"So, today, I want to focus on creating a game plan for Thanksgiving. It may seem premature and silly, but believe me, I receive the most inquiries after Thanksgiving and Christmas. So, we're going to do the work now."
That was from our marriage counselor during our last session before the holiday season was in full throttle mode. It did sound silly, but I also knew how miserable and awkward family holiday gatherings could be with or without a significant other.
I’m pretty sure my husband and I aren’t the anomaly. We usually power through family gatherings like powering through a workout. It sucks getting to the gym, but we ultimately know it’s better for us….at least that’s the hope.
As we both began to explore our “game plan” for the looming holiday dinners, I discovered, that there wasn’t a need to “power through” them at all. With a few adjustments and more planning, visiting family could actually be, dare I say, relaxing and fun…..?
1.) Open your mind, and keep it there
First and foremost you have to have an open mind, and that can be tough if you’ve previously had bad experiences or interactions with family members. I remember one of my first holiday dinners with my husband, and the subject turned to politics. As the only liberal person in the room, I eventually got up from the table, went to another room and cried to keep my alter ego, Nino Brown, at bay. It was something that had stuck with me through the years and I refused to believe there were any good intentions behind the comments that I took very personally.
As we discussed how to set ourselves up for success, I had to acknowledge that I didn’t have an open mind, and more importantly, that I had given up on trying. And while I’d rather go head-to-head with a lioness with a slab of bacon wrapped around me, I had to take a leap of faith, open my heart and mind, and be vulnerable, with absolutely no expectations on the outcome.
2.) Be open and honest about what could go wrong
What could possibly be the worst thing that happens? Who wants to think about that! But, if Auntie Deborah is notorious for bringing up your previous love interests, you should probably discuss your collective response before you get there. Or if his family knows you’re a health nut and it becomes the topic of conversation (and not in a good way), then explain why it bothers you. Thinking of the worst case scenario takes away the anxiety and brings perspective to what you’re really up against.
3.) Understand what it takes to make you both feel comfortable
It’s hard to feel comfortable in someone else’s home unless they are the ultimate hostess with the most-ess. But typically there’s small things, that can make the experience a little less jarring. For example, should you both roll in pairs? (As an introvert, I hate being left alone with new people). Or, would you feel more comfortable pitching in to help with prepping for dinner? Whatever the case, discuss what would make it more comfortable for the both of you.
4.) Create a game plan
“So, I want you guys to come up with a secret phrase. If things get too intense, or either one of you needs to be ‘rescued,’ I want you to have a word or phrase that signals to the other person that you need help.” It was genius. Not only would it help communicate with each other in a discreet manner if things were getting out of hand, I’m not going to lie, it was pretty fun coming up with our go-to “safe word”. But with so much prep work and addressing the items above, we never needed to use it.
5.) Schedule time alone
By day two of any family gathering, it can start to become emotionally draining. Between the excitement, the catching up, and being “on,” schedule a few hours to get away solo or together. This year we decided to go hiking the day after Thanksgiving and scheduled a romantic dinner alone later that evening. Granted we only were able to spend a few hours with the family, but we needed some time to check out from family and the previous work week.
With just a little bit of planning and open communication, the holidays can truly be a time to enjoy family and friends, and most importantly your partner.
Toni Carey is the founder of Keeping Balanced, a place where women can learn how to keep it all together, while living their best life possible. When she's not writing, you can find her running or practicing yoga in and around Washington, D.C.