Unless you and your guy are jetting off for a hot holiday-for-two in the Caribbean, it's over the river and through the woods to a grandmother's house you go. Spending the season with each other's families can put you on the fast track to a closer connection, says Thomas Bradbury, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. How so? Sharing holiday routines boosts satisfaction for couples, according to research from Syracuse University. Yet family celebrations can be fraught with crazy relatives, food foul-ups, and sexless stints. Learn how to deal with common holiday clashes.
The Clash: Both families want face timeÃ¢â‚¬”at the same time.
If your family's must-not-be-missed temple service takes place on the same night as his brood's annual Christmas caroling, it's time to start the negotiations. "Where you spend the holidays can be a point of contention for couples. Whether you've been dating for two months or 20 years, it just never goes away," says Bradbury.
Establish a tradition early: Agree to spend Christmas Eve at one place and Christmas Day at another, or Thanksgiving with one family and Hanukkah with another. "This will reduce the need to have the same conversation year after year, and less negotiating means less potential for conflict," he says.
When it's time to break the news, the best defense is a good offense: In the same breath you tell your crew "Not this year," let them know exactly when the two of you will be visiting next and how much you're looking forward to it, suggests Terri Apter, Ph.D., author of What Do You Want from Me? Learning to Get Along with In-Laws.
The Clash: Rude sisters, insulting drunkles, and more.
Everyone has those less-than-Cleaver family members, and they all seem to shine the brightest this time of year, don't they? Hearing your snobby cousin slam your guy's alma mater, or listening to his ultra-conservative brother lambast "living in sin" (when he knows you two shack up) doesn't exactly evoke the holiday spirit. If it's your clan slinging the insults, take the offending relative aside and tell her the backhanded jabs or straight-up snubs directed at your partner are hurting you, says Apter. That way, you make it clear the put-downs are a problem, while keeping your guy out of the line of fire or preventing him from looking like a crybaby.
On the other hand, if his kin slams you, you should expect the same grenade-taking maneuvers from him. "He's in charge of dealing with his own relatives, so he should speak up first," says Lisa Grotts, founder of The AML Group, an etiquette consulting firm in San Francisco. If not, a straightforward "We'll have to disagree on this one" should do the trick. "Then try to get out of that conversation and thank your lucky stars you don't have to see these people every day," says Grotts.
Of course, your best bet for tranquil table talk is to steer clear of subjectsÃ¢â‚¬”like politics, race, religion, and moneyÃ¢â‚¬”that can turn a casual conversation into a tense debate. And if you do slip up (who knew his dad was a Michele Bachmann fan?), immediately apply the brakes rather than attempting to shift into reverse. "Again, just agree to disagreeÃ¢â‚¬”people do it every dayÃ¢â‚¬”apologize if you offended anyone, and change the subject," says Grotts.
The Clash: A separate sleeping setup means no sex.
Twin beds, separate rooms, or an endless stream of family members may make getting some action feel like mission impossible, but an under-the-radar romp is worth the effort, says Lisa Thomas, a marriage and sex therapist in Denver. The reason: A hands-off holiday can leave one or both of you feeling emotionally isolated and distant during a time when you really need to depend on each other. Plus, endorphins from sex can help you de-stressÃ¢â‚¬”a much-needed release during hectic hell-idays. One steamy solution? Shower sex, suggests Thomas. No one will be suspicious of the locked door. Or take a cue from your high school years and tell everyone you're going for a drive, then head straight to the closest secluded park or parking lot. If a full house of eagle-eyed relatives means an escape plan is not an option, use the no-touch time to stockpile sexual tensionÃ¢â‚¬Â¦to be released when you get home.
The Clash: His family goes for big-ticket gifts. You stock up on stocking stuffers.
In an ideal world, your partner would arm you with all the info you need to outshine Santa at his family's gift exchange. In the actual world, he may not even remember his mom's birthday without prodding. "Guys aren't known for their attention to detail or their ability to communicate nuances, which could result in your bringing a misguided flop of a gift," says Caroline Tiger, author of How to Behave: A Guide to Modern Manners. Ask him specifics, like what his mom gave him last year, or whether or not he bought his aunt a gift. Err on the safe side by avoiding ultra-extravagant gifts, which can make everyone feel uncomfortable.
A good rule: Come with one gift the whole family can share (a favorite local artisanal food is a good place to start), and bring small presents for any young kids (it's never too soon to start your campaign for coolest aunt). Plus, be prepared to accept a gift or two: Practice your best "I love these snowman socks!" face just in case, but if his gang surprises you with a more-than-generous present, skip the "This is too much!" exclamations and head straight to the always-appropriate "Thank you so much!"
The Clash: You're a vegetarian, and his mom spent all day making roast pork.
Different eating habits may not have an effect on your day-to-day relationship, but throw in family recipes, the possibility of hurt feelings, and all eyes on you, and it's enough to make even a lactose-intolerant guest chug a mug of milky hot cocoa. "It's the responsibility of the hosting half of the couple to pass along word of any allergies or dietary restrictions beforehand," says Grotts. "But if it's too late or you just don't like the food, keep it to yourselfÃ¢â‚¬”you're not in a restaurant."
You might get off easy with a buffet-style meal that lets you pick and choose. Otherwise, eat what you can, and if someone asks if you're enjoying your food, there's only one answer, says Grotts: "It's delicious!" (Repeat as necessary until you can raid the granola bars in your carry-on.) Know his clan has crappy taste in vino? Head off a boxed-wine hangover by bringing a few of your favorite bottles to have at the table. Out of reach from the drunkle.