As a PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy) Level II couples therapist, I strongly believe in the power of a secure functioning relationship.
The most fundamental tenet of PACT calls for partners to put their relationship first and take a vow to protect each other in private and public, to achieve a secure, connected and healthy relationship.
The pact in question is a promise between partners that no matter what happens, they will always be on the same team.
This commitment to each other’s well-being dramatically enhances the safety and security of the relationship.
With the holidays coming up, many people including couples experience a feeling of dread and overwhelm, rather than excitement. They dread spending an extended period with family members who might be challenging to interact with and feel overwhelmed with the meal planning and the shopping for gifts.
Here are some strategies that secure functioning couples employ to get through the holidays
1. Communicate openly and plan ahead
Start the conversations about the upcoming family events with your partner early on so that you both can put your heads together and come up with a plan. Such discussions are also a safe context for either partner to share their fears, concerns, and anxiety as long as the other partner remains open, receptive and empathic.
The planning piece should consist of details such as how long you want to stay at your family’s holiday gathering and what cues you both will use to signal to each other that you are feeling uncomfortable.
If you are hosting the event, you can have discussions about the structure and duration of the gathering.
2. Prioritize your plans/traditions
Be conscious about what you and your partner would like to do for the holidays and the traditions that you both want to begin or cultivate.
Your holiday traditions should take priority over your and your partner’s extended family’s traditions.
If you are hosting a family dinner or gathering, convey to your guests that you expect them to respect the traditions and rituals that you and your partner would like to have during the meal.
3. It’s ok to say no
If you and your partner desire to spend the holidays traveling or staying home instead of paying them with extended family, be comfortable with saying no to the invitations.
If you are honest with people about why you are unable to attend the holiday event, they are less likely to take it personally or feel offended.
Convey clearly and concisely that you and your partner would like to spend the holiday at home or perhaps flying to the Caribbean.
4. Keep an eye on each other
If you decide to spend the holiday with extended family, pay attention to your partner’s body language, facial expressions, and verbal messages for any signals indicating that they are feeling uncomfortable.
If you see your partner being cornered by a difficult family member, intervene in a creative way so that you can provide comfort and support to your partner without being rude to others.
Become your partner’s buffer when you see your partner struggling or feeling overwhelmed.
5. Check in with each other
At the family gathering or event, check in with your partner periodically to make sure they are ok.
You can agree on specific cues beforehand that you both can use to communicate with one another without letting others know. Frequent eye contact and subtle verbal check in’s such as a quick “everything ok?” can be beneficial.
6. Stay close
Utilize every chance you get to be physically close to your partner. Sit next to each other at the dinner table or on the couch, hold hands, hug each other or rub your partner’s back.
Physical touch and closeness convey safety and reassurance.
7. Don’t let your partner become the outsider
In situations where your partner doesn’t know a lot of people or perhaps is attending your family’s gathering for the first time, don’t let your partner become isolated.
If it is apparent to you that your partner appears to be left out or is separate, include them in your conversations and don’t leave their side.
8. Don’t change the plan
This is the most important tip.
Don’t deviate from the plan you both agreed to follow beforehand. If you both decided to leave after a particular time, make sure that you do. Don’t ignore your partner’s cues that they are becoming overwhelmed and perhaps would like to leave sooner.
9. Schedule “us” time
Have something fun planned for you and your partner, after the family event.
Maybe it’s a quiet evening together, a romantic getaway or a celebration for just the two of you! Have something wonderful to look forward to, after fulfilling your holiday obligations.