Navigating the holidays as a couple isn’t just a conundrum for newlyweds; it’s a point of contention for old married couples and dating relationships, too. Traditions, schedules, travel, and family dynamics all mix together as the holiday season unravels—which can make the time spent with family either a joyous celebration or one fraught with stress.
But with some small tweaks in how we handle our romantic relationships, we can pass on the drama and just enjoy that pumpkin pie.
One of the best places to find this kind of relationship wisdom? Premarital counseling. Even if you have no recollection of yours, you skipped it entirely, or maybe marriage is still only a hypothetical—we’ve got you covered. I’ve found women who have shared some specific strategies that they learned from premarital counseling to make the holidays a smooth and loving ride you’ll both look forward to each year.
01. We set the stage for productive conversations.
Kim learned that creating the right atmosphere for a productive, gentle conversation is of paramount importance. Don’t just bring up holiday planning willy-nilly at 11 p.m. on a Thursday night while you’re watching Stranger Things. “The most important thing in discussing tough subjects like the holidays is making the other person feel heard and valued,” she shares. “Ensure each of your feelings and traditions are equally important and validated.” Kim also explains that if the conversation isn’t headed in the direction of a decision, it’s best to table it and discuss it at another time. She’s found that holding off for a bit can keep emotions in check and avoid arguments.
Ultimately, having a productive conversation also means ensuring both people are in the best state of mind to talk. Taylor learned that the best time to chat is usually in the morning—rather than after a long day of work. With both people rested and relaxed, the conversation is bound to go a more conducive route. She suggests that sitting down over coffee on a Saturday can be the best time to tackle this tough topic.
02. We make sure we’re on the same page first.
Married almost three years, Katie reflects on advice she heard in her premarital counseling sessions: “Talk ahead of time with your spouse to figure out what you’re both seeking when it comes to being with your families.” The key here is talking as a couple before starting a discussion with other family members. Then, when you present your desires and plans, you work together as a united team.
A technique Taylor learned is to write down every expectation, party, and event you have for the season. “You might be surprised that you can attend everything. But if not, agree to rotate each year or ask family if they’re willing to celebrate on another day.” Discuss as a couple what decision will bring you the most joy. By talking together in advance, Taylor and her husband are able to communicate clearly when they make arrangements with their respective families, avoiding the he-said-she-said drama that can otherwise happen.
03. We make time for both sides.
Depending on your situation—whether you’re out of town, you’re in grad school, or you’re pregnant, deciding which family gets what can be tough—and sometimes even heartbreaking. For Kim and her husband, they’ve solved this issue by having every holiday mapped out—to make sure both families get time. Because their routines for Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are the same every year, they generally don’t have a lot of surprises. Having that overarching schedule makes for easier planning going forward, especially if you have particularly trying situations. “My mom and I both have celiac disease, so we can’t eat gluten,” Kim shares. “Because of the complications specifically with Thanksgiving (think: stuffing, pie, gravy, biscuits . . .), my mom hosts Thanksgiving.” For them, this makes life easier—but it will take time to get into a rhythm.
However, some people such as Katie and her husband either try to squeeze both Thanksgivings together in one day or alternate every Christmas. Simply put, find a system that is realistic but gives both your families at least some time. Most importantly, make sure that you prioritize your sanity as a couple first.
04. We create our own traditions.
Taylor remembers that premarital counseling emphasized the importance of creating traditions together all on your own as a couple, and she has taken that advice to heart. “Our tree is decorated with ornaments from around the world. Every time we travel somewhere, we buy one,” Taylor shares. “I love talking about those memories as we decorate our tree. It is such a special night for us!” Every year, they also watch the classic rom-com Elf as they decorate to maximize the laughs.
As a couple grows and starts a family, those personalized traditions will take on even more purpose and meaning. So whether it’s opening your gifts on Christmas morning or having a celebratory breakfast together, ensure you have traditions that you can cherish throughout the span of your marriage.
05. We realize that some tension is normal (and even a positive).
Though Kim and her husband began sharing holidays before they were engaged, blending each and every one was something they didn’t fully tackle until they were married. “Both of us are really close to our families, which is such a blessing—but it can also make for very stressful, difficult conversations and compromises,” Kim recognizes. She believes that because tension is more or less inevitable, it’s important to accept it and not let it get to you.
After all, tension over the holidays is often just a sign that you and your partner care a great deal about your families—which is a good thing. So relax and realize that it’s never going to perfect, but if you’re on the same page, it can be transformative.