Ask Kirsten: How to survive the holidays as a couple?

Dear Kirsten,

I need some holiday advice. Thanksgiving was pretty rough on my relationship.  My boyfriend and I been together for 7 months, so this is the first holiday season that we’re navigating as a couple. So far, we’re failing big time. Between my boyfriend’s divorced parents and my gigantic family, we spent the entire holiday running from house to house. We were fried by the end of the weekend and ended up getting in a big fight. Now I’m super nervous about Christmas! 

Sincerely, Hung Up on the Holidays

Hi there Hung Up,

There’s a reason that the holidays get a bad rap. Sky-high expectations for the holiday experience coupled with family demands and dynamics often equal a big ol’ disaster. When you add kids to the equation, holiday magic is increased, but so is holiday stress. But hey, don’t shed any tears in your eggnog. I have some tried-and-true suggestions to help you have fantastic holiday experiences with your partner.

1) Sit down with your man and decide on some holiday boundaries.

Maybe you don’t want to have four different meals and visit four different homes in a two-day span? Perhaps you can rotate your holidays – Thanksgiving with his family, Christmas with his yours, and then switch the next year? Some couples claim Christmas Eve for themselves and devote the entire next day to family. Talk through your individual pictures and find ways to compromise with each other. This applies to holiday spending and gifting as well. After you set these boundaries and expectations with your family, stick with them and don’t feel guilty about it. It’s ok to say, No. It really is.

2) Establish your own holiday traditions.

Some of the most sparkly, Hallmark-ish moments come before or after the actual holiday. An annual viewing of Elf with your closest friends and some spiked apple cider. A romantic outing to see Christmas lights in your new scarf and wool coat. A cookie-making session in the kitchen with your man and a holiday playlist. Get rid of the “shoulds” and explore your “wants.” Then set up some fun activities that feel special to both of you. Whether you celebrate Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas or none of the above, you can find glittery and gleaming ways to add annual fun to your season.

3) Set up a response plan for typical triggers.

You know what I’m talking about. Do you have an aunt who always drinks too much wine and starts picking fights before the dessert has been served? Maybe you have two siblings who start World War III over the sweet potato casserole when discussing their political views. Or maybe it is you who tends to drink a little too much spiked eggnog when the whiskey and nutmeg are flowing. If there is a family member that triggers you, a relative that wants you to stay too long or a certain type of alcohol that is problematic, come up with an action and response plan with your significant other, ahead of the holidays. Then, stick with it. I encourage couples to even create a code word that they can use to signal the need for a speedy exit. You’ll be far more likely to have a positive holiday experience if you go into the events prepared.

4) Finally, please make time for relaxation and self-care.

You and your guy get limited vacation time, and you are about to use a chunk of it. So make sure you add in time to sleep in, lounge around on the couch or go for long walks and jogs. We want you to go back to work in January feeling rested and refreshed, not frazzled and wrung out. Make a commitment to defy the harried holiday trends and instead have a delightfully stress-free vacation. It can be done if you take the time to strategize ahead of time.

Sincerely, Kirsten

Ask Kirsten on As One Loves is published as a community service with the intention of addressing reader-submitted questions about relationship issues. Written by Kirsten Brunner, MA, LPC, a licensed professional counselor, this column is not a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or actual psychotherapy. Always seek the advice of a licensed mental health professional, without delay and in person, regarding questions you may have about any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard other professional advice because of something you have read on AsOneLoves.com. Reader-submitted questions are anonymous to protect the questioner's identity, chosen by the As One Loves team, and may be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and length.

Is this you and your beau's first holiday season together? How's it going so far? Any hurdles, or smooth sailing all the way through?

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Author: Kirsten Brunner

Kirsten Brunner is a Licensed Professional Counselor who has provided couples therapy and life coaching for 19 years. On her website, Baby Proofed Parents, Kirsten delivers relationship and emotional health advice to expectant and new parents. Kirsten is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and TODAY Parents. Her writing has also been featured in The Atlantic, Real Simple Magazine and Mamalode. She works with clients, in person and over Skype, with a specific focus on strengthening communication between couples. Kirsten lives in Austin, TX with her husband, two sons and her dog, Jake (Yup, she is definitely outnumbered.)

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