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Tips for Navigating Family Holidays

Holidays offer an added dimension of potential dating and relationship landmines to navigate.  Dating etiquette, family conflict, and holiday fatigue are all factors.

If you’re newly dating someone you may question whether or not you want them to join in your holiday plans.  Be honest with yourself, do you want them to meet your family because they’re important to you and the timing is right, or are you just trying to maintain a status quo based on expectations from others?  Pacing yourself in a relationship is critical.  Be sure that you’re sending honest signals about where you stand in the relationship and don’t be afraid to delay having your partner meet your family if the timing does not feel right to you.  You may actually be reading this and wondering, “how do I know if the timing is right?”  Once you realize you are dating someone who is a significant part of your life and you want to see how they fit into your family dynamic, than perhaps it’s time to test the waters.

Relationships are like onions with many layers to discover and explore.  I always suggest developing a relationship slowly by integrating your partner into your life in phases, starting with friends, co-workers, then possibly moving on to family.  This slow integration can help you build confidence in the relationship and see how they fit into your world.  Be sure you do what feels right for you, anticipate anxiety as a norm, and there’s no harm in delaying a meeting with the parents.

If you’ve been dating your girlfriend for a significant amount of time yet you find yourself avoiding introducing her to your family, evaluate what’s holding you back.  Many people I’ve worked with feel nervous when bringing their partner home for the holidays, especially for the first time.  A family’s discomfort with same-sex relationships can always throw an additional wrench into an already anxiety provoking situation.  I suggest creating a more comfortable situation by taking the reins in your hands.  If you act confident, happy, and relaxed with the situation, people are more likely to adjust to match your mood.  Just think, have you ever been in a room with someone that’s restless, tapping their finger, and talking nervously? Notice how it can become contagious if you’re not careful.  Take deep breaths, be mindful not to talk a mile a minute, and an occasional silent reminder to yourself to “roll with it,” can help to alleviate your own anxiety, keep you grounded and help others relax around.  If your family has not seen you in a relationship before, it can be a great time to familiarize them with the happily coupled version of yourself. It may help to look at it as an experiment. Face it, you have to start somewhere.  If your family situation is more complicated than the one I’ve just touched upon, talk with your friends or even a therapist to help navigate expected family conflict and how best to cope.

If you’re single, seize the opportunity!  The holidays are a great time to meet new people, go to holiday gatherings, and put the word out that you’re on the market.  Ultimately the holidays can become an excuse to visit different social venues you may not normally attend.  Think volunteer work, charity benefits, and holiday gatherings.  Take advantage of the social expectations that come along with the holidays and embrace it, whether you personally celebrate any holiday or not – it’s a great reason to take a leap and try a new strategy for meeting new people.

How to Maximize Your Holiday Experience

1.  Be Realistic: It’s easy to get caught up in the idealization of how the holidays “should” go.  Statements such as “should” “always” “must have to” “never” are something to be aware of.  Many people that subscribe to this frame of mind fall into the trap of perfectionism, having a hard time enjoying the normal ups and downs that life creates.  To reduce feelings of disappointment rooted in unrealistic expectations, stay in the moment and use acceptance when incidents don’t go as planned.

2.  Don’t Get Trapped: If you’re seeing old friends or family members, some of which may know how to push your buttons, don’t fall for it.  People can easily revert back to old behaviors in the presence of family; many of these behaviors aren’t productive or helpful.  If you make a conscious decision to react differently to an old trigger then you can begin to change the system.  Think about how you would like to respond to the trigger before it happens.  Mentally rehearsal of how you want to handle a situation creates neuropathways that make it easier to recall and perform that target behavior, once the real situation occurs.  Identify your goal and what behaviors will help you achieve that goal.

3.  Conflict Resolution: Hopefully conflict won’t occur, but if you anticipate an argument use these helpful tips.  Disarming: agree to the piece of truth that they are saying (only if there is a seed of truth in the statement made).  Use “I statements” such as I feel, I think, I want, I need.  The goal is to stay away from saying “you statements” they are a surefire way to start an argument.  Thwarting:  If they ask you a question that puts you on the spot say, “let me think about it.”  This is an especially helpful step for those who find themselves saying ‘yes” to requests they don’t really want to do.  Redirecting:  acknowledge what they are saying or feeling, but clarify, “I want to enjoy this time with you, let’s talk about this next week,” and change the subject.

4.  Create Your Own Event: If family stresses you out, create your own happiness around you.  Invite people that are enjoyable, light-hearted, or uplifting.  Ask them to bring their friends along- you never know you may meet someone special.

5.  Do your Research: If you’re meeting your partner’s family or friends, find out who’s going to be at the gathering.  Learn the family history including divorces, remarriages, and the nuances of a blended family before you attend the event, this can lessen the chance of making a major faux-pas, when meeting new people.

6.  Be Inclusive: If you’re planning your own event, it’s always nice to tie a little bit of everyone’s holiday into the mix.  This may be a Christmas-Kwanza-Hanukah event or acknowledging festivus for the rest of us (yes, that was a Seinfeld reference).  The point is you can create a sense of comfort for everyone by acknowledging the varying belief systems of those attending your event.

Good Luck and have a fabulous holiday!

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