My husband grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. His extended family was massive, and because staying put was highly valued in his hometown, he grew up with nearly every aunt, uncle, and cousin close by. We were married five months after meeting, but in that short amount of time, I’d discovered his family tree was rooted in close ties, loud gatherings, delicious farm-style cooking, and a lot of love.
Given these conditions, it was strange to me that my husband’s extended family was absent from our wedding. We lived in Virginia at the time, a four-hour drive from my husband’s hometown. We’d made the drive north for Thanksgiving, even though we both worked long hours. It seemed natural to me they’d make the same sacrifice to celebrate our New Year’s Eve wedding with us. My husband shrugged off their absence, concluding that his extended family skipped our wedding so they wouldn’t miss out on the annual New Year’s Day gathering at his grandparent’s home. It was a tradition after all, and when it came to tradition, our wedding was second priority.
It's likely you’ve also found your spouse’s holiday traditions run as bone deep as DNA. Even if your spouse is less traditional and happily compromising, their family may not be as flexible. Marriage may not seem as hard as everyone said it would be, but then November comes and every blood relative between the two of you assumes your holiday plans are structured around their house, timeframe, meal, tradition, etc. The most wonderful time of the year becomes a spreadsheet outlining whose house, what time, and who you have for Secret Santa. Tension is high, which is not how you imagined the holidays as a married couple.
If it helps, one of the top five arguments new couples have is about where to go for the holidays (Huffpost article 2019), which means the tension you’re experiencing is normal. Let’s consider five themes beneath those tense conversations and how to approach holiday discussions with honesty and compassion.
Why are those happy holiday memories so important to you? Because more than an event, each memory was a sensory experience – the smell of pine while your family searched for the perfect tree, the taste of mom’s cinnamon rolls, the sound of laughter and music, the holiday movie you watched every year, the warmth of a blanket and hot chocolate. From a neuroscience perspective, sensory experiences and the positive (or negative) chemicals they generate, do in fact become a part of who you are. Your spouse’s holiday experiences are part of their physiological make up, too, so accept their quirky traditions, even if you don’t understand them.
Many emotions are connected to the family culture and traditions you each enjoyed, as well the emotional senses of belonging and closeness, safety and peace. It’s important to take an honest look at what holidays felt like for you growing up. What feelings were most important? What was uncomfortable? What emotional state do you anticipate when the holidays arrive? When your spouse asks you to compromise your family tradition for his or hers, what are you being asked to surrender? As wonderful as marriage is, learning to share will bring grief. Making room for your spouse and the new traditions you want to create together will require you to let go of some things you enjoyed in your nuclear family. It’s okay to be sad about that, but be sure not to mask that sadness with anger instead.
The most common advice for engaged couples is, “Good communication is key.” It’s true! But communication is much broader than simply talking. Communicating means investigating and knowing what you’re experiencing, feeling, and expecting, and then translating that clearly to your spouse. If you don’t understand your expectations, you can’t communicate them, making it impossible for your spouse to meet them. What are you hoping to do, or not do, during the holidays? What traditions are most important to you? Evaluate those questions as individuals first, then talk through your expectations as a couple. Being on the same page is vital for the next step; graciously handling the holiday expectations of your collective family members.
You’ve envisioned your holidays as a couple and now you must grapple with the hard truth that your version of the holidays will disappoint some people. That’s okay. Time is a finite resource, and as two people with different needs, desires, and varying social and relational resources, your capacity as a couple is limited. The reality is, you can’t do everything and be everywhere, and if you spread yourselves thin, you open the door to exhaustion, poor health, diminished mood, and the potential for marital conflict. When your dear aunt asks if you’ll be attending her annual cookie baking extravaganza, and you know you have two other events that day, say “no.” Protecting your time also protects the vibrance of your marriage. Always respond with gratitude and keep your reason for not attending sincere but brief.
1 Corinthians 13 says, “Love is patient and kind. It does not demand its own way.” When a loved one extends an invite, it’s because they love you and desire your company. That’s a wonderful thing. Receive their love and ask them to respect the love you and your spouse have for each other. Additionally, be kind to your spouse this season. You may not love your wife’s idea of matching footie pajamas on Christmas Eve or your husband’s excitement about a turkey bowl on Thanksgiving morning, but ultimately, you love your spouse. Bend where you can, say “no” when it feels most necessary, and take heart. You’ll get through the holidays in one piece. As Paul writes, “Love is always hopeful and endures through every circumstance.”
Trauma Specialist, Personal Trainer, Barre Instructor, married mother of four, plus two sons-in-law, and proud Mimi. Michelle writes about responsive faith through a trauma-informed lens at www.onemoretruth.com and a variety of other publications.