Couple's guide to surviving holidays

A couples' guide to surviving the holidays

By Dalia Wheatt
Published December 14, 2007

At holiday gatherings, getting upgraded from the kids' table to the grown-up table is a big deal. A seat at the big-people table means real dishes, real silverware and, too often, real stress.

For some folks, it's the pressure of fitting in quality time with your parents and your significant other's. For some, it's the prospect of a throw-down between the mothers-in-law that makes your heart race. Other couples must balance their religious differences. Add kids to the mix, and you have another set of issues.

The key to keeping your relationship intact over the holidays, our experts said, is to give it precedence over your familial ties.

"There comes a time when we really have to declare our loyalty to our spouse or partner," said Dr. Richard Weinberg, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at USF.

Ken Donaldson, a Seminole relationship coach, agreed. "If it isn't, your loyalty and boundaries start to get confusing and muddy," he said.

Tbt* asked Donaldson, Weinberg and experts to help five local couples get through the holidays in one piece.

So many relatives, so little time

For the past three years, Nathan Dix and his fiancee, Kara Connolly, have celebrated Christmas together a few days before Dec. 25. Then the Oldsmar couple split up for Christmas Day to spend it with their respective sets of parents - his in Bradenton and hers near Jacksonville.

"We have had a lot of discussions, some not so pretty, about how to handle this Christmas," said Nathan, 26.

Now for the first time, he and Kara, 25, will be together for the holidays, spending Christmas Eve in north Florida with Kara's peeps and then driving to Bradenton on Christmas morning.

"We have realized that we are now our own little family and it is time that we began starting our own traditions," Nathan said. "However, our decision does mean that we will be driving about four hours on Christmas morning - not the best way to spend it."

Expert advice: Dr. Jean Mulloy is a clinical psychologist in South Tampa. She gave these suggestions for couples dreading the holiday shuffle.

- Be a little selfish. Decide what's most important to you as a couple, be it eating gingerbread pancakes in your jammies on Christmas morning or lighting the menorah together on the first night of Hanukkah. Carve these activities in stone and add in family gatherings as your time and energy permit.

- Spread out the fun. Propose new traditions with your respective families, so you don't spread yourselves too thin from Thanksgiving to New Year's. For instance, spend Christmas Eve relaxing at home, but offer to decorate for your mom's annual Kwanzaa dinner. If your in-laws live out of town, exchange gifts with them when the airfare is cheaper, such as on Three Kings Day, Jan. 6.

- Lose the guilt. "You're not going to make everybody happy all the time," Mulloy said.

Can't we all just get along?

Robert and Kristina Wein tied the knot Oct. 27, and already their holidays are getting sticky. Robert's folks live on Long Island, NY, while Kristina's mom lives in Clearwater. Her dad and stepmother are in Tarpon Springs. The families aren't exactly tight, so inviting everyone over for eggnog is out of the question.

"It makes it extremely hard to plan in advance, especially when the two sides of the family do not get along," said Kristina, 30. "It creates tension, a lot of rushing around, and eventually leads to comments under one's breath or just straight up judgment of character."

Expert advice: Ken Donaldson, of Seminole, is a relationship coach and author of Marry YourSelf First! Saying "I Do" to a Life of Passion, Power and Purpose. He offered these tips for couples whose families don't get along:

- Divide and conquer. Rather than forcing everyone to act merry and bright under one roof, carve out separate times to spend with each set of relatives. "Let's not make it any more stressful than it has to be," Donaldson said. Use "we" statements, and stick up for the boundaries you and your spouse have drawn.

- Be businesslike. Spend Christmas with your clan and New Year's with your spouses, or agree that your parents have dibs on the two of you for the entire 2007 holiday season; your partner's fam gets you both for all holidays in 2008.

- Empathize with your partner. When your brother comments that your girlfriend is one gingerbread cookie away from needing gastric bypass, stand up for her. At the dinner table, sit between her and your lascivious Uncle Roy. And if the hubbub gets to be too much, invite her to go on a walk.

Interfaith couple

She's Catholic, he's Muslim. Let the fun begin.

Last year was the first time that Alicia DePasquale, 23, spent the holidays with her fiancee, Ozzy Dagistanl, 29. Her family taught him about Jesus and how to fill out a proper wish list for Santa.

"At nearly 30 years of age his list consisted of meat loaf and beef stew," Alicia said. "I had to go back and explain to him that you don't usually get food for Christmas."

For his part, Ozzy taught Alicia about Kurban Bayrami, a.k.a. Eid Al-Adha, a Turkish celebration commemorating Abraham's sacrifice of a ram in place of his son Isaac. Last year, the couple sent money to Ozzy's family in Turkey to chip for the traditional feast.

"We are very supportive of one another's customs," Alicia said.

Expert advice: Dr. Richard Weinberg is a clinical psychologist and associate professor at USF. He offered these tips for interfaith couples:

- Speak up early. If your family has a tradition of, say, watching It's a Wonderful Life together, then your parents will expect you to follow it unless you give them a heads-up.

- Host a multi-faith potluck. Invite both sets of relatives, plus a diverse group of friends, to share an eclectic holiday meal at your place. Have guests bring a dish that has spiritual or emotional significance to them (ixnay on the ham), and discuss how the different families celebrate the season. "To talk about it can actually bring you closer," Weinberg said.

- Have a moment of silence. Instead of saying grace aloud, let guests give thanks in their own way.

- Start a holiday tradition that you can both embrace, like volunteering together at Metropolitan Ministries.

Stress and the single parent

Christine Gregory always spends the holidays with her 14-year-old daughter, Shaniqua Medley. Shaniqua's dad lives in Washington State.

"Christmas gets harder when they are older," said Christine, 37, of St. Pete. "I hope I have given her some great memories to reflect back on when she is grown."

Every year, the two decorate the house with all the things Shaniqua has made over the years. Then Christine gives Shaniqua a holiday pin to add to her stocking, and they attend Christmas Eve service together.

One of Christine's biggest stresses is the prospect of being alone for Christmas dinner.

"Thank goodness for great friends," she said.

Expert advice: Christine is on the right track, according to Jennifer Cray, president of Parents without Partners, Tampa Bay chapter. Cray has two daughters, ages 17 and 19, and she had this advice for single parents:

- Make an even split. You get the kids all day Christmas Eve, then your ex gets the them all day Christmas Day. If one of you wants to take the kids on a long vacation, then be prepared to forfeit other holidays together.

- Start your own holiday tradition. It's the best way to avoid competition. Every Christmas Eve, Cray makes a seafood dinner for her daughters "so that on Christmas Day it's not spoiled having two turkeys one right after the other," she said. Then she and her daughters open gifts and watch a Christmas movie. The next morning, the kids wake up at 8 a.m. and Cray drives them to their father's house.

- Give gifts with sentimental value. So maybe your ex is getting the kids a pony. "You can't compete with the Donald Trumps," Cray said. Instead, go for sentimental value in the form of baking cookies, exchanging ornaments or making a holiday-themed pillowcase that your kids can use throughout the season.

- Form a second family. Host a potluck for other single parents and friends so that your holiday table is always full.

Little people, big stress

Kelli Whitley's big Christmas wish is to have a date with her husband, Stephen. But now that 2-year-old Grace and 15-month-old Micah are in the picture, even stealing away for a cup of coffee is no simple task.

"I'm hoping that we can sneak in an hour trip to Starbucks or something before Christmas. That's my big date that I'm hoping for," said Kelli, 26, of St. Pete.

To keep their sanity and squeeze in some grown-up time, the Whitleys have streamlined their holiday to-do list. They'll keep the traditions that are super-important to them and the kids, like baking cookies (while the kids are napping) and attending Christmas Eve service. But the rest will have to wait.

"I really wanted to make gingerbread house. There was a list of things that I really wanted to do. It has really been helpful to realize that there are many more years to come to do the traditions. We don't have to fit all the traditions into one year," Kelli said. "It's hard enough not being a holiday season, but to have additional responsibilities, as well as the fun things that you want to do with the family, it just absorbs all of your time. It's very difficult to have time as a couple."

Expert advice: Heather Rowa, 28, of Holiday, is co-coordinator of Harborside MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers), which meets at 9 a.m. on the first Thursday of every month at Harborside Church in Safety Harbor. With a husband and two daughters, ages 2 years and 4 months, here's what she's learned about balancing her family during the holidays:

- Stick to the schedule. "Probably the best advice I could give is remember that you have to work with your kids' schedule. If your kids are tired, don't make yourself miserable; go put them down for a nap," Rowa said. That might mean leaving the mall when you're just one store away from finishing your holiday shopping, because if the kids are crabby, then you'll become crabby and take it out on your spouse. Be especially mindful of your kids' eating and sleeping routine when you're traveling through different time zones.

- Communication is key. If there's something you definitely want to do as a family, like visiting Santa at International Plaza or catching the Rockettes at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, then put it on the family calendar right away.

- Chill. Enjoy (the holidays) while your child is 2, instead of stressing out about not getting the perfect present - 'cause they don't care; they're going to play with the box anyway," Rowa said.