Now that we are approaching the holiday season a lot of folks have planned to visit extended family to celebrate Thanksgiving, Mawlid-al-Nabi, Chanukah, Christmas, and New Year’s. As a couples and sex therapist, my associate therapists and I continually hear common themes and concerns among our CLS clients regarding upcoming plans and their sexual lives.
In a recent report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 48.3 percent of families with heterosexual couples, both husband and wife were employed. While the remaining American families may have a parent that is child rearing or unemployed, most couples in our Center (including those couples without children, those that identify as LGBTQ, and those that have consensual non-monogamous relationships) report feeling exhausted by long hours, demanding bosses, and a lot less time for self-care than in that past few years. Most workers have limits on the number of vacation days they’re allowed to take in a calendar year so saving these days for going home for the holidays with the fam can take a good bite out of that bank of person time off .
The essential questions my associate therapists and I often hear from couples in our offices at CLS is:
“How can we have a real vacation during a visit to our families for the holidays?”
They are asking essentially: are the two terms literally an oxymoron when combined?
Here are a few common questions partners have posed in recent sessions leading up to anticipated Thanksgiving and Christmas visits to family on their valuable vacation days off work and my responses:
Why do we have to do what everyone else in your family does for every minute of the day?
Set up a dinner with each other before your travel date to specifically discuss what kind of rhythm each day could have, what parents or relatives may expect of each of you, and what each partner is hoping to get out of the vacation/visit. Then brainstorm compromises around taking time away from the whole group at less peak events (going for a drive after post-Thanksgiving breakfast, scheduling a couples massage Christmas Day afternoon in lieu of watching a movie with everyone else). Lastly once you come up with a plan, make sure the partner whose family is being visited tells their family what to expect a week or more before the holiday with specific details so that they have time to get used to it.
I don’t want to stay up late drinking since I want to use my vacation to exercise every morning but how can I do that without getting flack?
Many families have a tradition of heavy drinking during these holidays. For relatives who are either less into partying or actually in sober recovery, family holidays can be really challenging. Some people are trying to eat healthier by staying away from high caloric food and having lots of alcohol and high sugar foods around can be a high pressure situation. For those whose ideal vacation is to maintain or catch up on an exercise regimen, the ongoing lounging on the couch and watching football or movies can prove to feel like pressure to join in. Will you get a guilt trip from a parent or continual ribbing by siblings for going to bed earlier than the rest of the family or joining the breakfast crowd an hour later due to your morning run/yoga/cycling session? Once you tell your family you’ll be following a particular rhythm over your break, let them know you’re looking forward to spending time with them and perhaps invite them to a class or run with you so that you have an ally in that domain and start a new tradition.
How do we prepare and protect our partner when it comes to touchy topics?
Many partners feel like they either have full permission to express what they want with their in-laws while some feel like they have to walk around on eggshells for fear of stepping on a sensitive topic and blowing a landmine that explodes. For example, a boyfriend expressed his openness about a friend’s decision not to have children during a family meal at his girlfriend’s parents’ home last Thanksgiving. His girlfriend’s mother blanched and immediately excused herself from the table while his girlfriend shot him an accusatory look.
The mood turned into a frigid stone silence and the boyfriend was wondering what he had done wrong. When they returned to their room, the girlfriend began blaming him for being so emotionally clueless regarding bringing up the topic of children since her mother had always expressed her desire for grandchildren and the idea of not having grandchildren depressed her. He became defensive and argued that he was clueless because she hadn’t given him any clues!
I invite the partner whose relatives are being visited to act as an emissary and to prepare their partner by setting boundaries on subjects that might be hot topics and to be an ally to their partner when discussing issues and/or plans each day. This is the way partners can care for their mates and relationship while also keeping the peace with their family of origin culture.
How do we help our partners or spouses feel like this time is also made special for them?
Plan to take some time as a couple away from the larger family unit to have some fun. This could include a visit to a local site, a hike at a nearby park or a grabbing a pint at a favorite pub. One couple decided to go out dancing at a club they used to frequent as a teenager after their parents headed off to bed one night, another partner booked a couples massage Friday afternoon while the rest of the family went Black Friday shopping assuring their relatives they’d be back to help prepare a family dinner.
How can we have sex when we’re sleeping in a guest room near the family room?
Use this vacation/visit to add creativity to your sexual repertoire:
- Create playful rules about noise and use blindfolds and tape to limit sight and sound to enhance sex play.
- Plan to give one another sensual massages with oil from a warm wax candle as a fun way to create outercourse or foreplay while the rest of the family go to sleep, then you have options for what comes next.
- Stay home while the rest of the family go out for a pickup football game and have a quickie in the shower.
Wishing you a restful, emotionally and sexually satisfying holiday season with your lover and your families. Happy Holidays!