While this year’s holidays may be very different due to what we think of as the other side of Covid, all couples still have to face decisions about how to interact with extended families and friends. Hopefully, your holiday plans feel more connected, while staying safe, this year.

In “normal” times, many families have two to four celebrations in various households over the course of a 7-day holiday spread. Especially if young children are involved. When couples blend multiple families, the number of extended family to visit is multiplied.

Couples share with me—often months in advance—that they dread the holidays, that it’s exhausting and only sporadically fun; that they often fight about it. But they do it out of a sense of obligation to their parents, grandparents, and others. This year, the stress may be different or multiplied if the extended family has different ideas about what is safe, if parents are aging or for other reasons caused by the virus. Such pressures come back to cause friction between you if you do not put your relationship first.

More on Commitment Complexities

This year is a good time to reflect, connect and talk about how you wish to manage holiday plans when we come out the other side. It’s a perfect opportunity to review how you’d really like it to be.

When you put your relationship first and make choices as partners, then outside pressures will not cause the two of you to end up disconnected. Maybe a little less spending or running around? Maybe starting your own traditions at home? Finding new ways to please yourselves while also pleasing others.

Here’s an example of how one couple—Anna and Thomas—partnered to creatively satisfy everyone’s needs throughout the year.

Stay Connected To Avoid Holiday Stress

A couple’s need to protect and prioritize their relationship frequently arises around extended family and in-laws. In a romantic committed relationship or marriage, it is important for a couple to put their partnership first, so that others—even well-meaning family or friends—do not come between them, or cause friction between them. Anna and Thomas’s story offers further insight into this situation and how Big Picture partnering, with its emphasis on prioritizing your relationship, talking and listening to each other, and learning to make decisions together, can help.

I initially worked with Anna and Thomas in our Big Picture couple’s coaching relationship when they were preparing to marry. They successfully worked to strengthen a good relationship, work through some differences, and became confident in creating a life together. They married, grew in their individual careers, bought a new home, and had a daughter. Life was good.

However, a few years later they reconnected. While life was good, they ran into trouble every holiday and were stumped in communicating their way out of an unhappy pattern. They wanted my coaching help to make what had become a miserable time enjoyable. After all, wasn’t that what holidays were supposed to be?

Luckily they reconnected a few months before the Christmas holidays which was one of their biggest trouble spots. That, …. and Easter, ….and Thanksgiving…. and possibly 4th of July…. and Labor Day Weekend. Oh my! That was way too many times spent dreading choices about how to spend time with in-laws!

Different Family Backgrounds; Different Expectations

Thomas’s family had long-held traditions. His mom was on a large family homestead in the country, a few states away. It was important to him that he, Anna’ and Sophie stay five or six days since it was a time when his eight brothers and sister, their mates and children,  all gathered at the family farm where they had been raised. Thomas’s large extended family talked, ate meals, walked in the woods, and played games and cards late into the night. For Thomas and his siblings, this was a relaxed and comfortable time.

But the first few times Anna and Thomas joined his family for the holiday, they were unprepared for the tension it would create between them. They fought all the way home and for days afterward. It only got worse after Sophie was born.

Anna had been raised as a city girl. Her family was small, with one brother and parents who did not request long stretches of time together. They were used to sharing a meal and opening presents then going their separate ways. After some family time with her parents, Anna and Thomas typically got to socialize with their friendship circle.

So being with Thomas’s family in the country for nearly a week was like being abandoned on a lonely planet. She was separated from her work, family, and friends and felt stuck with the care of their daughter while Thomas hung out and gabbed with his many brothers and sister, whom Anna liked, but did not feel a close bond with.

Partnering Together; Creating a New Way

When Anna and Thomas realized they needed to find a resolution to this unhappiness, we were able to apply the partnering skills they had learned to this family situation. It took out-of-the-box thinking, but together, they came up with many possible options.

The 1st Step Was Negotiating the Frequency of Visits:

  • One option was for Anna and four-year-old Sophie to stay home and go to her own parents for the holiday.
  • Another was for Anna and Sophie to stay only two days, while Thomas stayed longer.
  • Another way to go only once a year to see his family for such an extended time, with other shorter visits.

Out of this brainstorming discussion, Thomas was comfortable considering one longer visit and another shorter visit each year with the three of them. Anna also suggested he could have visited by himself at other times—to go hunting and fishing with his brothers—without Anna and Sophie feeling pressured to go along.

The 2nd Step Was Partnering on Specifics to Make the Visits Satisfying for Both of Them:

Deciding to put their relationship and their own immediate family first, they agreed on a whole series of actions that would meet everyone’s needs.

  • They agreed Thomas would take responsibility for speaking up clearly about his and Anna’s choices in front of his family so that Anna did not have to sound like the ogre or the “outsider” in-law setting limits with his family.
  • Then they decided that during each visit they would have one date night out, away from the large group. They would either go themselves or go with one brother and his wife, whom they were close to.
  • They agreed on an alternating shift of childcare so that Anna could have scheduled free time to either nap or read or go to the local antique shops one or two afternoons.

And the key to their emotional connection, during these visits, Anna and Thomas agreed to have regular eye contact, smiles, and a hug or kiss periodically throughout the day.

They developed little signals for, “Are you okay?” “Everything’s fine,” or “I’m almost at my limit!”

They also agreed that before either of them reached their limit, they would go for one walk together each day, to stay connected.

Using these partnering agreements, which are re-upped and refined each time they prepare for a family visit, Anna, Thomas, and their daughter have reported very satisfying holiday visits. They feel supported by each other and trust in their partnership capabilities. Each time, they consider individual and couple needs, as well as the needs of their daughter and Thomas’s extended family. Then they apply their partnering skills to creatively make family visits enjoyable for all—because when they are happy and connected, the extended family is happy!

Put Your Heads Together to Make Holidays More Fun!

The first few times you slow down and really talk over what you want for the holidays, it can feel like a lot of work. But I reassure you of two things. (1) It will get faster and easier the more you practice and come to mutually satisfying, win/win decisions. (2) You’ll have a lot more fun because you are meeting one another’s needs, protecting your partnership’ and making it a priority!



Reflect on your own relationship.


Dr. Jan Hoistad