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How to Navigate Family Holidays

Marriage can be complicated. It is hard enough to know when it is best to compromise and to forgive when you have been hurt, but it can be equally as tough to navigate through the expectations that often come when combining the words – family and holidays. It’s probably no surprise that when we get married, we don’t just marry each other — we marry together two complex networks of extended family and pre-existing expectations and traditions. It’s never more apparent than during the holiday season, and navigating the time from Thanksgiving through Christmas. For many families, this can put a lot of strain on a marriage. But that’s not what the holidays are supposed to be about, is it? Thankfully my family finally figured it out, but it was not always easy early on. Here are a few tips I was able to learn that made a big difference in being able to successfully navigate family holidays while keeping our relationship intact and having fun along the way.

Our families mean well, but sometimes their wishes (and pressure) start to pile up until they’re way more than we can accommodate. Relatives may or may not realize they’re causing us stress. Either way, we need to make decisions about what we can handle, and ultimately what is best for our families. Like it or not, we cannot please everyone.

If you are struggling on where to spend the holidays, the most important step is this: make the final call as a couple, not in a crowd. If you want to talk to your extended family about their wishes, that’s great, but it needs to happen before you and your spouse sit down and decide what you’re doing. Do your very best not to behave as though it’s open for discussion with your parents and siblings afterward. It will only create needless confusion, and land you in a tug of war you shouldn’t be in. Stick to your guns.

Some of your choices will depend on geography. If you are childhood sweethearts whose family all lives within a small radius, you’ve got a completely different set of decisions to make than if your families are geographically dispersed. Your jobs are also a major deciding factor. If you happen to work in the service industry, time off around the holidays is hard to come by, as opposed to other career fields where it’s almost expected. And if you have children, their ages and activities will also affect your choices. We miss our families. We’d like to please them. But if it’s going to place a genuine strain on your marriage and possibly budget to go this year, it’s all right to stay home.

Here are some practical tips to get your family holiday planning on the right track:

Split time
This works best if you live within easy traveling distance of both families. The trick here is not to end up going to four or five different events in a weekend (or day), which is easy to do if you’ve got parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who all love the holidays and want to be together. Unless you and your spouse are both social butterflies and enjoy being busy and on the go, I would recommend choosing one event on each side of the family, prioritizing the ones that will allow you to see the most people and quite frankly, going to the events that you would actually enjoy attending.

Split holidays
If one or more sides of the family live at a distance from each other, try splitting holidays, instead. For most families, the two biggest family holidays are Thanksgiving and Christmas, so spend one with each side of the family. The next year, reverse which holiday you spend with each family. This can be challenging if you come from a larger family with several siblings who also have their own families and they are trying to do the same thing. This is my family situation. We decided a few years ago that it was important for the Hedrick kids and their families to spend at least one of the holidays together each year. So we sat down and made a rotation schedule that worked for every family. This made sure that one year we would spend Christmas together and the next year we would spend Thanksgiving together. This same scenario also worked out for my wife’s side of the family.

Split years
Maybe you have family overseas, or both families live far apart, with you somewhere in the middle. Travel expenses to two different destinations a month apart can be rough. I would recommend you consider choosing one location each year and use Skype or FaceTime to connect when you are not able to get together. This may not be ideal, but sometimes life situations dictate coming up with other creative options. The important point is that you remain positive, make the best of what you have available to you and enjoy the people around you. I have never met anyone at their death bed who wished they had spent more time at work; rather it is that they wished they had spent more time with the people who mattered most.

Too often, we try to do far more than we should and end up acting out at each other. That’s where most of our holiday strain really comes from. This year, make a plan from the start that keeps your activity at a reasonable level, so that you and your spouse can actually enjoy each other’s company, instead of rushing from thing to another. Often times, less is better.

Was this helpful? Feel free to leave a comment. Would love to chat with you!

God Bless,


Doug Hedrick

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