As we’re sure you’re well aware, holidays like Thanksgiving can bring up a lot of stress in the relationship department, and not just because you don’t want your partner to notice your new apple pie belly. Ideally, Thanksgiving should be one of the best times of year, replete with family bonding, delicious food, and relaxing on the sofa. In reality, however, many couples experience greater-than-average stress on their relationship during the holiday season. There are more breakups during this time, and divorce lawyers have noted an uptick in phone calls from distressed couples right after the New Year (Russo, 2013). In this article, we’re going to look at some of the most common holiday season relationship stressors that might pop up now that Thanksgiving is around the corner, + talk about how you can address them and keep your relationship strong during a potentially stressful time of year.
Top 5 Thanksgiving Relationship Stressors
1. Prying questions from family members
If there’s one thing over which different cultures across the globe can unite and relate, it’s this. If you sit quietly and listen, you can hear the sound of hundreds of millions of eye rolls as couples the world over are asked similar personal questions during family holiday meals. Below is a selection of our favorite prying questions. If you can anticipate these questions and craft your answers in advance, you will save yourself a lot of stress. You might even role play these questions and answers with your partner ahead of Thanksgiving day. Let’s start with an easy one: “When is the wedding?”
If you’re newly engaged, you might not be ready to plan the wedding just yet. You want to bask in the glow of your commitment and fantasize about the future rather than jump headfirst into the craziness of wedding planning. However, well-meaning family members are often eager to know when the big day is. This you can simply answer with complete honesty: “Right now we’re enjoying our engagement without worrying about wedding planning yet. When the two of us decide to set a date, we’ll let you know.”
“Who are you going to invite to the wedding?”
Couples who choose to have small weddings often struggle with this one. Your great aunt twice or thrice removed would probably feel offended if you told her to her face that she won’t be invited to take part in your special day, but what are you supposed to do? Alter the plans for the most important day of your life to suit the egos of extended family members you see once every few years? The best way to address this without confrontation is to say “we’re gravitating towards having a very small and intimate wedding, and we have not made the guest list yet.”
“Are you going to get a prenup?”
If the prenup question comes up, it’s likely that everyone will want to give you advice on whether you should or shouldn’t, and on what to include if you do elect to get a prenup. There are two possible good responses to this, depending on you and your boundaries (which are 100% your prerogative). If you’re happy to hear others’ advice and experiences with prenups (or their retrospective regrets over not getting one) and are truly open to their feedback, then you can sit back and listen to or even solicit their opinions. However, some may prefer to keep this question strictly between themselves and their partner, without the involvement of their cousin’s friend’s girlfriend and whoever else is sitting around the dinner table. If that’s the case for you, you can simply smile and say “that’s a matter we’ve agreed to keep between the two of us. What is public is my apple pie recipe…who wants it?!”
Read more about discussing your prenup with family members here.
“When are you going to have kids?”
This one is potentially the king of annoying questions engaged and recently married couples get asked. With young people waiting longer and longer to have children, there is often a generational divide over the question of when to have kids. Couples who are not ready yet or who simply don’t want kids often feel a lot of pressure from family, which can put major strain on the relationship. Addressing this question can be particularly uncomfortable for couples dealing with fertility issues or miscarriage, who may be trying to have kids but might not want to discuss their private trials and tribulations around the dinner table.
Whatever your reasons for not becoming parents already, remember that it doesn’t concern your family if you don’t want it to. It is absolutely ok to draw a firm boundary with an answer like “this is a private matter that we prefer to keep between us. We’ll tell you if we have any updates we want to share with you, and we would appreciate it if you would stop asking.” Alternatively, if you don’t want kids and you want your family to accept that, you can try “we’ve decided not to have children, and we would like you to respect our choice without trying to convince us otherwise. Whoever can think of something to talk about that doesn’t involve each others’ personal lives gets the first slice of pie! Ready set go!”
Want to read more about communication in relationships?
2. Deciding where to have Thanksgiving (and Christmas! And New Year’s!)
Isn’t it ironic that a time of year which is supposed to be about connection can be so divisive? If you find yourself experiencing tension in your relationship over where to spend Thanksgiving and/or other holidays, here are a few possible solutions:
-You trade off deciding year-to-year
-Assess together whose family seems more in need of a visit. For example, if one of your parents is going to be alone for Thanksgiving, or if one of you only has one living parent, consider spending it with them.
-If geographically possible, divide your time between both families.
-Consider where you’ve spent the majority of past holidays.
-If you feel that it’s important that both families receive a visit, you might decide to spend the holiday apart, each visit your respective families, and reunite after Thanksgiving.
3. Reduced time for connection
A lot of holiday-season conflicts occur in part because couples don’t have as much time to connect, and therefore their relationship is not as strong and is more prone to conflict during that time period. There’s a famous zen proverb that states that if you are too busy to meditate, you should meditate for twice as long as usual. A similar principle applies to relationships. If you’re too busy to spend time connecting, put extra attention towards making sure you clear time in your busy schedules to connect. Research shows that couples who go on date nights at least once per week are less likely to divorce and also have higher-quality relationships. Additionally, spending more time together is correlated with higher levels of commitment, sexual satisfaction, and communication (Wilcox & Dew, 2012). Prior to Thanksgiving, bolster your relationship by taking dedicated time out to be with each other.
Do you know what your attachment style is? Read this to find out!
4. Clashing holiday traditions
As young couples become more multicultural, more and more millennials and gen z-ers will find themselves navigating holidays and traditions they don’t know much about. This can be both one of the most fascinating and most contentious parts of being together with someone from a different background than you, and it is a time to exercise extra sensitivity. If you’re a part of a multicultural couple, the principle to live by is to go heavy on the questions and light on the judgment.
Multiculturalism is not the only cause of clashing holiday traditions. It could also be as simple as both of you celebrating or experiencing the same holiday differently. Perhaps one of you comes from a more traditional family who looks upon Thanksgiving as a time to remember a peaceful exchange between native Americans and pilgrims, while the other is accustomed to marking Thanksgiving with an acknowledgment of atrocities committed by pilgrims against natives. Ideological differences can fuel arguments not only with your partner, but with their family. In such cases, flexibility and openness are key. When sharing your life with another person, being accepting of different views can save you a lot of strife and maybe even prove eye-opening.
5. Conflict with In-laws
Possibly the most classic of all Thanksgiving horror stories, difficulty with in-laws is no joke. If you’re worried about a flare-up of conflict with an in-law or any other family member at Thanksgiving, there are a couple of things you can do to prepare in advance and avert disaster.
One thing you can do is to choose a secret code word or phrase with your partner which you can use to signal to one another that you need backup in a difficult interaction (Borresen, 2018). In response to hearing the code word, your partner might either rush to your defense in the conversation, or take you aside for an urgent issue like needing you to help them remember the ingredients in the crumb topping on the apple pie.
Another thing you can do–and this might sound cheesy, but bear with us– is to anticipate and imagine triggering moments that could come up, and imagine yourself facing them by taking a few deep breaths and acting as gracious, mature, and respectful as you can. Brainstorm ways to respond in this way. It isn’t easy, but if you practice responding as your best self in your head, you are more likely to respond this way in reality.
At the end of the day, Thanksgiving and the holiday season are what you make of them. The many trials that sometimes come with Thanksgiving can be utilized as a growth experience, while the warmth and togetherness of the holiday can strengthen not only your romantic relationship but also your relationship with your partner’s family, or their relationship with your family. Or, if you’re really lucky, both!
After Thanksgiving ends, it might be time to start thinking about holiday gifts. Engaged? Consider treating yourself and your partner to a discount on HelloPrenup’s interactive prenup-writing software as a holiday gift. Our software helps you plan for your future together and represents another stepping stone on the journey to forever. What better gift than an investment in your relationship?
Want to learn more about how HelloPrenup works?
Borresen, K. 2018. 7 Relationship Problems that Always Surface Around the Holidays. Retrieved from: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/relationship-problems-holidays_n_5c056f31e4b0cd916faebb11
Wilcox, W. & Dew, J. 2012. The Date Night Opportunity. Retrieved from: http://nationalmarriageproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/NMP-DateNight.pdf