Michele O'Mara

Coping with Holiday Stress

Filed By Michele O'Mara | December 12, 2008 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: coping skills, gay advice, gay holidays, lesbian, stress

Managing Expectations

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?

Managing Losses

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.

Reality Check

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


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Be who you are. Stay in or come out. It depends on what you are comfortable with

Great points, Michelle. I'll observe, though, that if a couple becomes parents, it seems that other relatives are more likely to realize they'll be spending the holidays together.

An additional worry for LGBT parents, however, is that relatives may get their children gifts that marginalize LGBT families. Not that every gift we get has to be LGBT specific, nor that every book has to have an LGBT character--but many kids' books seem to convey the assumption that the world is heterosexual. There's also the gender-typing of kids' toys, which many LGBT parents (and plenty of straight ones) try to avoid, at least in its worst excesses. Everyone seems to have an aunt, though, who gets Barbies for the girls and monster trucks for the boys. (And yes, some kids prefer it that way; what I object to is when relatives assume without knowing, or refuse to get the opposite if that is the child's preference.)

Paige would have killed us if we didn't get her all the Barbie stuff. I would have killed my mom too if she hadn't gotten it all for me. :) I think that was why Paige loved playing Barbie so much - I played too. LOL

Great tips, Michele.

Thank you for this great article.

This year, more than ever, I think people are feeling stress due to financial strain.

In my home, we've decided not to give gifts this year. When I first notified our friends and family that we are going to be frugle this year, I expected some to not understand. However, I found that our decision has given many of our friends and family relief, as they no longer feel obligated to give gifts to us.

There are many other options and ways to celebrate the holidays, and with very hard times upon us, I've often suggested volunteering as a way to celebrate this year. Helping to serve meals at local shelters is a great way to get friends and family together and recognize the wonder of the holidays without gifts.

Best Wishes,
Jill R.
Owner & Creator of OurStressfulLives.com

MadCity Renee | December 14, 2008 10:22 AM

Ya, my family is not giving gifts this year either. It's good to know my family is focusing on what's important. And what's importnt is family and life. This year is a bittersweet Christmas for our family as my former spouse and always close friend died of cancer in May. It's makes me wonder how many other families are going through the same thing this year?
Many of my family members are also feeling the financial pinch this year and some of us have lost our jobs or had our hours reduced. But we still have each other and that's what we all need to remember, some people have no one. Some people have lost theirs homes and their jobs.

For me, this time of the year isn't about getting things or buying things, it's about being with people you care about. And eating too, don't forget the eating! My Dad makes the best saurkraut ever!! And the cookies-I'm charging my scale with perjury in January I just know it!! It lies like my bank account...

So, whether your with your bio-family of a family of your choosing, remember how lucky you are to have made it through another year, and a particularily crappy one at that.

And hey, we get a new president in January!
If that doesn't make you smile, then take your meds, cause better days are coming!!

Happy Holidays to you all!!

Renee Simousek

I'm waiting for those ten tips!