By Jenni Hart

In families already tested by poor communication, unrealistic expectations or strained finances, the holiday vortex can feel like the place where joy goes to die. No one is immune: New couples with competing in-laws, new parents whose baby is in high demand for cuddling, and families changed by separation or divorce all must navigate the season with its heady hopes for celebration and connection.

By the time a conflict surfaces, family members often find that tensions have been simmering for a long time, sometimes years. One way to avoid discord is to head off hurt feelings before they start.

Adina Middleman is a Raleigh therapist who advises couples to be proactive with one another at least several months in advance of family gatherings and communicate their holiday plans to other family members ahead of time. “I often say expectations are the nemesis of every relationship,” says Middleman, a licensed clinical social worker with New Hope Counseling. “This forward planning may require juggling time spent between families, deciding how to honor religious aspects of the holiday if applicable, and discussing food traditions.” In her practice, she sees conflicts arise when these issues are not discussed and the couple’s holiday traditions differ from those of the “first family,” or the family of origin.

Middleman says one member of a couple may compromise his or her beliefs or traditions and begin to feel resentful. “We all know resentment can lead to arguments and emotional disconnection between couples,” she says. She suggests couples discuss priorities to decide which first family traditions mean the most and which can be compromised. Couples should also make their own traditions and remember to set aside time devoted to their new family at some point during the holidays.

Alicia (last name withheld by request) is a Cary wife and mother of three who says her marriage was so strained by her in-laws that there were a few years when only her husband was invited to visit his parents’ home at the holidays. “I let it go too far, and so did he, until every time we tried to fix the damage, it only made things worse,” she says. Alicia got the impression early on that her husband’s parents didn’t welcome her or her two children from a previous relationship. “My daughters were excluded from activities the other grandchildren had planned for them,” she remembers. Only later did she realize there were misunderstandings on both sides that could have been handled differently. Alicia says her relationship with her mother-in-law can still be prickly at times, but over the years, her daughters have enjoyed a loving relationship with their grandparents. The couple has since had another child – a son – and holidays with family are much more enjoyable than in those early years.

For Alicia’s family, relocating to North Carolina from her husband’s hometown in New Jersey was the catalyst that led to healthier interactions with his parents. “People talk about boundaries, and I never understood what that meant exactly, but living hundreds of miles apart forced everyone to be on their best behavior and more thoughtful about how we treated each other,” she says. Ultimately, Alicia admits she and her husband “had some growing up to do,” and that marriage counseling, which they sought for other reasons, helped them find more effective ways of communicating and managing conflict. Alicia says she’s looking forward to seeing her in-laws and their extended family at Christmas. “I never thought I would say that, but the kids are excited, and so am I,” she says.

When it comes to holiday celebrations, the timing of events can vary greatly between families of origin, even when members of a couple are of the same faith and have somewhat similar traditions. What time is the Thanksgiving meal served? When are presents exchanged? Which holiday service will we attend? When are grandparents invited over? Middleman recommends couples iron out all these items in advance. Enter event details and times in a calendar accessible to everyone in the family to reduce miscommunication.

Couples who are at odds over spending priorities throughout the year are likely to find those stresses magnified at the holidays. Middleman recommends couples discuss expectations and budgets in advance. Spending on gifts is one consideration, but couples should also factor in the expense of travel when visiting family and friends, as well as food and beverages when hosting a party. “Discuss expectations for gifts,” she says. “Some families purchase gifts for each family member, while others draw names and buy fewer presents. Do you expect ‘big ticket’ items to be exchanged, or are gifts not important to you at all? Communicate ahead of time, because no one wants to fight about money during the holidays.”

Families with older children may want to consider a weekend trip or even a local family outing in lieu of individual presents. Memories of fun times together can be more meaningful – and more economical – than purchasing multiple gifts for each member of the family.

Families that have recently been through a transition are bound to find the holidays challenging. The uncertainty and confusion children face when parents separate can be very unsettling. Psychologist Brian Mackey, of Cary’s 3-C Family Services, says parents should remember that children’s individual needs remain largely unchanged regardless of the changes in the family. “They still have strong needs for attention, love, entertainment and belonging during the holidays,” he says. “Traditions will change after divorce, but focusing on the child’s core needs and remaining flexible will make the transition easier to navigate.”

Dr. Mackey recommends parents think of creating step-families as a process, not a single event. “With time, good communication, and love, new family members will learn to peacefully co-exist. Relationships and traditions are never replaced. The lost ones are mourned (for however long it takes), and new and different ones are formed,” he says.

In his experience, Mackey finds that adequate attention is the one need that children most often report is missing during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. With parties to plan, cookies to bake, errands to run, and other commitments, he says parents should be mindful that a child’s needs for attention are constant and may actually increase during the holidays. He adds that parents and stepparents should be patient with children as they adjust to new situations. Although children’s behavior and attitudes may seem to change quickly as they get used to new adults in their lives, deeper emotions and expectations can take longer to catch up. But there is reason to remain hopeful. “There is no set number of people they can care about, become attached to, or allow into their lives,” says Mackey. “Children have unlimited room in their hearts for love.”