Holidays are an issue of supply and demand and I'm not talking about shopping on black Friday. There's only one of you. Therefore, in order to manage the stress of the holidays you are responsible for managing the expectations (or demands) placed upon you from every direction. Usually our families have expectations of us, our partners have expectations, our friends sometimes have expectations, and so too do our employers. Then of course there are all of the expectations that YOU have for the holidays. The greater the expectations, the greater potential for stress.
Will you be coming alone, or with someone? Are you dating anyone? Plans for marriage any time soon? How long are you staying? Are you wearing that? Have you said hello to your cousin Fred? Pass me the turkey - and are you still a vegetarian? Now why did you say you aren't dating anyone?
Loss can be described as anything that is different than we hoped it would be. Because of the enormous cultural pressure to have a good time during the holidays, to celebrate and be with friends, family and loved ones, the potential for loss is even greater. Remember, loss is anything that is different than we hoped it would be. How different are your holidays than you wish for them to be? What can you do to improve the odds that your holidays will mirror your wishes?
A universal challenge for all people during the holidays is the painful reminder of all those not present during family celebrations. Separation from a parent, sibling, child, partner, friend or other loved one may occur through death, long-distance relationships, divorce, separation, illness, rejection, custody battles, or other barriers. The emphasis on being with family during the holidays exaggerates our awareness of all those not currently present in your life.
As the holidays draw near we slowly become much more aware of the exact nature of our connections with friends and family. In some cases we eagerly anticipate reconnecting with family and friends whom we don't see enough of during the year. In other cases, we find ourselves planning and scheming ways to avoid certain gatherings and the pain of seeing family and friends by whom we have felt hurt.
All of the unfinished business in our relationships has a way of slowly revealing itself during the holiday season. Whether we experience the guilt of not spending more time with those we love, grieving the death of a loved one who we won't be seeing, or dreading the pain of having to spend more time than we want with those to whom we feel obligated - holidays will serve as an unrelenting reminder of exactly what is going on with our relationships, for better or for worse.
How we respond to these annual celebrations reveals our own priorities, values and feelings about our various relationships. For gay men and women in relationships, struggles often begin to brew around this time of the year as each partner is deciding how to celebrate the holidays - seeking, or avoiding, time spent with our family of-origin. You may find yourself juggling the various expectations of loved ones, and deciding whose feelings will take priority this holiday season. These struggles, of course, are not unique to gay couples. Heterosexuals must negotiate these details too!
What is different, though, is that when heterosexual couples marry, the family-of-origin typically expects the new couple to celebrate holidays together. That, after all, is what couples do, right? The struggle is not about whether they will spend the holidays together; it's more likely about WHERE and with whom the two of them will spend the holidays. It dawns on me that I've never heard a married couple fretting about where they'll sleep (different or same bedrooms) when they visit family.
Nope, I can't recall a single incident of hearing about a married woman saying to her husband, "Honey, I wonder if we should sleep in separate rooms so my parents won't be uncomfortable." Have you? Same-sex couples often negotiate by saying "you go to your family's celebration, and I'll go to mine." The real message being, "you make your family happy and comfortable and I'll make mine happy and comfortable," or "time with my family is more important than time with you" or possibly, "I can tolerate disappointing you more than I can tolerate disappointing them."
Christmas in the Closet
Another common issue for gays and lesbians relates to managing the secrecy of their relationships - for those who are not "out" to their families at all. You can almost guarantee a distant holiday (even if celebrated together as a "friend" who has come home with you) if you spend it with your family. Inevitably Aunt Betty is bound to ask you if you are seeing anyone, and grandma is going to keep scratching her head, wondering out loud why such a great catch like you isn't married yet. Whether you are single or partnered, it's all the same when you celebrate the holidays with family who don't know your sexual orientation.
For couples, the greatest conflicts tend to surface when one partner is less "out" than the other, and when this happens; the closeted partner tends to pander to the wants of his or her family in order to maintain his or her heterosexual cover. (Not surprisingly, there does seems to be a high correlation between pleasing parents and being closeted - a combination that makes for very stressful holidays).
In the end, holidays seem to bring right to the surface the truest nature of our dearest, and not so dearest, relationships. If you are not prepared to have a gay ole time this holiday season, ask yourself what part of your discomfort is within your control and what part is not. If you are ready to start changing things, then make one step this year to do things differently - and over time, your holidays may just begin to look a little bit more like you wish they did!
Next week, look for Ten Tips for Managing Holiday Stress