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8 Stay-sane tips for spouses when making holiday plans

It’s a question that creeps up every year whether we like it or not: Where are we going “home for the holidays?”

Whose family should we visit, should we host everyone at our place, or are we doing a quiet “just us” holiday instead?

It’s exhausting just thinking about it, right? Plus, it can cause some pretty charged couples’ arguments, lead to blowout fights with parents and in-laws and add to the stress of what is already an uber-stressful time of year. Jobs and kids throw even more of a twist into the whole deal.

“Some kind of spontaneity in the planning and executing of the visits is essential if the couple are to feel like a ‘pair,’ rather than a cog in the wheel of family ‘shoulds,'” says Dr. Jeanette Raymond, a licensed marriage therapist in Los Angeles and the author of Now You Want Me, Now You Don’t. “Talking in advance about family traditions and their meaning will go a long way to oil the wheels of fitting in without feeling forced just because it is expected.”

The decision doesn’t have to make or break your relationship or cause deep rifts with either side of the family. We’re here to help! Here are eight tips for deciding whose family to spend the holidays with so neither of you feel resentful or left in the dust. And hopefully you’ll also be able to keep the peace with parents, kids and other relatives in the mix.

1. Start talking about it early

Too often, couples make holiday plans on the fly without really getting to the heart of the matter: how they feel. And that’s where things can crumble, according to Raymond. “One of the biggest mistakes most couples make is not to speak about the issues in advance,” she tells us. “Most are fine about the practical stuff — the planning, the packing. But if there’s a delay or snag, that’s when it all comes out.”

And what if one spouse (cough, cough, your husband) doesn’t feel like having a Big Discussion? You might learn that isn’t really the case. “They actually do want to talk it out but don’t want to initiate because they don’t want to feel like the bad guy,” Raymond says.

2. Get to the bottom of what’s really important

This goes for what matters most to each of you and both of you, together. “For many couples, it’s quite literally about whose family to visit first,” says Raymond. “What does it mean to each of us if we go to my family’s this year, or if we go to yours, or if we don’t go anywhere? Like we all know, it goes back to our childhoods. It’s what we carry with us.”

So it could be in the details: i.e., Christmas is a bigger deal to your parents than to his, so you should spend it with them and the other holidays with his family. Or his parents start the festivities earlier than yours, so you should head to their place first. But it could go deeper — the holidays used to be full of tension growing up and you remember hiding in your room a lot, so you’re feeling vulnerable and want him to protect you. Or he’s nervous about visiting your parents because he senses they don’t approve. Getting down to the crux of those fears, insecurities and expectations will make those “where to spend the holidays” decisions a lot easier to make.

3. Try to adopt a flexible mentality to allow for holiday “surprises”

After all that discussing, hopefully a clear plan of action emerges that you can both live with. And while following through with what you agree on is necessary, so is flexibility for “life’s little surprises” that can strike at any time — from bad weather to a sick parent or child. Being a little spontaneous and “going with the flow” can also be more relaxing and fun for both of you. Hurrah!

4. Always put your relationship first

This is vital, perhaps the most important factor in deciding where to go for the holidays. So why is it so hard to do? Because ’tis one of the most emotionally fraught times of year and each of you will feel yanked in a zillion different directions. “Each one is pulling each other to be part of their family of origin, but you can’t ask your husband to be part of your family of origin because you created a new one when you got married and had kids,” says Raymond. “That’s the one you need to focus on.”

Figure out what’s best for you as a couple, married or otherwise, and do that, she suggests. “Otherwise, the couple becomes two ‘I’s’ and there’s no ‘us’ and no ‘we,'” she says. “They break their fidelity to their partner and become the child of whomever they belonged to. That’s why there’s so much tension. There are three families: his, yours and ‘us,’ and the ‘us’ gets crushed.”

5. Turn holiday traditions upside-down

That could mean anything from fudging the dates a little so at least some of your travel is off-peak (aka cheaper and less chaotic) to rotating who to visit and when. Some couples go to one family for Thanksgiving one year and the other for Christmas, and then switch. Others factor their own “newer” family into the mix and do a three-way swap. My husband and I are trying a version of that ourselves for the first time this year (Thanksgiving at his parents’ house, Christmas at our house with our two children and a few days with my family shortly after. And then next time, the other way around). Whatever you do, don’t forget to come up with some of your own holiday traditions, set aside some couple time, and put what’s best for the marriage ahead of the rest.

6. Skype

If you can’t be with one or both of your families over the holidays, Skype with the parents and relatives who aren’t there in person, advise Raymond and other experts. Not just after winding down, but for some of the actual rituals like leaving milk and cookies for Santa, lighting the menorah or opening gifts under the tree. That way you’re all at least partly “together.” And make sure to send packages, cards or even food in your absence.

“If you decide not to attend a family gathering, take care to keep the bonds of the relationships intact,” Orlando-based GroundWork Counseling suggests for splitting the holidays. “Show your generous spirit and find a way to be present in their lives on the actual day. You can send a package or card to be opened that day. You can call/Skype and talk to everyone. Reaffirm your love to the family, help them feel secure in your affection.”

7. Have a “destination holiday”

If everyone on both sides is willing and able to travel, why not take an extended family trip somewhere and celebrate the holidays there? Having a “destination holiday” can go a long way in cutting some of the anxiety and conflict out of the picture. “Everybody might, if they agree to travel, meet at some separate location — so it’s not about who’s getting priority and who isn’t,” says Raymond. Plus, you’ll all get a sweet winter vacation out of it and maybe even some much-needed downtime! Ah, tropical island of my dreams, here I am at last!

8. Don’t throw the babies — or your budget — out with the bath water

Whatever you do, take kids (if you’re parents) and your finances into consideration when figuring out where to be for the holidays. Make a realistic budget for what you and your spouse want to spend on travel tickets, gas, gifts, hosting, etc. and then try to stick to it and factor it into the decision. If you have children, they should be a top priority too. What’s best for them? If they’re old enough, give them a say. And if they’re littler, like mine, find a solution that won’t throw them out of their comfort zone too much or be too tiring and stressful. Remember, the holidays are supposed to be a welcome break for all of you. Jolly, even!

No matter what, you and your husband need to stick together. Act like a team. Because that’s what you are.

“Maintain the couple pair as a tight unit all the time,” says Raymond. “Whenever one partner feels that they have to choose, choose the couple part of your relationship. That is what matters in the long run. It will keep the marriage solid and ensure that family in the future won’t make these choices so blatant.”

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