Grove Emotional Health Collaborative



Holiday Expectations: Yours, Mine, and Ours

By Lisa Gorman Ufer, PhD, LMFT

When was the last time a colleague came to work talking about the intimacy and closeness they felt toward their partner following holiday time off? If you’re laughing at this question, you are likely recalling tales of in-laws who overstayed their welcome, young children who played with the box not the new toy, arguments over the credit card bill, or other mismatched expectations.

An expectation is defined as “a strong belief that something will happen.” According to Howard Markman and colleagues, in 12 Hours to a Great Marriage, our expectations in coupled relationships are influenced by the families that we grew up in, our previous relationships, and cultural factors such as ethnic or religious backgrounds as well as movies and advertisements. During a season where expectations are high and sources of influence are plentiful, we may get caught up in trying to please extended family or meet other cultural norms. In doing so, it is easy to lose sight of what is really important to our partners or even ourselves.

In the same way that we spend time planning the holiday menus, travel itinerary, shopping excursions and other holiday outings, we can be intentional about creating holiday traditions with our partner. First, we must be aware of our own expectations, where they come from and how important maintaining those traditions are. You can begin by making a list of what your perfect holiday looks likes. Start with what time you want to wake up in the morning, the preferred location of your celebration, family and friends that you want to be with, food you would like to eat, activities that you would like to participate in, whether gift giving is involved, and even the timing and how you end the day. As you make your list, take note of where that expectation comes from. For example, this may be the one day that you eat pecan pie. By serving Aunt Edna’s recipe, the older generation are prompted to tells stories about her honoring her memory and influence on the family. Whether the expectation is based on family tradition or rooted in cultural values, awareness allows you to take stock of what is important to you and those you love.

Once you have thought about your own expectations and where they come from, you are more prepared to talk with your significant other about what you value. Be thoughtful about your approach, letting your partner know that you would like to talk about holiday expectations and asking for a time that would be convenient to do that. Be mindful that timing is important. Your partner may need time to think about their own expectations. Let your partner choose a time to talk which will free them from distractions such as a stressful work deadline or something that they are watching on TV. Some couples find it useful to set time aside for a date or plan to talk after the children are asleep to limit the interruptions.

Once you have set the stage for conversation, it is important that both individuals have the opportunity to share their expectations and to be heard by their partner. Even after years of wedded bliss, it is possible that one or both of you have new expectations. Life transitions often spark the need to renegotiate holiday expectations. For example, one partner might have been perfectly content spending the holidays with in-laws but now desires new traditions or the incorporation of their family traditions with the addition of young children into the family.  Expectations might also need to change to accommodate our adolescent’s school activities or blending of families as our children become adults. Listening and acting on your partner’s expectations offers opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to your partner.

Once you have agreed on a plan, honor your partner and your relationship by sticking to the plan. Recognizing that change is not always welcomed by others, be prepared as a team to address the bids from extended family to return to old traditions. Avoid the pitfall of letting your partner take the heat from your family for a decision you made as a couple

There is always the possibility that a conversation about holiday expectations could be met with resistance. However, turning toward each other, in preparation for the holidays, you might be able to keep mismatched expectations from hurting your relationship. Further, these conversations can help you embrace and celebrate each other’s differences. Approach your conversation with the hope that you might just get the best of “yours, mine and ours.”


Carryn Lund