Death in the family? New relationship? Communication is key to happy holiday gatherings

The holidays can be a minefield for sticky situations — a death in the family, divorced or newly blended families and new relationships. The key to defusing awkwardness is to communicate early and often, experts say.

The holidays can be a minefield for sticky situations — a death in the family, divorced or newly blended families and new relationships. The key to defusing awkwardness is to communicate early and often, experts say.

After losing his father and then his 21-year-old daughter in the months leading up to Christmas 2003, Paul Reed knew his holiday celebration would be drastically different.

“You just don’t feel very festive after that,” Reed said, explaining how his family decided to move the celebration’s location and adapted other traditions as well. “It changes the holidays forever onward.”

Family holiday celebrations can be among the most special events of the year. But they’re also ripe for potentially uncomfortable social interactions, ranging from heartbreaking — such as a recent death in the family — to just plain awkward — such as deciding how to tell your latest companion he or she isn’t actually invited to Christmas dinner.

In all cases, experts say communicating openly and embracing — or at least facing — reality are critical to making those get-togethers go smoothly.

“There is no replacement for open communication,” said Omri Gillath, a Kansas University associate professor of social psychology, who specializes in close relationships. “So as soon as you start planning your vacation or holiday, you should put the questions on the table and say, ‘What do you want to do?’”

Death in the family

Reed, a chaplain for the Visiting Nurses Association of Douglas County, said someone disappearing from a family circle not only changes relationships, it can also change economic realities and logistics. Talk about all of it, he said, from who will play host to Christmas dinner to, if necessary, a maximum budget for holiday gifts.

“The first thing to do is to just acknowledge the fact that things are going to be different,” he said. “Pretending that things are as they always have been is probably not productive.”

For those who are grieving, Reed suggested gently encouraging them to participate in holiday gatherings instead of withdrawing.

New traditions to try might include buying a gift in honor of the person who died and donating it to a charity or — if you have a creative family — gathering to make ornaments or other decorations that remind you of that person.

The Christmas he lost his father and daughter, who died in a car accident in early December, Reed moved his family celebration from his house to another adult child’s. In the next few years, they also moved from having all the children’s names on Christmas stockings to the grandchildren’s instead, shifting the focus to the youngest generation.

Reed also pastors a small church in Oskaloosa, where he enjoys the Christmas Eve experience of coming together as a community instead of limiting the holiday to family only.

“It’s neat sometimes to see people from very many different walks of life that come together on a Christmas Eve to enjoy carols and take communion together,” he said.

Breakups and blended families

Some couples that divorce stay friends; other splits get nasty. Decisions about whether to continue celebrating the holidays together should be on a case-by-case basis, Gillath said.

“You can try to do it for the kids,” he said, but added that may not be the best choice if tensions are too high: “Kids can sense it.”

For a newly blended family, the holidays can be a great opportunity to take the group’s relationship to the next level, Gillath said.

In either case, communication — again — is paramount. That goes for gifts, too. Establishing rules can help avoid divorced parents getting into an ugly gift-giving competition or, for a blended family, gifts being unfairly balanced among children.

In either family situation, be ready for change.

“It’s OK if things are not perfect,” Gillath said. “It doesn’t have to be Hollywood.”

New relationships

Ah, to bring or not to bring the new love interest home for Christmas dinner?

Gillath said it’s best to put the question on the table sooner rather than later and just ask, “Do you want to do it together or alone?”

To help assuage the potential awkwardness of this conversation — because it’s one where both parties may not be on the same page — talk openly with no blaming or forcing, Gillath said. Tell your partner what you want, which should take into consideration that person as well as the relatives you might be taking him or her home to.

“Bringing your special friend home has a meaning for people,” Gillath said. “Even if it doesn’t for you, it might for other people.”

Consider whether your elderly grandmother or others might become attached to the guest. Consider how comfortable your parents — or whoever’s hosting the get-together — are with feeding an additional person and buying additional gifts. If you’ll be staying with relatives for an extended period of time, consider whether you’ll be comfortable having the love interest around that long, too.

“You want to think about the aftermath of all that,” Gillath said. “If it’s not that serious, maybe … you don’t want to force it into that.”

Single looking to mingle

If you’re single, the holidays can be a great time to stay that way, said relationship expert Rachel DeAlto, author of “Flirt Fearlessly: The A to Z Guide to Getting Your Flirt On.”

Not only can you avoid stressors such as whether or not to get the person you’re seeing a gift or wondering why you didn’t get invited to his or her holiday party, you can make the busy season work to your advantage, according to DeAlto’s tips.

For one, say yes to all the parties, happy hours and get-togethers you can.

“You never know who you could meet,” she said.

Also, the energy and electricity that buzzes around the holidays can be reinvigorating — which is always attractive.

“If you are enjoying the holidays, embracing the time you have with friends and family, and loving life, your confidence will soar,” DeAlto said. “So will your dating life.”

Tagged: relationships, dating, family, Christmas, grief, holidays, divorce, mental health

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