By Cherity Woolf, LCSW
Whether you are planning a small dinner with just you and your little family, a Friendsgiving, or the kind of celebration involving all the aunts, uncles, cousins, and their dogs, Thanksgiving is more than figuring out how to make the perfect potato volcano for your gravy. There is the prepping of the house, planning the menu, arranging travel, assigning responsibilities, cooking the food, cleaning up, and of course, sitting at the table with the people we love, and sometimes hate. This can create a lot of stress and tension in relationships. Here are 5 things to focus on in the weeks leading up to, and on Turkey Day itself, to decrease the squabble and make more room for joy as you gobble.
1. Understand the History - Knowing how our partner has experienced the holiday in the past, especially as a child, can help create a better understanding of when and why there might be tension. Often, we react to our perceptions based on our past and not reality. Using empathetic listening to share and explore what pain or stress they have experienced can help us notice and support them if they experience distress, whether it is in response to reality or their past. For example, if my partner's Thanksgiving dinners always ended in yelling and screaming, they may begin to become more anxious or irritable as the night progresses, even if it is a peaceful, joyful environment. Knowing the history helps me to validate their experience and emotion, reset, and re-engage in the moment without becoming frustrated at their behavior.
2. Divide & Conquer – Creating a plan together helps to keep one person from feeling overwhelmed by tasks and emotional pressure. To create a plan, you must first have a clear idea of the desired outcome. Share traditions, foods, and other aspects of the holiday with each other, along with the reason these things are important. Identify each other’s must-haves and would-likes to help create a compromised agenda for the holiday, then divvy up duties and schedule out time accordingly. Deciding in advance who is going to shop, who is going to clean what, and what “clean” means, along with the plan for cooking helps reduce conflict and tension the day of. Some couples find swapping years to spend the whole holiday with family works best, while others spend part of the day at one place and the other part of the day. Others stay home or go to a restaurant, there is no one way to have a perfect holiday.
3. Build Up the Cushion – Relationships are like bank accounts; we make deposits and withdrawals that impact the stability of the relationship. Holidays often involve significant withdrawals due to stress, expectations, and Murphey’s Law. We must make frequent deposits and increase the balance of the relationship account BEFORE the stress starts. Starting the big day with a negative balance is never a good idea. This can be avoided by purposely appreciating things about your partner or things they’ve done, spending more time doing fun things together (with & without the kids), increasing physical connection, and talking about positive memories you’ve had together. Behaviors and thinking that create positive connections and add to the relationship account balance are always important, but even more important before a big event.
4. Have an Escape Plan – Whether the plan is to stay home or adventure out, have plans in place that allow each partner a way to take a brief break or for y’all to escape together. Knowing what to do and what the signs are that it is time to enact the plan, creates a team approach. No feast is worth causing a crisis for our partner or damaging the relationship. Retreat when necessary and scavenge the leftovers later.
5. Laugh & Breath – Remember it does not matter if the trash can turkey tastes like lighter fluid or if great-aunt Gertrude has asked for the 30th time why you do not have children. If we keep our focus on being a team, staying in the moment, and looking at experiences as opportunities for adventure and memories, it will make it easier to survive the stress and enjoy the pumpkin pie!