Jump directly to the Content

Holiday Negotiations

How to divide the holidays so that both extended families are happy

Our bags were packed and strategically wedged in the trunk of the car. The tank was full. Snacks and beverages at the ready. All that was missing was one elusive necessity—my positive attitude.

I just didn't want to go.

It wasn't that we'd be spending Thanksgiving at my in-law's (I have to say that—this is in print). It wasn't that I was using up the remainder of my vacation days. It wasn't even that we'd be driving 360 miles with nothing to see but corn stalks and road kill, only to repeat the vista on our return.

It was the Turkey Bowl. The Fifteenth Annual, to be exact, throughout which I have perfect attendance. That is, I had.

The Turkey Bowl, as my friends and I dubbed it, is the annual touch football game we started back in high school. The plan, as always, is to meet at a local park on Thanksgiving morning, play the game, then go back to someone's house for brunch and harass one another about our playing talent. It's a guy thing. The event lasts just a few hours, so we can get home early and spend the rest of the holiday with our families. Even though the time is short, it's filled with so many one-liners, I'm laughing long after the left-over turkey sandwiches disappear.

But I laugh no more—my playing days are over. And it has nothing to do with any heroic athletic injury. But rather to avoid injury—from my wife.

Let me explain. Because we live only a few miles from my family but hundreds from hers, we usually divide the holidays to make both sides happy. So if Mary Beth was denied the opportunity to see her family because of a touch football game, well, let's just say I'd be placed on permanent "injured reserve."

Our situation is not so unique. Many couples face the stressful dilemma of where and with whom to spend the holidays. Here are several scenarios and a look at how other couples make do.

This Town's Not Big Enough …

With nothing but time to think during our endless interstate driving odyssey, I made the mistake of allowing my thoughts to leak out of my mouth into my wife's ears. Still steaming about the game that continues to go on even without me, I may have said, "You know, life would be so much easier if we all lived in the same town, or at least in the same area code." Of course, my wife's response went something like, "You're right. My parents should have discussed their plans with you before they bought their house, even though that was before you were born." At least she saw my point of view.

But perhaps I should be careful what I wish for. As many couples know firsthand, living near both sides of the family can create an entirely different set of problems.

You may think you can have the best of both worlds. You know, start a new life with your spouse, yet keep all the holiday rituals you've practiced since birth. But your significant other may have the same thoughts in mind. With very different traditions.

So what do you do? "I usually eat a lot," says Mark Paulik, who lives in Park Ridge, Illinois, near both his parents and in-laws.

"We spend Christmas Eve with one family and Christmas Day with the other. But it's the holidays like Easter and Thanksgiving that can be tough—especially on the waistline," he says, patting a paunch. "That's when we usually end up eating two full meals in both dining rooms, so by the time I get home, put a fork in me—I'm done."

But try to outsmart the situation and it can backfire on you. Suppose you purposely come late to the first house to avoid a meal, only you arrive just in time for dessert. Well, you can't exactly eat and run. So you end up visiting longer than you normally would. By the time you get to the next house, you find yourself staring at another piece of fruitcake—and embarking on a three-day sugar high.

So how do you handle the situation without insulting anyone? Be honest up front. Let everyone know your situation and negotiate a compromise. Perhaps you can do lunch with one family and dinner with the other. No dessert for me today, thanks.

Because Dean Leftakes and his wife, Cleo, have three young children, they could probably use a moving van to transport all the contraptions and baby gear they need for a day with both families—even if they live just a few blocks away. So they had a better idea. "We invited both sides to our house," says Dean. "We're already equipped with everything all the kids need from electric swings to Nintendo, and everyone volunteers to bring their special recipes."

These solutions keep you on talking terms with both of your families. They say it's better to give than to receive during the holidays. But when you spend New Year's, Easter, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas with your spouse's family and only seem to get Flag Day with yours, perhaps your new mantra should be "share and share alike."

The Out-of-Towners

As long as you have gas in your Leer jet, there's no reason why you can't visit both out-of-state families on the same day. But you're probably thinking, who has time to fill up the plane?

Traveling can be very stressful during any holiday season—not to mention expensive. And when both sides live far away, it can be double the pressure to please everyone.

Most couples just getting started can't afford two long-distance family visits in the same year. And if you manage it, you can pretty much kiss that getaway vacation goodbye. If you also have to deal with step-families, let's hope your frequent flyer mileage is adding up. So what's the solution? Most people alternate years with each side of the family. If they can visit you, all the better. But your parents may want to visit your other siblings, making multiple trips expensive for them as well.

So how about at your next gathering, break out into song with your rendition of "I'm Dreaming of a White-Sand Beach Christmas?" You can suggest combining a particular holiday with an exotic vacation. And if you have children that other relatives want to get to know while you and your spouse take in some sightseeing, who are you to get in their way?

If you're dealing with only one long-distance family like my wife and I do, create a second holiday. Spend the day with the family you're closest to (in distance, that is. Remember, this is still in print). Then a few days later, make your trip. It's still considered the holiday season and nobody will object, especially knowing gifts are at stake.

Except for the years when two of my three children were born just before Thanksgiving, and we were unable to travel, I've now missed eight Turkey Bowls in ten years. And although I still yearn for those games, especially when I know they're going on, I've developed a new Thanksgiving morning tradition. I play a round of golf with Mary Beth's Uncle Jim. It's a lot less physically stressful. And my game gets scrutinized by only one person. It's a family thing.

In addition to making both sides of the family happy, Conrad Theodore tries to please editors of a variety of national magazines.

Getting a Handle on the Families

If you're anything like many of the readers we hear from, you've probably experienced some in-law tension that stretches beyond the reach of the holiday battles for time. And these unpleasantries can cause some real damage to your marriage. Here are some tips from Dr. John Townsend, the co-author of Boundaries for Marriage (Zondervan), on how to choose change and create an open, working—if not wonderful—relationship with your in-laws.

1. Reality-check. Find out if there really is a problem or if it's merely your perception. Sometimes we react to others based on our experiences, which can cloud judgment. To help gain a proper perspective, ask a trusted friend to observe and verify your perception of the situation.

2. Do a self-inventory. After you've identified the problem, ask yourself how you might be contributing to it. Jesus reminds us that we must first deal with our own actions before we help others correct theirs (Matthew 7:1-5).

3. Be direct. If you are passive in dealing with your in-law problems, you may begin to withdraw emotionally from them. Confront your in-laws gently but directly. Though you may need to involve your spouse, don't avoid dealing with the problem personally. Let them know how you feel and that it gets in the way of being close to them. They may react with hurt, withdrawal, or anger. Or they may be surprised at what they learn and thank you for letting them know.

4. Choose your battles. Choose to end an issue by setting new limits or by simply adapting to it. If the conflict creates havoc in your marriage, you and your spouse may want to negotiate how and when you spend time with in-laws. If the issue is simply annoying, then you may want to let it go and enjoy the healthier aspects of your relationship.

5. Strengthen your role as spouse. Though you and your spouse love your parents, you should be more aligned with each other than with them. When a spouse isn't loyal to his or her mate, there may be a "leaving and cleaving" problem (Genesis 2:24). This problem is exhibited in behaviors such as needing parental approval or respect, being afraid to confront parents, going to parents for self-image support, being emotionally or financially dependent on parents, or feeling responsible for parents' emotions. If your spouse struggles with these issues, let him or her know how you feel and how his or her actions affect your sense of safety as a couple.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Free CT Women Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: CT's weekly newsletter to help you make sense of how faith and family intersect with the world.

Family; Holidays; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Winter, 2001
Posted September 30, 2008

Read These Next


Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter

Follow Us

More Newsletters