Keep your antenna attuned to the needs and comfort level of your better half, and love and mutual appreciation will abound. All those office parties, holiday meals, and family gatherings become less uncomfortable and more about enjoying the cookies, cocktails, company, and Mariah Carey.
Photo Credit: Manchik Photography