Rule #1: Practice healthy boundaries.
Make sure your partnership acts as a united front and that you agree on the necessary boundaries between your couplehood and your family. It might be much easier to throw your partner under the bus than to confront your family because you know your partner is healthy and safe, however, doing so will create tension and mistrust in your relationship and will enable your family members’ poor behavior. Confrontations do not need to be intense; even something like a redirection or walking away can do the trick. For example, ask to change the subject if your partner is on the witness stand trying to answer incessant questions your family is posing. If it is your family, you need to be the spokesperson. Never start a sentence by saying, “[Partner’s name] thinks that…” or “[Partner’s name] needs/wants…” You need to own the feedback and deliver your messages as coming from you.
Rule #2: Build in ways to process together on a regular basis both during and after the holiday.
If you are traveling, consider staying in a hotel or “off-site” so that you will have time and space to process the events of the day. If you are the supporting partner, check in with your partner and let them process anything they need to about their family. If you need to process anything, keep in mind that this is your partner’s family. It can sometimes be helpful to use first names versus “your mom”, “your brother”, etc. If staying off-site isn’t an option, you might just build in time to take a walk or run an errand at the store. It can be surprisingly helpful to have even short amounts of time away to breathe, process together, and get away from the stimulation. At the end of each day, take some time to process how they day went with your partner. Each person should get space to say how they think things went from their perspective and to game plan for anything that needs addressed during the rest of the trip. When the visit is completely over, make sure to have debrief time together, again addressing each perspective on how things went, boundaries that need set in the future, and offering support to one another as needed.
Rule #3: Do not abandon your partner.
This sounds obvious, but it can be shockingly easy to fall back into old patterns around one’s family. The coping tool that many people employ when around toxic family, especially when one has grown up in the family, is to check out. Doing this could leave your partner alone in the craziness to fend for themselves while you exit to your happy place in your mind. Try to stay grounded and connected and if you are having trouble doing so then it is a good time to take a break (See rule #2).
Rule #4: Keep in mind that family members might not behave as expected.
We certainly learn our families over time and can see patterns in their behavior. Keep in mind that your family may surprise you (for the better or for the worse) in how they act when meeting your partner. A very common thing I hear from my clients is that their families were actually much more “well behaved” than they expected. This can cause you to feel like you were exaggerating or to go into a shame spiral about how you portrayed your family to you partner. Remember that you know in your gut how interactions have gone previously and try to trust yourself. If you are the supporting partner, make sure to keep believing your partner. They are the expert on their own family and people who are unhealthy can be very good at hiding or putting on a front. Also, your partner has a lifetime of experience with their family so lean into their perspective and feel grateful you did not have to interact with the dynamics you have heard so much about.