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 tell 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 parents, grandparents and others. This year, the stress may be different or multiplied if extended family have 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—Carolyn and John—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. Carolyn and John’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 Carolyn and John 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

John’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, Carolyn and Maddie 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. John’s large extended family talked, ate meals, walked in the woods, and played games and cards late into the night. For John and his siblings, this was a relaxed and comfortable time.

But the first few times Carolyn and John 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 Maddie was born.

Carolyn had been raised 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, Carolyn and John typically got to socialize with their friendship circle.

So being with John’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 John hung out and gabbed with his many brothers and sister, whom Carolyn liked, but she did not feel a close bond with.

Partnering Together; Creating a New Way

When Carolyn and John 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 Frequency of Visits:

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

Out of this brainstorming discussion, John was comfortable considering one longer visit and another shorter visit each year with the three of them. Carolyn also suggested he could have visits by himself at other times—to go hunting and fishing with his brothers—without Carolyn and Maddie 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 John would take responsibility for speaking up clearly about his and Carolyn’s choices in front of his family, so that Carolyn 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 Carolyn could have scheduled free time to either nap or read or go to the local antique shops one or two afternoons.

And key to their emotional connection, during these visits, Carolyn and John 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, Carolyn, John, and  their daughter have reported very satisfying holiday visits. They feel supported by each other and trusting in their partnership capabilities. Each time, they consider individual and couple needs, as well as the needs of their daughter and John’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 two things. It will get faster and easier the more you practice and come to mutually satisfying, win/win decisions. And second, 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.