We often derive great meaning and belonging from our family of origin during the holidays, but it’s not always the same for our partner. As adults, we no longer live with our family of origin, as we go home with our partner and our own kids. Thus, your priority and allegiance should be to your partner, not your family of origin. However, with proper planning you can successfully keep healthy relations with both.
Planning with your partner before holiday events conveys that you two matter most. This is a good move. It signifies that you two are the priority and that familial stress is not going to negatively affect the relationship.
#1 Identify the difficult people and plan for them.
You two may be in agreement with who the difficult people are in your family. Or, you may not. Rule of thumb: if someone is difficult to your partner then they should be identified as a difficult person. Your rationale that they mean well doesn’t do much for your partner if they feel uncomfortable around them.
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 or dad gives unsolicited parenting advice to your partner which makes them feel disrespected. You must intervene with a boundary to your parents. This can be done before the event saying something like, “Mom (or dad), please don’t give parenting advice to my partner.” Or you can say it live when it happens, or by pulling that parent aside after. Chose the discomfort of setting a boundary with the difficult person over the resentment of your partner – you go home with your partner not your parents.
#2 Have a plan on when to leave or when you will be calling it a night.
Having a plan for when to leave (or going 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 uncomfortableness they have with your family. If driving and there is alcohol being consumed, 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 to 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, since it looked like you were having a good time, they assumed you were OK with staying past the agreed upon leaving time. Let them know without complaining and request – help your partner help you – that you would like the plans to be abided by in the future.
You may also need to allow some grace in the beginning with these plans. Since your partner grew up with this family, it’s been all they know for a long period in their life and they may assume everything is OK.
Nevertheless, if you perceive blatant disregard for these agreements, that may be a different conversation which may include you staying home.
Overall, if your partner (who is the guest with your family), knows you have their back and you are trying, 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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