Whether we like it or not, the time that we’ve spent in quarantine is very real, and very, very long. If you’re like most of us, the fading stress of the election has you really looking at the calendar for the first time all year and realizing that another battleground is looming on the horizon. That’s right: It’s holiday season.
While Joe Biden may be president-elect, the nation’s leading health experts have all warned that family gatherings like Thanksgiving pose an even greater risk than normal this year due to the ongoing global pandemic. As Dr. Fauci — an expert on infectious disease who you may have heard of! — has stated, “When you’re talking about relatives that are … being exposed in an airport, being exposed in a plane, then walk in the door and say ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ — that you have to be careful about.” But if your partner has overbearing parents, COVID-19 might not be enough to keep a Thanksgiving visit at bay, or your wits together.
A contentious presidential election, a Thanksgiving visit you may not have wanted and extended time with your partner’s parents are the perfect recipe for a Thanksgiving disaster, especially when you’re toeing the fine line of supporting your significant other without blowing up the entire holiday. So how to handle it all? According to relationship expert Susan Winter, the key to surviving the holidays is planning ahead, and realizing why the events are so stressful in the first place.
“Forethought is essential for effectively navigating conflict,” says Winter. With all of the emotions that can swirl around the holidays, dealing with overbearing parents may also inadvertently mean dealing with a significant other who isn’t acting like themselves. That’s just one of the many additives that make the holidays so hard to deal with.
At their core, holidays are full of compromises, per Winter. This includes myriad questions that have to be answered, many of which are already stress-inducing on their own. “Where do we go? Which family do we visit? When do we leave? For how long? Should we get away on our own? What do we bring?” Winter also notes that coming home with your partner adds to pressure they might already be feeling, especially if your relationship is rather new. Combine that with family dynamics and patterns that have been with your partner far longer than you have, and you’re creating the perfect storm for a less than thankful night.
So once you’ve recognized that your Thanksgiving dinner with your partner’s parents might be less rosy and more roasty, make your plan. For Winter, the important thing to remember is your role at the dinner: Though you are your partner’s advocate in most things, you are not at the holiday gathering to act as the umpire.
“Don’t interfere in family drama,” says Winter. “You want to be there by your partner’s side, but you also want to be respectful of their family dynamic. You aren’t required to referee. Clear protocol with your mate: Make sure you know the lay of the land before you fall into the thick of it. How can you best be of service to your partner? What do they need you to do “IF” — If family members gang up on them, is it okay for you to come to their defense? If Uncle Harold starts on his political rant? If there’s a heated argument? Whatever the issue, what’s the preferred protocol?”
While not interfering might be easier said than done, giving yourself a helpful job might alleviate some of the pressure. Winter suggests finding areas to be helpful, whether that means helping to clean up, washing dishes or even running errands that take you and your partner out of the house entirely. One thing’s for sure, knowing what helps your partner, not just what seems like a helpful job, is among the easiest ways to make the holidays run more smoothly. “It takes finesse to know how to handle one’s partner, especially so if your partner is triggered by the holidays,” says Winter. “Double-down on your efforts to give them the kind of support that’s uniquely tailored to their disposition and personality.”
Leaving Thanksgiving in one piece may seem like most people’s goal, but you do have other options besides gritting your teeth and bearing it when overbearing parents venture into dangerous territory. Winter says that making a scene is rarely appropriate, as it “shows that you’ve lost control and run out of strategic options,” but she does advocate for self-protection. “It’s your partner’s job to deal with their parents. However, if a parent becomes violent or abusive with your mate, you must intercede,” Winter explains.
If you feel like the situation has gone from simply unpleasant to downright harmful, whether it’s a misgendering mother-in-law or a partner’s father who insists on emotional abuse, the best thing to do is “remove yourself from the environment,” says Winter, especially if you become the target of emotional or physical abuse. “You have to know your own triggers, not just your mate’s. Loving them doesn’t mean hurting yourself.”
The holidays are never easy, so when facing a Thanksgiving get together you wanted to avoid entirely, again, the most helpful way to deal with a partner’s overbearing family is to prepare, prepare, prepare. Discussing potential situations well before they arise gives you a fighting chance. “If you and your partner think there could be a scene, practice together the protocol that you’d like to put in place,” Winter suggests. “Rehearse each angle and consider all options. Forethought is essential for effectively navigating conflict. That way you’re supporting your mate and putting a crisis-management plan in place.”
And if you’re convinced that it’s just the general chaos of this year that’s making the prospect of the holidays so frightening, think again. “Our current political climate has made every type of partnership more difficult,” says Winter. “But there’s a funny thing about going home for the holidays: Adults become children again. Not just in their parents’ eyes, but oftentimes in their behavior and attitudes. Your chill, adult and rational partner may turn into a petulant child who has tantrums when they don’t get their way. Or your otherwise grounded partner may be reduced to tears by re-living inner tapes from their childhood.”
So whether you’re praying in the prairie or holding back hellfire in Huntsville, helping your partner with their heavy-handed parents requires preparation, skill and constant reminders that you’re doing all of this because you love the person they are now, even if that might not be the person that comes out over Thanksgiving dinner. “Anything can happen,” emphasizes Winter. “You’ll discover everything that was lurking in the shadows when you put [your partner] on their native turf. Be there for them, and be prepared.”