Holidays have a reputation of being the most wonderful time of the year: one that's typically spent bonding with friends, family, and other loved ones. Although abundant family time might appeal to some, the reality is that not everyone is eager, or even able, to be around their family — and if someone is estranged from their family during the holidays, it can be an especially challenging and emotional time.
"The holidays are steeped in expectations about how we should look, feel, and who we should be celebrating with," Virginia Williamson, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and co-owner of Collaborative Counseling Group, tells Bustle. "For some people [the] holidays may have been a painful time when family conflict escalated, or a source of disappointment if families failed to create traditions that promoted togetherness and gratitude for one another."
Whatever the reason for it, being on bad terms with your family is tough at the best of times, let alone during a time of year when you're bombarded with images of happy families. Even though we each might be adept at handling our own family issues, it can be trickier to know how to support a partner who isn't close with their family.
"If your partner is estranged from their family it's important to be aware of this and to be supportive as they may be struggling or feeling emotional," Emily Cosgrove, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and life coach, tells Bustle.
How To Figure Out What Kind Of Support Your Partner Needs
Everyone's family dynamic is unique, and everyone handles their family issues in a different way, so don't just assume what your partner might want from you during a holiday. Instead, sit down with your partner and have a conversation about the situation so you're both on the same page, and know what to expect from each other.
"Set aside some special time to connect and talk through the situation and think about questions in advance you'd like to ask," Jor-El Caraballo, a mental health professional and relationship therapist at Viva Wellness, tells Bustle. "Some questions to consider together are: How you are feeling about not going home for the holidays? What does your ideal time during the holidays look like? How can I best support you during the holidays?"
Caraballo says it's key to honor what they say: if they want to get into details, that's great — but it's also important to respect it if they don't want to share more about their family situation. "It's important to accept that not everyone feels the same way about their families, so it's important to listen to what your partner is saying rather than projecting your own values, thoughts, and beliefs onto them and what they should be doing or feeling," Caraballo says.
If you get along with your family, it's only natural to wish the same for your partner and feel sad if they're missing that. But if you want to offer your genuine support, it's crucial to be understanding and empathetic of your partner's family situation and respect their wishes where their family is concerned. For instance, if they say they have no interest in having a holiday dinner with their toxic sibling, don't invite them over as a "heartwarming surprise."
"The last thing you should be doing is trying to reconcile a broken connection," Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert at Maple Holistics, tells Bustle. "As a loving partner, you will have an unrelenting urge to ‘fix’ all of your significant other's problems, family feuds included. But it’s important to realize that your partner needs someone to just be there for them, rather than solve any problems."
Rather than trying to project your own familial bliss onto them, really listen to your partner's feelings about their family, and be willing to accept and support their decision (even if they're uncomfortable giving you all the details).
The Benefit Of Creating New Holiday Traditions With Your Partner
If your partner is still interested in celebrating the holidays without their birth family, there's no reason their chosen family — like you or other close friends — can't make holidays special for them. Creating new holiday traditions is a great way to help your partner out of their family funk and remind them that the holidays can still be magical and filled with love, even if their family life is a little rocky.
"If your partner won’t be spending time with their family ... it’s an opportune time to start making new traditions and surround them with the people who they truly care about," Backe says. "Try and do this in a low-key way that will just help them to feel supported rather than as if you’re trying to make up for the fact that they’re not with family. Because, truthfully, there’s nothing you can do to ‘replace’ your partner's family."
There's no need to throw a huge holiday bash in your partner's honor: creating a tradition can be as simple as buying each other ornaments or volunteering together at a soup kitchen. Ask your partner what aspects of the holiday mean the most to them or bring them joy, and use that knowledge to find ways to bring new meaning to some of their holiday memories that might have been tainted.
What To Do If Your Partner Needs Space During The Holidays
On the flip side, there's a chance your partner might express a need for space from you due to holiday-related family history. That can be tough to hear — but giving your partner the space they need to process their feelings is a much more thoughtful and romantic gift than anything you could buy them.
"While the holidays are of course the time to be together as a couple, if this is a sensitive time of the year for your significant other, appreciate that they might want some space," Backe says. "Give them the opportunity to be on their own when needed and let them know that you’re there for them."
If your partner is down to snuggle up and watch holiday movies together or paint Easter eggs, that's great; but if not, you shouldn't make them feel guilty for wanting some alone time. All you can do is let them know you're around if they're feeling lonely or need to vent, and continue checking in to see how you can help when they're feeling down.
"Know and remind them that it's OK to not be OK, it’s OK to feel lonely, grieve, or miss any family members," Cosgrove says. "Let them know you are available and allow them space to process or share their emotions with you. Remind them to be patient, kind, and gentle with themselves as they process these emotions."
Ultimately, there's no "right" way to help someone navigate a tough family situation during the holidays. As a partner, all you can do is offer your support in whatever way your partner needs it, whether that's stuffing their stocking with their favorite treats, providing a listening ear, or simply giving them some alone time.
Additional reporting by Carolyn Steber
Emily Cosgrove, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist and life coach
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