Updated Dec 23, 2024, Originally published Jan 13, 2017

Do your partner proud: make new holiday rules with them in mind

The holidays can be a joyous time of year, but they can also put significant stress on your relationship. Family gatherings, gift-giving pressures, hectic schedules, and unresolved tensions have a way of bubbling to the surface during this season. As a couples therapist, I have seen firsthand how the holidays can either bring partners closer together or drive them further apart.

The good news is that by being proactive and intentional in your approach, you and your loved one can not only survive the holidays, but grow even stronger as a couple. Here are some science-based strategies to consider:

Communicate and plan ahead

One of the biggest sources of holiday relationship conflict is lack of communication and misaligned expectations. Do not wait until you are on the doorstep of your in-laws to discuss how long you will stay, which traditions you will engage in, or how you will handle difficult relatives.

I recommend sitting down with your partner well in advance and mapping out a Holiday Game Plan. Discuss any potential issues and how you want to handle them as a united front. Be open and honest about your needs, while also being willing to compromise.

Research shows that couples who engage in proactive communication and collaborative problem-solving are happier in their relationships. By getting on the same page ahead of time, you can prevent a lot of stressful conflicts down the line.

Prioritize your partnership

Amid the hustle and bustle, it is easy for your relationship to get pushed to the back burner. But neglecting quality couple time can leave you both feeling disconnected and resentful.

Make a pact with your partner to prioritize your relationship during this time. Schedule date nights, even if you have to sneak away for an hour in between family gatherings. Take a few minutes each day to really check in with each other emotionally. Remind yourself that you and your partner are a team, and your relationship comes first.

Studies have found that even brief moments of connection, like holding hands or sharing a kiss, can reduce stress and increase relationship satisfaction. By keeping your bond front and center, you will both be better equipped to handle holiday challenges.

Practice acceptance and compassion

Here is a hard truth: You cannot change your family. Trying to make your critical mother-in-law suddenly approve of you or force your perpetually late brother to arrive on time will only leave you feeling frustrated.

Instead, practice radical acceptance this holiday season. Accept your relatives for who they are, warts and all. This does not mean condoning hurtful behavior, but rather making peace with the reality of the situation.

I also recommend extending compassion to your difficult family members. Recognize that their annoying behaviors likely stem from their own unresolved pain. Try to appreciate their positive qualities and the role they have played in shaping your partner into the person you love.

Self-compassion is also key.

When you inevitably get triggered or say the wrong thing, forgive yourself. Remind yourself that you are only human and you are doing the best you can.

Research indicates that self-compassion and compassion for others are linked to greater emotional resilience and relationship well-being. By cultivating understanding for yourself and your family members, you can let go of unrealistic expectations and find more peace.

Establish healthy boundaries

Acceptance does not mean being a pushover. It is essential that you and your partner get aligned on your boundaries and assert them clearly.

Maybe this means leaving family gatherings after four hours, even if Aunt Judy will still guilt you about it. Maybe it means staying in a hotel rather than bunking with your in-laws. Maybe it means not discussing certain charged topics like politics or religion.

You are allowed to set limits to protect your emotional well-being and your relationship. Boundaries are not selfish — they are a sign of self-respect. By saying no to dynamics that do not serve you, you are saying yes to your own needs and your relationship.

If expressing boundaries is difficult for you, I recommend roleplaying different scenarios and phrases with your partner ahead of time. With practice, advocating for yourself will start to feel more natural.

Create your own traditions

If you have experienced holidays filled with conflict or dysfunction, you may feel resistant to engaging at all. But avoidance is rarely the answer, as it can leave you and your partner feeling isolated.

Instead, take this opportunity to create holiday rituals that feel meaningful and nourishing to you. Maybe you start the day with a gratitude practice where you share your appreciation for each other. Maybe you volunteer together at a charity that is close to your heart. Maybe you have a special dinner for just the two of you before joining the bigger festivities.

By building in traditions that align with your values, you can shift the focus away from old resentments and write a new story for your holidays — one that actually brings you closer as a couple. Couples who engage in relationship-enhancing activities tend to be more satisfied.

The bottom line is this:

You have the power to make conscious choices about how you engage with the holidays. By communicating with your partner, setting healthy boundaries, and creating your own traditions, you can experience more joy and less stress this season. Remember, the ultimate goal is not to have a “perfect” holiday, but to honor your relationship and treat each other with love. If you can keep this North Star in mind, the rest will fall into place.

If you are struggling to navigate holiday challenges with your partner, you are not alone, and there is help available. Do not hesitate to reach out to a couples therapist who can provide you with personalized tools and support. With some intention and effort, you and your loved one can create a holiday season that brings you closer together and sets you up for relationship success in the new year.