Wednesday, December 14, 2011

This Relationship Corner: Where to Spend the Holidays

The Holiday season is now upon us, and whether you're celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Festivus, Boxing Day, New Years Eve, or any of the multitude of holidays in December, you and your significant other will have one huge issue: where do you go to spend the holidays?

Remember, when you enter into a relationship, it's with more than one person. Both of you also get each other's families. Most of the year, visiting your families isn't a terribly stressful proposition. You go when you can, and if you are busy or live far away, they usually understand if you can't visit that often. However, when the Holidays roll around, visiting family is another issue entirely. You may expect to visit your family, as usual, and simply bring this new person along. But what happens when your partner has the same idea about his/her family?

This is what adds to a lot of holiday stress: splitting time between two or more families. You have to visit your parents -which may be one or two stops- and then you may have aunts and uncles, cousins, and of course grandparents. You may also want to spend time with old friends you haven't seen in ages. That's just you. Then it's your spouse's turn to dictate where you go, and if you only have the same amount of holiday time you did when you were single, that means your visits get cut in half, and someone is unhappy with your travel schedule. You will have conflict, you will have to soothe hurt feelings, and you will have to deal with disappointment.

I don't have an answer on how to decide whom to visit, when, and for how long. The only thing I can guarantee is that it will be an issue. You'd better be prepared to engage, for the sake of your relationship, with each other and with your friends and family. In fact, the sooner you talk about it, the easier it will be to figure out your holiday plans, and there's nothing wrong with broaching the topic in June.

Of course, if family visits during the holidays are so stressful, you may be asking yourself why you even bother. Why try to meet everyone during the holidays? Why not just skip the visits, stay home, and not worry about pleasing everyone when you could just please no one and have everyone equally unhappy with you? Because unless they are toxic (more on that in a moment) you need your family. You need these relationships because their presence in your life helps you maintain your relationship.

Relationships are tough. Marriages can be even tougher, and you need all the support you can get. You need to have good examples to emulate. You need bad examples to avoid. You need advice from people who've been through what you're going through. (And even those who made the wrong choices can give you some great advice.) In this modern, busy world, we often don't make enough time to visit our relatives. The holidays, however, provide an opportunity, and it's a chance to maintain and strengthen those ties to your needed relationships.

Then there's your children. Most of you in relationships will have children, and unless there's a good reason to keep them from your relatives, your kids need to know your family. While you will hopefully provide them with excellent role models and provide a positive upbringing, they need more than the two of you. They need their aunts, uncles, cousins, and especially grandparents. They need to be around elders who aren't their parents, because there will be times your children will gladly listen to your advice as long as it comes from anyone but you. They need to know their family, especially in a world that is starting to value virtual relationships over the real thing. Your kids need that close contact, because it will help shape them into better adults.

Visiting family isn't just an issue when you are married or established in a long-term relationship. Once there's even a hint of long-term potential, the two of you will start trying to spend the holidays together, rather than apart. This means that you'll be visiting your partner's family rather than your own. This is a good dry run for what you'll be dealing with if you make your commitment more permanent. Plus, it also gives you an opportunity to look at the family you might just be marrying into. After all, when you marry someone, they are part of a complete set. It helps to get to know the accessories beforehand.

Those first holiday visits will also help you figure out what family means to the two of you. If you are someone who values your family, who will always be close to your relatives, then you might want to make sure you're with someone who shares that ideal. Even if they aren't close to their family (or perhaps don't have much family to speak of) you will want someone who is amenable to your level of family commitment. In fact, some people I know were very excited to spend time with their in-laws as it meant an escape from their own families.

This brings up the uncomfortable, but very necessary, issue of unhealthy, dysfunctional, and just plain toxic families. Sometimes spending time with your family can be emotionally, if not physically dangerous. If there's a history of violence, alcohol or drug use, or any kind of abuse, willingly placing yourself into that situation may be very unhealthy. A lot of people struggle to get past the pain and trauma of their childhoods, and visits home can set that progress back.

If this describes your family visits, if the very thought of being near your relatives gives you nightmares, then I want you to know that you are allowed to not visit. While many people have great, supportive families, not everyone is so blessed. Sometimes, family isn't a place of love and support.  Sometimes, it's full of people who are more than happy to tear you down, see your relationship and life go up in flames, and then pull you into their own dysfunctional hell. If this is you, avoiding your family may be the most healthy choice you make.

Of course, it's easy to say that you should skip visiting your toxic family. It's another thing to actually do so. Toxic families are masters of guilt, and the holidays magnify guilt's power ten-fold. With just a few words, those family members will convince you that unless you visit, you are the most horrible, ungrateful, hateful, (insert your own pejorative) person ever, and that you are ruining the holiday for everyone. It's the classic crab bucket trap; if they see you taking a healthy step, they will try to pull you back into their unhealthy situation.

Your family won't be the only ones guilt-tripping you. Many well-meaning people will tell you that you should be with your family no matter what because that's what you're supposed to do over the holidays. Every Christmas themed episode of every television show you watch will be about spending time with your family, and rare is the show that presents avoiding your unhealthy family as the preferred way to spend the holidays. It may be very hard to explain why you're avoiding your family this year, especially if you don't want to explain why your family is a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

While visiting a healthy family is good for children, taking them to visit very unhealthy relatives will do more harm than good. Those same relatives who made you feel like worthless garbage growing up will turn their attentions on your children. If there's a risk of emotional, physical, and especially sexual abuse, then you owe it to your children to keep them as far from your family as possible. Your children's well being should be your number one priority, and if that means you don't take them to visit harmful relatives, then that's what you need to do. They may be too young to understand at first, but as they get older you can explain to them why they don't see their relatives.

This is why it can be very healthy to not spend time with your family and just spend time with your partner's. (or the other way around) The holidays are already going to be a stressful time, so any healthy family support will be helpful.

However, if healthy families are not in the cards for either of you, (and perhaps that's what brought you together in the first place) that doesn't mean the two of you have to be alone. Instead of family, get together with close friends instead. Spend the holidays with someone else's family. Or, find other people you know who also cannot, for whatever reason, get home to see their families and invite them into your home.

The holidays are not an easy time for a lot of you, and it can add a lot of stress to your relationship. I wish I could give you the magic formula for negotiating these issues, but I can't. I can just offer reassurance that you aren't the only ones going through it, whether it's just a matter of scheduling time with wonderful family members or determining whether to visit at all.

I promise that if you take the time to deal with issue, you will be happier in the long run.


What are relationships like in a fantasy universe? Find out in the book I wrote.


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