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Expectations Are Coming to Town

How new couples can manage family tensions and still spark joy.

Key points

  • Holiday planning can be stressful as new couples negotiate their own expectations and those of others.
  • The choices, habits, and conversations that happen early on matter for the long haul of a relationship.
  • It's not always possible to please everyone, but it is possible to cultivate rituals that spark joy.
Al Elmes/ Unsplash
Source: Al Elmes/ Unsplash

Brides and grooms-to-be, as well as newlyweds, can cultivate pre-holiday planning habits that set themselves up for better marital conditions for years to come. These are challenging yet essential opportunities for reflecting on how to transcend minutiae and consider the long haul. Think of this as prime time to consider what you truly want and need as individuals and as a couple, how you'll find meaning and balance, and how to best cultivate these qualities to enjoy and sustain a peaceful, supportive, connected, creative, and joyful long-term relationship.

A lack of honest communication and solid understanding of each other's priorities, concerns, and values can reverberate through a relationship for years to come. Patterns set early really do matter. Because we each emerge from families of origin with certain attitudes, beliefs, and values around what constitutes valid holiday celebrations, it is vital that new couples convey this to each other and then decide for themselves what aspects from each family they might want to retain, do away with, combine, or make anew.

People might find themselves with a partner who was raised very similarly or perhaps very differently. We might have become attracted to and married someone with a very different background and initially felt eager to learn about that—but when the holidays approach, we might find ourselves under more pressure from our own families and our partners about how to make it all come together.

Obviously, differences in race and religion may impact and complicate decision-making and planning for holidays, but it need not even be about those potentially charged issues; it can be related to blended families and all the different casts of characters and groupings of people with whom to make plans. It can be related to geographical distance and the practicality of trying to see a lot of people across many miles at times when it’s more costly, crowded, and unpredictable related to weather conditions.

It is helpful for couples to share what they need, want, and expect and to be clear about what feels non-negotiable and what feels negotiable. The worst thing is for one person to decide it is all too much bother and too much work and say they will just go on their own to see their own family. This does not send the message to one's partner or to either partner's family that the couple is in this together.

We have all heard of couples who switch off holidays and switch between families and that can work for some people but it is not necessarily the best way to handle this. For example, one person may feel more strongly about being with their partner and their own family of origin on Thanksgiving than Christmas and the other person may care only about Christmas; switching back and forth would not accomplish much in a case like that. So, it might be more meaningful and productive for a couple to look deeply into what they each want and need rather than what the larger culture dictates.

Couples also benefit from trying various ways of doing this before settling in and committing to, or announcing, that this is how they will continue to do it. As a new couple, it is good to give yourselves the flexibility to borrow what works and then tweak and create brand-new special traditions.

Handling the holidays gently, firmly, kindly, and fairly for each other and in relationship to each person’s family of origin goes a long way. It’s good practice, for example, for when couples may go on to have children and will need to juggle demands for attention from grandparents and extended family and will need to set reasonable boundaries.

Given that the upcoming holidays emphasize things like gratitude, couples benefit from expressing gratitude to each other for all the big and little things in life; doing this during an engagement and early in a new marriage is particularly helpful.

Couples benefit from carving out times that are not at all about holiday plans and family and friends and instead are simply about enjoying the new little family they are creating together. This may involve going on a day trip somewhere new, going into nature, taking a yoga class together, etc. Couples might create a dream hour in which they sit and talk about their future hopes for travel, for growth, etc.—but nothing to do with the holidays. This can cultivate relationship rituals which become like special little holidays a couple creates for themselves and that reflect the uniqueness of their relationship. It's a way to turn inward to create a private oasis, exchanging thoughts and creative energy. Rituals can anchor a couple, convey trust and emotional reliability, and give couples a chance to invent something new together that singularly defines their relationship.

More from Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.
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