We often derive great meaning and a sense of belonging by visiting with our family of origin during the holidays, but it’s not always the same for our partner. However, with proper planning you can successfully maintain healthy relationships with both.
Planning with your partner before holiday events conveys that you two matter most. It signifies that you two are the priority and that familial stress is not going to negatively affect the relationship.
#1 Identify difficult individuals and plan for them.
You and your partner may agree on who the difficult individuals are in your family, or you may not. But as a rule of thumb, if someone is difficult for your partner, then they should be identified as such. You may believe that the person in question has good intentions at heart, but that doesn’t do much to alleviate your partner’s discomfort.
For example, say you have a well-meaning uncle that gets drunk and traps people in uncomfortable conversations. If your partner lets you know they feel uncomfortable around him, have a plan for noticing this conversation and helping your partner out. You may call your partner into the other room, or sit next to them for support – whatever you two have agreed on in the plan.
Or say your mom gives unsolicited parenting advice to your partner, which makes your partner feel disrespected. You can intervene by setting a boundary with your mother. This can be done before the event by saying something like, “Mom, please don’t give parenting advice to my partner.” If necessary, you can say it right when it happens, or pull your mother aside after.
It’s best to be clear from the outset that your first priority and primary allegiance should be to your partner. Choose the discomfort of setting a boundary with the difficult person over the resentment of your partner – you go home with your partner, not your relatives.
#2 Have a plan for when to leave.
Having a plan for when to leave (or to go to bed if staying there) can provide relief for your partner. If there is a finish line, it can help your partner power through any discomfort they have with your family. If driving and there is alcohol involved, obviously plan who will be the designated driver. If your partner is going to bed before you, go with them to check in and decompress with them before returning your family.
What if these are not upheld?
If part of the plan is broken, let each other know in a respectful way, perhaps in private. Your partner may not have seen or heard what happened with that difficult person. Or perhaps they assumed you were okay with staying past the agreed leaving time, since it appeared to them like you were enjoying yourself. Let them know without complaining, and help them help you by requesting that in the future you both abide by the agreed plan.
You may also need to allow some grace in the beginning with these plans. Since your partner grew up with their family, it’s been all they know for a long period in their life, and they may assume everything is okay.
On the other hand, if there seems to be a blatant disregard for these agreements, that may necessitate a different conversation, which may include you choosing to stay home next time around.
Overall, if your partner (who is the guest with your family), knows that you have their back and that you are trying to set them at ease, they may have more patience and acceptance with your familial difficulties. They may also be more likely to want to attend future family events if they feel safe and respected.
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