A Guide To Managing Holiday Relationship Expectations

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It's officially winter: Do you know what you and your partner are doing for the holidays? Are you exchanging gifts? Does your partner even care about celebrating? If you've been putting off talking about all of this because you know holidays can be a loaded topic, you should just bite the bullet and get the talk over with. Why? Because if you don't discuss your expectations in your relationship — especially around the holidays — it can cause issues later on.
Relationship expectations can cause problems if a few things happen: if you are unaware of your own expectations; if your expectations are unreasonable; and if your expectations are "unspoken," explains Kayla Knopp, a clinical graduate student who studies facets of commitment in relationships at the University of Denver Center for Marital and Family Studies. And that last one is really important, because "it's really unlikely that partners are going to automatically agree about all their expectations without actually talking through them," she says.
Often in relationships, there's an assumption that if you've been together long enough, you should just know what your partner wants, says Esther Boykin, LMFT, a relationship therapist in Washington, D.C. But when you enter in a relationship you don't just become psychic, so unless you actually talk about your wants and needs, there's bound to be tension or confusion, she says. This is important year-round, but particularly around the holidays when there's no shortage of emotional scenarios, from family obligations to gift-giving.
People are usually reluctant to be upfront and direct about what they want as a gift, because they don't want to impose or seem materialistic, Boykin explains. Or, people might not want to express what it is they want because they think a gift has to be a surprise or a romantic gesture. After all, it's the "thought that counts," right? But when you tell your partner what you like, and they follow through on it, then they're showing you that "your opinions and desires actually really matter to them," she says. So if it's important to you, speak up about it.
Perhaps gifts, parties, and holiday engagements don't mean much to you. You've probably heard of love languages before, which is the idea that we all receive and give love in different ways. One of the languages is receiving gifts, which means that these people thrive when their partner displays thoughtful gestures. It's not materialistic, it just means that "some people place a lot of deep personal meaning in [gifts and social engagements], so receiving a thoughtful gift can feel like an expression of love," she says.
Beyond gifts, the way that we celebrate holidays is deeply rooted in our upbringing. For example, you might have warm memories of your own family celebrating the holidays, so it's important to you and symbolizes connection, Boykin says. "Somebody else might have memories of holidays being really difficult or never celebrated," she says. Thinking about why it's important to you will make it easier to articulate to your partner. "What you don't want to do is assume that your partner feels the exact same way as you," Knopp says.
So, how do you talk about this awkward but important issue? First of all, it's always better to have this conversation in advance, rather than 10 minutes before leaving for a holiday function, Knopp says. "When something comes up for you in the moment, it's usually not when we're at our best as communicators, and not when we're going to get the results we want," she says. As with other difficult conversations, it's better to do it at a time when you can focus and aren't both distracted by several other things, she says.
During the convo, it's important to speak for yourself and your feelings, rather than presenting it as a universal truth, like, "this is just the right way of doing things; if you love me, then you will get me gifts," Knopp explains. It's totally fair to say, "It's really important to me that you spend time and money getting me a gift, because it makes me feel loved," she says. "Talk about it as if it's your own thing and you have ownership of it."
On the flip side, if you aren't really sure what your expectations are, you could simply broach the subject like, "The holidays are coming up and I was thinking, maybe we should talk about what it is you want from me? I wasn't sure where you wanted to fit in with that?" If you raise it as a broader conversation, then you can get a sense of where your partner is, and in talking it through you might help yourself get clarity about what you want or don't want, Boykin says. Ideally, you'd do this before buying two plane tickets to spend half of December with your extended family, for example.
While the festive holiday trappings can make these conversations seem somewhat frivolous, taking this time can be an opportunity to strengthen your connection with your partner, Boykin says. "There's also an opportunity to be more vulnerable by going beyond, 'Here's what I want or don’t want,' and beginning to talk about why things matter to you," she says. Generally there is an emotional tie behind why we place value on things or not. And while your partner can't always get you exactly what you want, you may find that this conversation gets you both what you need.

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