Have Your Partner’s Back and Heart at the Holidays & Family Events

Have Your Partner's Back and Heart

Did you know that the holidays stress out 88% of Americans?

You might be thinking of the cooking, the cleaning, the gift buying, deciding where and with whom to celebrate as the causes, but what I hear from my clients, friends, and even family is that…

The real source of holiday stress is~ FAMILY DYNAMICS

Do any of these describe you?

  • Do you and your spouse/partner find yourself arguing more or feeling disconnected before, during, or after holiday or other family events?
  • Are you feeling anxious about attending a family member’s birthday or anniversary celebration because you have a family member who consistently criticizes or disrespects you or creates conflict and divisiveness?
  • Perhaps you’re DREADING or in full panic melt down mode anticipating a week long vacation under the same roof with your in-laws who treat you as “less than” even though you’re the parent of their “amazing” grandchild?

If you could relate to any of the above questions or ALL you can think about is…

“How am I going to SURVIVE the holidays or the next family event?!”

I have solutions for you!

If you are single:

Click here to read my blog, “Setting Boundaries with Your Most Difficult Family Members”

If you are in an intimate relationship:

Continue reading below about my FAVORITE TIPS for having your partner’s BACK and HEART at the holidays or significant family events:

Tip #1 Don’t go it alone. Be a POWER COUPLE!

When you hear “Power couple”, you might be thinking of a high income, high status couple. I am actually referring to an emotional POWER couple that maintains an IMPENETRABLE couple bubble and ultra secure bond. When partners have each other’s backs and hearts, they’re actually MORE formidable than ANY couple or individual!

If you haven’t heard of the concept of a “Couple Bubble”, check out this YouTube video (scroll down on my Couples Counseling web page) for a wonderful couple exercise in creating your own couple bubble (ideally BEFORE the holidays or family event).

Tip #2 Develop a game plan BEFORE the event

1st, carve out time to have a “sacred conversation” with your partner.

Set up a space for these conversations with pillows and candles. Sit on the floor, light the candles, and do a partner meditation or and/or eye gazing before opening your mouths. This will ground you both, calm your nervous systems, and help you feel connected and less reactive to set you up for a productive conversation that feels collaborative and caring.

2nd, discuss these 4 topics: 

1.) What would make this event ideal?

What are the experiences that you long to have with your family members? What are the conversations you’d like to have? What would be some fun activities or food you would enjoy? What ultimately would bring more joy and peace to you and your family member?

2.) What could go wrong?

Anticipate what the MOST difficult family members might do. What “shtick” might they pull? What would cause you or your partner distress?

3.) What would be the consequences of things going wrong? 

Another ruined holiday?! Another hurtful, stressful, or disappointing family event that creates a larger rift or more disconnection? Children being exposed to scary, inappropriate or immature adult behavior?

It might sound like I’m being overly dramatic or even that I’m expecting perfection!

I am actually encouraging all of the adults (including myself) to simply be more aware and intentional during these special occasions for the benefit of EVERYONE. I totally WELCOME authenticity and humanness, which includes idiosyncrasies, annoyances, and mistakes.

What I caution against though is “unbridled self-expression” and a disrespectful hierarchy. Everyone deserves respect and to have a voice so ALL family members can experience a sense of worthiness and belonging. Even if a family member doesn’t care about behaving differently with someone who drives them crazy, how about behaving oneself to be a model for the children at the event? Or, at the very least behave oneself for one’s OWN integrity?

4.) What boundaries do you and your partner need to put in place? (via discussion with your partner first! Then, in advance of an event, with the most difficult family member.)

a. Off limit topics, ex. struggling with infertility or work, politics, etc.

b. Someone is in recovery from a substance use disorder, so no alcohol will be served to SUPPORT this family member.

c. The location of the event- when it will start, what activities to offer, and when it will end (at your home allows you more influence or at a public place since the majority of people behave themselves in public).

Tip #3 Create and maintain your couple bubble & be on the SAME team during the event

The “couple bubble” is a concept from Stan Tatkin, PsyD (creator of the PACT couples therapy model). He explains it’s like a cocoon or womb that holds the couple together and protects them from outside elements or stressors in life. It’s an agreement or pact that WE come first as a couple or we’re going to strive to come first.

Here is a link to the YouTube video for the exercise in creating your “Couple Bubble”. (Scroll down on my Couple Counseling web page.)

Here are 5 more practices for having your partner’s back and heart DURING the family event:

Tip #4 Sit across from your partner so you can be in each other’s eyes.

Eye gazing calms your partner’s nervous system. Eye gazing is also the MOST effective way to stay attuned to your partner’s emotions (read their body language and facial expressions) and be able to respond much more quickly.

  • Attunement is the MOST important skill in building trust according to John Gottman, PhD, the most prolific couples therapy researcher.
  • Emotional responsiveness (defined below) also increases connection and secure attachment.

Emotional responsiveness is the key to a lifetime of love. When I know…I can reach you, you will respond to me emotionally when I need you, and you value me and will stay close, then I will feel securely attached.

– Sue Johnson, PhD

Tip #5 Decide on a signal or secret code word for “SOS”

Your signal or code word can indicate “I need your support right now” or “I need to talk with you in private” or “I am ready to leave.”

Tip #6 Check in with each other frequently

For example, hug your partner, give them compliments, smile, wink, crack them up, whisper “how are you doing?” and really listen to the answer.

a. One of my favorite check-ins is the “bathroom break“. You might decide to always do a check in when one partner goes to the bathroom. When the other partner coincidentally has to go to, they can check in with their partner to share how they’re both doing, if there’s anything more each partner can do to have each other’s backs and hearts, which will maintain their strong bond.

Tip #7 Don’t leave your partner alone with their MOST difficult family member.

There will be no more conquering and dividing occurring when family members have a POWER COUPLE in their presence!!

The first step is that you and your partner have AGREED that no one is expected to be alone with their MOST difficult family member, especially if those unwitnessed moments happened to be the most frequent times your partner experienced uncomfortable or hurtful interactions.

Secondly, stay connected at the hip with your partner if needed to strengthen trust and support. Or, if you choose to visit with other family members who are not standing next to your partner, check on your partner as much as needed, with your eyes or body (walk over, give your partner a squeeze, and whisper, “how are you doing?” to get re-attuned. If your partner wants you back by their side, they can put their arm around your waist or use another signal to communicate, “I need you to stay by my side.” 

Tip #8 “See your family member without the history. See their innocence. Accept their humanness.” – Ben Merens

Give them the benefit of the doubt. Show you care. Be as genuinely interested in them as possible.”- Author Ben Merens. This perspective is more of an individual spiritual perspective (beginning with your thoughts) to help improve your relationships. You can apply this view to your own marriage as well.

Enduring love comes when we love most of what we learn about the other person, and can tolerate the faults they cannot change. – John Gottman, PhD & Nan Silver

Tip #9 Debrief after the event

Let your partner know how grateful you are for them having your back and your heart! Celebrate what went well! And revise your plan for the future of any areas in which you would like to change or improve.

In closing~

You can stay connected to your partner this holiday season or at your next family event!

By following the tips above and others that you and your partner co-create, you can stay positively connected with your partner regardless of what other family members do. Some key principles in “secure functioning” relationships to make this happen are: “WE come first”, “We’re in each other’s care”, “We protect each other in public and in private.” Secure functioning relationships honor SAFETY and SECURITY above all other values.

Opening your heart to difficult family members for connection as well as setting boundaries with them for protection is not easy. It’s an opportunity for you to show your best self and rise above a challenge to stay connected. By collaborating with your partner, you don’t have to face these situations alone any more. You can use your BEST, often most untapped resource to be your bravest and most authentic self~ your partner.

If you would like help with your partner and you having each other’s backs and hearts, contact Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAC III today.

I can help you at my Wheat Ridge or Lakewood, CO office. You can reach me at: 720.432.5262, [email protected], or set up your first session or free 15 or 30 minute consultation here on my online calendar.