Holiday Stress

Managing Expectations

Holidays are an issue of supply and demand and I’m not talking about shopping on black Friday.  There’s only one of you.  Therefore, in order to manage the stress of the holidays you are responsible for managing the expectations (or demands) placed upon you from every angle.  Usually our families have expectations of us, our partners have expectations, our friends sometimes have expectations, and so too do our employers.  Then of course there are all of the expectations that YOU have for the holidays.

The greater the expectations, the greater potential for stress.

Will you be coming alone, or with someone?  Are you dating anyone?  Plans for marriage any time soon?  How long are you staying?  Are you wearing that?  Have you said hello to your cousin Fred? Pass me the turkey – and are you still a vegetarian?  Now why did you say you aren’t dating anyone?

Managing Losses

Loss can be described as anything that is different than we hoped it would be.  Because of the enormous cultural pressure to have a good time during the holidays, to celebrate and be with friends, family and loved ones the potential for loss is even greater.  Remember, loss is anything that is different than we hoped it would be.  How different are your holidays than you wish for them to be? What can you do to improve the odds that your holidays will mirror your wishes?

A universal challenge for all people around the holidays is the painful reminder of all those not present during family celebrations.  Separation from a parent, sibling, child, partner, friend or other loved one may occur through death, long-distance relationships, divorce, separation, illness, rejection, custody battles, or other barriers.  The emphasis on being with family during the holidays exaggerates our awareness of all those not currently present in your life.

As the holidays draw near we slowly become much more aware of the exact nature of our connections with friends and family.   In some cases we eagerly anticipate reconnecting with family and friends whom we don’t see enough of during the year. In other cases, we find ourselves planning and scheming ways to avoid certain gatherings and the pain of seeing family and friends by whom we have felt hurt.

All of the unfinished business in our relationships has a way of slowly revealing itself during the holiday season.  Whether we experience the guilt of not spending more time with those we love, grieving the death of a loved one who we won’t be seeing, or dreading the pain of having to spend more time than we want with those to whom we feel obligated – holidays will serve as an unrelenting reminder of exactly what is going on with our relationships, for better or for worse.

Reality Check

How we respond to these annual celebrations reveals our own priorities, values and feelings about our various relationships. For gay men and women in relationships, struggles often begin to brew around this time of the year as each partner is deciding how to celebrate the holidays – seeking, or avoiding, time spent with our family of-origin.  You may find yourself juggling the various expectations of loved ones, and identifying whose feelings will take priority this holiday season.  These struggles, of course, are not unique to gay couples. Heterosexuals must negotiate these details too!

What is different, though, is that when heterosexual couples marry, the family-of-origin typically expects the new couple to celebrate holidays together. That, after all, is what couples do, right? The struggle is not about whether they will spend the holidays together; it’s more likely about WHERE and with whom the two of them will spend the holidays.  It dawns on me that I’ve never heard a married couple fretting about where they’ll sleep (different or same bedrooms) when they visit family.

Nope, I can’t recall a single incident of hearing about a married woman saying to her husband, “Honey, I wonder if we should sleep in separate rooms so my parents won’t be uncomfortable.” Have you?  Same-sex couples often negotiate by saying “you go to your family’s celebration, and I’ll go to mine.” The real message being, “you make your family happy and comfortable and I’ll make mine happy and comfortable,” or “time with my family is more important than time with you” or possibly, “I can tolerate disappointing you more than I can tolerate disappointing them.”

Christmas in the Closet

Another common issue for gays and lesbians relates to managing the secrecy of their relationships – for those who are not “out” to their families at all.  You can almost guarantee a distant holiday (even if celebrated together as a “friend” who has come home with you) if you spend it with your family.  Inevitably Aunt Betty is bound to ask you if you are seeing anyone, and grandma is going to keep scratching her head, wondering out loud why such a great catch like you isn’t married yet.  Whether you are single or partnered, it’s all the same when you celebrate the holidays with family who don’t know your sexual orientation.

For couples, the greatest conflicts tend to surface when one partner is less “out” than the other, and when this happens; the closeted partner tends to pander to the wants of his or her family in order to maintain his or her heterosexual cover.  (Not surprisingly, there does seems to be a high correlation between pleasing parents and being closeted – a combination that makes for very stressful holidays).

10 Tips for the Holidays

  1. Be intentional and decisive about how you spend the holidays. Families tend to expect the same behaviors each year, so if you set precedence from the start, of doing holidays separately, it’s harder to break that pattern later on.  Be smart, intentional, honest, and true to yourself about how you organize your holiday plans
  2.  Consider how your heterosexual brothers and sisters manage their holiday dilemmas.  Do not allow your families to dictate HOW you approach the holidays.  Take responsibility for your holidays and insure that what you are doing captures the essence of the season for you (if you are single), and for you and your partner if you are in a relationship.
  3. Be creative.  Consider options that are brand new.  Start your own rituals.  Instead of looking only at the options that are posed to you, create options of your own.
    • Host holidays at your house, inviting both families causing others to have to make a choice, rather than you
    • Alternate holidays (e.g. this year T-giving with my family and X-mas with yours, next the opposite)
    •  Go on vacation instead together during the holidays and celebrate holidays before or after the actual holiday
    •  Split the day between both families (if within reasonable driving distance)
  4. Anticipate awkward situations.  If you are anxious about aspects of your holiday celebration with your family, anticipate and prepare for these experiences.  For example, Bring along gifts for your partner (and or children) to open if you anticipate he or she will not be included in gift exchanges with your family.  Stay in a hotel if your family expects you and your partner to sleep separately. (Politely explain that you wish to respect their wishes and have opted to stay at a nearby hotel instead.)
  5. Consider rejecting invitations that don’t include your partner for family celebration.  Unless there are compelling circumstances (like a parent is on his death bed) that will leave you regretting not attending, set a precedence that you will only accept invitations that include both you and your partner.
  6. Incorporate loved ones who have died.  Share memories and stories of past holidays you spent with the loved one.  You can also create a ritual or tradition for the holiday season that honors your loved one.  One example is to exchange tree ornaments that are in memory of the loved one, or you could visit the gravesite as a family, or say a prayer for him or her.  Find your own way and be sure to include all of the people you love – alive or not – in your celebration.
  7. Learn from the pain that surfaces during the holidays and use the pain as your guide to identify the changes that need to occur in the coming year to prevent the same pain again next holiday season.
  8. Observe, don’t participate in the chaos.   If you come from a lively family who is known for fussing and fighting, choose to NOT participate.  View this as an interesting study in human behavior – take yourself outside of the situation and become an observer, not a participant in any negative, conflicted interactions.  Be the family member you wish others would be – and you’ll leave feeling good about yourself.
  9. Volunteer.  If you find yourself alone during the holidays consider volunteering.  So many people are in need year round, and over the holidays many organizations offer meals, and gift drives, and other activities to support various groups of people.  If you want to find a new appreciation for all that you have in your life, despite your loneliness over the holidays, volunteer!
  10. Announce your holiday plans prior to the actual holiday.  To avoid conflicts on the day of your celebration, be sure that your friends, family and partner do not have expectations of you based on your  NOT having shared your actual plans in advance.

 Holidays for Gays and Lesbians:  An exercise for couples

___T ___F           1.      Respecting my parent’s and grandparent’s feelings is more important than respecting my partner’s feelings during the holidays?

___T___F            2.      If my parents don’t like my partner, it is best if I celebrate with my parent’s alone – empowering my partner to make her own plans for the holidays

___T___F            3.      Holidays are just another day, and it is not important whether or not we celebrate ON the actual holiday

___T___F            4.      It is more important to create my own holiday rituals with my family of choice (partner and kids if applicable) than it is to continue the rituals created by my family of origin.

___T___F            5.      It is disrespectful for my partner and I to sleep in the same bed when visiting my parent’s house.

___T___F            6.      I expect my parents to treat my partner the same way they treat the spouses of my heterosexual siblings.

___T___F            7.      It is not appropriate to come-out to family during the holiday season?

___T___F            8.      If my long-term, committed partner is not welcome at my parent’s home, then would rather not go without him or her.

___T___F            9.      I do not feel like it is an option to reject family invites even if my partner is not included

___T___F            10.    I enjoy the holidays

Couple’s Exercise:  Print out these questions.  Answer them separately without sharing your responses.  Exchange responses and go one by one down the list discussing your thoughts about each.  Be honest.  Be open.  Sit down with your partner and identify what is MOST important to you about the holidays and communicate that to one another.  (e.g. “My grandmother is not well, and she may not have many holidays left, so I’d like to spend it with her this year.  I also want you with me.”)  Be sure you have a clear understanding of what one another wants to experience over the holidays.

Consider what you’d like to see happen and ask yourself this question, “Does what I want ADD to, or TAKE AWAY from our relationship?”