At the beginning of a relationship, holidays seem like the most magical time. “It’s our first Christmas together,” you’ll exclaim, surrounded by imaginary turtle-doves and wreathed in a vaseline-lensed glow (this is true even if you’ve only been together a month). On the 4th of July, the fireworks are for you, as your relationship explodes like a movie in the summer sky. You might even make a joint leaf collection for your First Arbor Day, if, say, you met on a tree. Some people meet on trees.
But as time passes, holidays can still be joyful, and still filled with warm memories, but they start to bring with them their own stresses. Thanksgiving and Christmas can become minefields for reasons other than cold, crowds, and ceaseless acquisition. You and your partner have to figure out how to balance each other’s traditions and desires with the urge to start your own. Around Thanksgiving and Christmas, figuring out where to go and who to see can be a logistical and emotional nightmare. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. It only takes a little bit of empathy, the emotion which is the heart of any long-term relationship.
Understanding traditions and the need to not compromise
The great thing about meeting someone once you are an adult is that you have a life behind you, a firm foundation on which to build the future. One of the key pieces of that foundation is tradition: the routines and special moments that mark the passage of time. Unfortunately, when you meet someone, they may have the same foundation, built on their own traditions. This can cause a lot of conflict.
For example, every year, you might go to the tree lighting downtown, followed by a trip to that special restaurant that serves perfect eggnog once a year. You’ve been doing that on Thanksgiving night since you were a kid. But your partner and their family stay in and play games- there’s a serious sibling Trivial Pursuit rivalry going into this year! It’s extremely important to both of you.
This is one of those areas where compromise seems impossible. Even going every other year seems a burden, because the one partner is going to be sad they are missing their thing (and in the back of their heads, worried that it’ll never happen again. Humans aren’t rational). You need to understand that that’s OK. Assuming that you are both in the same town, it is possible to split up for the night, and do your own thing. You want your partner there with you, but you also have to understand that they are their own beings with their own agency, and need to have their traditions. That doesn’t make you a worse couple. It makes you stronger humans, and that is the best way to become a stronger couple.
It’s all about empathy
When we talk about the holidays, we are always referencing memories. That present we got, the time we had/got to order pizza because the oven broke, the fights over toys, the laughter during dinner, the music in the background, same every year, the first Christmas after she died- these all make up a swirl of emotions and longing, and they do so for everyone. Even if your memories are bad, they are yours, and in a real sense they are what make you.
They also make up your partner. “Well, you don’t even like your family” is never the right thing to say during the holidays. The past is what made them, and it is why we need empathy all the time. Not just during the holidays. Empathy isn’t sympathy; it is about understanding a person. It is about, in a very real way, recognizing them as an individual, with agency, and not an sometimes lovely, sometimes wonderful sometimes frustrating, attachment to you. They are wonderful and lovely and frustrating all on their own.
This is when it is most important to remember that. This time of year, when it is dark so early but we reach, in a spiritual and phototropic way, toward the clear December stars, we have to remember that we’re all individuals with complicated feelings. That holds true for all parts of a relationship. I can’t tell you what to do during the holidays- I can’t say “switch years!” or “combine traditions!” or “burn everything and start your own!”- because that is something you have to figure out for yourselves. But if you start with mutual understanding and respect, the holidays can be about your individual strengths making you stronger as a couple.