My boyfriend and I have been together for a little less than a year and a half and we are very happy together. However, we recently had a fight about the holidays coming up and because we also fought more than usual last year about the holidays, I’m worried we’re heading for a couple months of frayed nerves and emotional outbursts. Here’s the back story: my boyfriend is an only child and was raised in a home-schooled Jehovah’s Witness household. He gave up his religious upbringing years before I met him but because he does not have a close relationship with either of his parents, he had never had a traditional family Christmas or Thanksgiving get-together until I brought him to my family’s last year.
For the most part he enjoyed himself and felt welcomed by my family. However, there were problems that neither of us anticipated that led to a lot of arguments. An example is I took him to go Christmas Caroling with my family expecting him to enjoy the corniness of the whole thing. Instead, he was tense and silent. I realized later that he did not know any of the Christmas carols and the religious theme of some of the songs made him feel like an outsider (though my family is not very religious). Another example is the way my mom would gently nag him at Christmas/Thanksgiving dinner in a cheery matriarchal host kind of way (it’s her way of making someone feel welcome). My mom would say something like “Don’t eat too many peanuts, save room for dinner!” or “Did you like the pie? I’m sorry if it tasted bad. I made it just for you!” and I could see him getting a little defensive and tense at this attention being put on him. He wouldn’t say anything rude or impolite, but he would give answers in kind of an humorless/uncomfortable tone and I could tell he was not his usual happy and goofy self. I didn’t want him to feel left out and I was overprotective of his feelings, and defensiveness about my family seeming big and loud and weird.
Cut to this year. My boyfriend asked my advice on what presents to give my family because he wants to take an active part in the gift-giving this year. I throw him a few ideas and I tell him about how sweet he is to get them all gifts because he didn’t have to. He looked a little confused and asked why he didn’t have to and I said “You know, because you’re a guest.” Immediately, that made him defensive and hurt because he thought it implied he was still an outsider. We moved past that, but it has made me nervous that this year’s holidays will be just as tense as last year’s.
Is there any way to address potential issues about the holidays before they happen, or will that just make it worse? Is there anything I can do to make him feel and act less agitated and uncomfortable this time around, for both our sakes? Or should I just trust that he’s trying to take more of an active part to feel more comfortable and stop letting myself get worked up? — Already Holi-dazed
First of all, your letter just gave me a mild panic attack at the thought of the holidays being right around the corner. I love turkey and stuffing and pie and presents and stockings hung by the fire as much as the next person, but my usual stress over getting everything done that needs to be done is going to be multiplied by, like, a million this year with a newborn wrapped around my leg. OK, deep breath. In… out…just like they taught us in childbirth classes. Ahhh… that’s better.
Now, onto you! To answer your last questions first: no, you should not just “trust” everything is going to be fine this year if your boyfriend is already giving you indication that it won’t and last year’s fiasco is still fairly fresh in your minds. Don’t leave anything to chance this time. Have a talk with your boyfriend about what you can do to make him more comfortable. Have some suggestions ready at the get-go.
For example, give your boyfriend some ownership in the festivities, which is probably what he was after when he decided to get gifts for your family. In addition to giving him some (reasonably priced) gift suggestions for your immediate family members (and going shopping with him!), ask him if he’d like to share a favorite dish he likes to make (or remembers fondly from his childhood), or make a playlist for your commute to your family’s and/or for all of you to listen to during some part of your holiday festivities. Bring something jokey from the two of you for your whole family, like pilgrim collars or reindeer antlers, to cut the tension as well as to establish you as a unit so he’s less likely to feel like he’s playing on some team all by himself.
Finally, and above all, communicate with your boyfriend. Talk about some of the issues you had last year and discuss how to circumvent them this year. Would he rather sit out Christmas caroling? If so, maybe you should arrive to your family’s after that traditional event. If that isn’t possible, consider sitting out the caroling with him so he doesn’t feel like such an outsider. While the rest of your family is singing “Jingle Bells,” it would be a great time for you and your boyfriend to set your own tradition as a couple and enjoy a little one-on-one time. How about filling up a mug with some spiked hot chocolate, getting in a car and driving around your family’s neighborhood to check out all the Christmas lights? Of course, another alternative is that you start teaching your boyfriend some of those Christmas carols he didn’t know the words to last year. You could even fire up the ol’ Christmas channel on Pandora and start filling your home up with festive yuletide tunes to get you both in the mood…
The most important thing is to let him know about how important he is to you and how much it means to you to have him be part of your family holiday celebration. Assure him that he is not only welcome there, he’s wanted there — and not just by you, but by your whole family. And communicate with him about how much your family means to you, too, and that it’s equally important that he accepts and welcomes their quirks as much as possible. Tell him that that’s the best holiday gift he could give you this year. Well, that and maybe a new car full of cash.