Managing stressors this Thanksgiving holiday
Managing stressors this Thanksgiving holiday

Holidays are always a hot topic in couples therapy, whether it’s whose family couples will be visiting, how much time to spend there, what activities will be included or avoided, how to enjoy the day when there is relational tension… the list goes on and on.   

Thanksgiving Day is right around the corner.  For many, this is a time to reunite with loved ones, play games, cheer on a favorite football team, and gobble down all the delicious food.  Yet just like so many other special events, this Thanksgiving Day is one more causality of the pandemic.  In this article we will explore a few issues facing many couples during this holiday and go over some ways to navigate them.



One key issue to tackle before any holiday is expectations.  These little troublemakers can create all kinds of struggles to get through, especially when couples don’t slow down and talk about them.  Often people believe their partner will have the same expectations or at least they will agree with them.  Imagine if both partners are thinking that, but neither one communicates  it.  Now imagine how it will go if both partners have vastly different expectations about how, where, and with whom they will spend their holiday.  How do you think Thanksgiving will play out for this couple?  Do you think they will be feeling very thankful?  Or do you think the turkey will feel lucky to be dinner instead of having to deal with the emotional fallout from this couple feeling disappointed, resentful, and angry?

This is an issue that regularly comes up with couples, but it’s intensified this year because many couples have an even greater divide in their expectations this year.  Some people may expect to keep traditions and spend time with family or friends, while the other partner believes that staying home and social distancing is best. 

Tolerance Differences:

Whether it’s the introvert and extrovert, large family or small family, zoning in front of the TV or playing games in a group, staying home or traveling, the list of differences could continue until Thanksgiving 2021.  This goes beyond how we enjoy spending our time; these differences can look like social anxiety, overstimulation, and exhaustion.  One definition of tolerance is the capacity to endure pain or hardship.  It can be hard to understand that something we enjoy and find energizing can be something that requires our partner to endure.  It can be such a difficult concept to understand that often people will believe that their partner is simply withholding or dismissing their needs.  Oftentimes we expect (yup, there is that word again) our partner to be interested in the same things we are.  I have seen this play out in many couples, as well as in my own family.  Here are a few examples and some respectful ways of coping when these differences arise:

  • My mom loves playing games at family gatherings, but my stepdad does not.  What I love about them is that they give each other space to enjoy the time the way they each want to- without expectation or judgement. 
  • For me, my husband’s family loves to talk politics.  His family is made up of all kinds of beliefs.  Political debates are something I really don’t enjoy, so when this starts, I go and hang out with the kids or use that time to call and talk to my family. 
  • I have had clients who want to spend every second with their family, talking and playing games, but the other partner is easily overstimulated or exhausted by that amount of interaction.  After understanding that this was not an excuse for the partner to hide away, each couple was able to come up with signals or code words that would let their partner know why they might disappear for a bit.  Then when the more introverted partner felt refreshed, they would go back and re-engage in the group. 

The real issue with tolerating differences is not so much the difference, but the way partners handle those differences.  If the couple makes it unsafe for one or both partners to have different tolerance levels, then they are creating an environment for resentment, anger, and pain.  This doesn’t make a fun holiday or a fulfilling relationship.

Lockdown Grief:

This issue of lockdown grief  is one that is solely related to the pandemic. Thanksgiving 2020 is not going to look like the ones before it and it is OKAY to be sad, mad, disappointed, and overwhelmed by this.  Many people look forward to having large family/friend gatherings and if there was a year people needed to be able to connect and hug loved ones- it would be 2020.  But what do we do when we are being asked not to gather and not hug? Often, we think of grief solely related to death, but grief is a reaction to loss, and I would be surprised to find anyone who hasn’t been shaken by loss in 2020.  Each time we miss an opportunity to gather, celebrate, or travel…the losses add up.  In addition to this, thousands of families are grieving the death of someone COVID robbed them of.   Others are recovering from the illness and endless communities are facing economic hardship like never before.  People are grieving the loss of their life’s work through being forced to close their business or being laid off from a job that they loved and that supported their family.  There is a lot of loss in 2020, too much.  It is important for couples to remember that people experience and express grief differently and some will feel this more than others.  When couples are facing difficult times and they respond differently, and if they have not spent the time to understand and work with their differences then there is the potential to create more pain and distance in a time when they need each other the most.  

As an example, an introverted partner may be excited to stay home and have an intimate holiday, but if their partner is extroverted or only sees family on certain holidays, then they may be struggling.  This creates a vastly different emotional experience.  Yet just like with the expectations and tolerance differences, the real hurdle is not that there is a difference but how the couple navigates that difference. 

You may now be asking, “Well then how do we navigate the differences?”  Here are some first steps to begin to build that skill.

Beginning steps to navigate differences.

  1. Define expectations.  This starts with each partner individually getting clear on what their vision is for the holiday (or anything really).  This often looks like answering the how, who, when, what, and where.  It can often be powerful to also be able to share the why.  Such as, why this vision means something to you. The why can often help our partner feel more connected to part of a vision that they might experience a different way.  For example, if someone enjoys interaction they might not understand that their partner feels connected and close to a family member by just sitting and watching a football game.
  2. Take turns sharing your expectations.  Check out steps here to keep this conversation from becoming toxic. 
  3. Openly acknowledge tolerance differences with curiosity and/or acceptance. If you think you identify something your partner may tolerate differently, tell them your thoughts, and ask them if it feels true for them.  This gives your partner an opportunity to self-reflect and self-define.  Ask each other what the tolerance differences feel like for them.
  4. Come up with some creative experiments.  Experiments are an extremely important tool; you don’t want to think of your ideas as solutions.  Solutions have a feeling of finality, because if you solve a problem then the problem is no more.  When couples take this mindset in conversation about an issue it can be the set up to the next big fight.  

Here is why, if a couple sees X as a problem, they discuss it and decide the solution will be Y.  Then the next time X happens, and Y doesn’t work the way they thought it would then it feels like they failed, or the relationship is doomed.  Yet if we think of these things as experiments, then the conversations because the next time X happens lets try Y and then lets give Y a try 2 times, after the second try we will reevaluate how Y helps and how Y doesn’t work.  The experiment gives couples a way to keep working together towards something vs trying one thing and allowing that one thing to determine if they are a good team or not.

So when looking at tolerance differences come up with experiments to try and then do a check in after you try them, look at what worked, what didn’t and make adjustments to the experiment for the next time.

When it comes to discussing tolerance difference around the pandemic, check out this article for help.

  1. Acknowledge your emotions and/or grief around the lockdown.  How do you feel affected? How is it affecting your holiday experience?  If you and your partner have different experiences, that’s OKAY. But remember, this is a time to listen, show empathy and give comfort.  Brene Brown has a great video on empathy, you can check it out here.

Now for the hard truth: Navigating difference is challenging, and requires a strong internal muscle that most of us don’t have naturally.  Yet, the fact that you are reading this article is a great first step to building up your muscle.  If you follow the steps above, that is even more impressive, because it can feel a bit scary to step out of our world to understand someone else’s.  Pushing yourself to do something in the face of discomfort or fear, is brave and shows strength.  So, I hope you give yourself and your partner extra points for trying, because you both deserve them.

If you find you are struggling during this holiday season and you need support or you want help building up your “difference” muscle, reach out to the therapists here for a free 20 minute consultation.  We can help!

Here is some additional helpful information:

How to celebrate the holidays during the pandemic

CDC guidelines for holiday celebrations during the pandemic

Also here are 15 ways to celebrate Thanksgiving together! 

  1. Go for a drive through nature.  Take in the view, look for changing foliage, pack or pick up your favorite fall treat and stop someplace to enjoy the crisp autumn air. Describe what you are seeing and feeling to each other and what you enjoy about it.
  2. Have a private Thanksgiving Dinner.  If it is just the 2 of you, make it romantic.  If you have kids, get them in on the planning and cooking.  Dress up for dinner…fancy or silly.  Be creative.
  3. Start a “Giving” tradition together. Start a seasonal tradition of picking at least one charitable act to do together as a couple/family.  Take canned foods to a place of worship or a local food bank. Take some yummy treats to Fire Stations or Law Enforcement Offices to thank them for being away from their families and serving the community.  Think about helping to distribute hot meals on Thanksgiving Day.
  4. Get crafty.  Remember those turkey hands you used to cut out and paste together as a little kid? Well, who says you can’t still have fun with crafts as a grownup? Get yourselves in the spirit of the holiday with festive garlands, painted gourds and of course, delectable Thanksgiving-themed goodies!
  5. Show your thanks for each other! Yes, it’s simple. Maybe it feels silly. But part of the holiday is simply showing gratitude for the small, every day blessings in your life … and that includes your partner, kids and family!
  6. Have a “Thankful scavenger hunt” get post-its or plain paper and write things you are thankful for, happy memories and/or jokes.  You hand each other the first one, then hide the others around your home. Each one will have a clue to where to find the next one.  Include a simple little treat with the last note.
  7. Thankful-bomb each other.  Throughout the day post or hand thank you notes to each other.  They can be simple but try to surprise each other on where you put them or when you hand them out.
  8. Play board games, card games, or do a puzzle together instead of watching T.V.  Try an escape room in a box or you can look for games that you work together to beat vs games that you play against one another.
  9. Get physical together. Take a walk, go for a jog or hike, have a Turkey Dance party, and if you can have alone time enjoy exchanging sexy massages.
  10. Make sure you have some quiet time during the day: take a nap, read a book, or mediate.
  11. Watch a favorite holiday movie together.
  12. If hosting a small gathering. Decide together in advance on who will do what when it comes to straightening the house, planning, preparation, cooking, and clean up responsibilities. Don’t strive for perfection instead strive for connection.
  13. Look up different historical Thanksgiving traditions or food and try to recreate them.
  14. If you can’t be with family in person get creative with video chats, online group games, or start a “I’m THANKFUL” text thread and spend the day messaging each other things you are thankful for, fond memories or silly jokes and memes.  You can smile together even if you can’t physically be together and it is utterly amazing how joy, laughter, and smiles can connect us over even the furthest distance.
  15. Look for ways to relax and enjoy the difference. As amazing as it is to be with a lot of family and friends, this holiday can be a good change of pace.  You can stay in comfy clothes all day, be on your own schedule and not worry about challenging family interactions. 

Remember, whether you find new traditions that you continue or enjoy returning to previous traditions next year, this is a good time to experiment and create meaningful and memorable experiences.