How to Talk to Your Partner About Where to Spend the Holidays

Deciding whose family to see can be difficult even in normal years, and if you disagree about COVID risks, it's harder than ever.
How to Talk to Your Partner if You Disagree on Where to Spend the Holidays
Illustration by Cathryn Virginia
"Happy" "Holidays" 2020 is a series about feeling connected and vaguely festive during the coronavirus pandemic.

People in relationships are facing extra pressure as they make their holiday plans, given that the COVID-19 pandemic is putting new limits on our  travel options, enthusiasm about group events, and emotional fortitude. 

Say you want to go home and see your family, but your partner doesn’t feel safe doing that. Or maybe your partner really wants to host their family for the holidays in your shared home, but you don’t think that’s a smart idea. When every individual person has different feelings about risk management and how to be safe, it might mean that you and your partner are at odds about whether you should travel to see people you love this winter or have them to your place—and, if so, whose family you'll see, adding the stress of COVID to what can be sometimes an already difficult conversation.


These are major issues, and when we disagree on them with our partners, it can feel like no one gets what they want. But before anyone has a meltdown that includes yelling, "I know this is REALLY about you not liking my sister’s husband!", gets on a plane against their will, is stuck at home by themselves, or has to deal with anti-mask houseguests who think it's fine to cough all over your kitchen table—all of which could easily lead to even more fighting, or worse—there are steps you can take to try to better understand each other and potentially find compromises. Here's how to talk through it and figure out the holidays with your partner once and for all.

Choose a good time to talk through this calmly, and do it well in advance of having to go anywhere or make plans with anyone but your partner.

Set aside time to talk through your and your partners' feelings when you won’t be interrupted. Start the conversation with open-ended questions that can’t be answered with one word, said Kari Rusnak, a relationship therapist based in Mississippi. “Instead of, ‘Do you want to see your parents this year?’ ask, ‘Tell me how you feel about traveling for the holidays,’” Rusnak said. 

Try a nonjudgmental approach. This pandemic is new territory for everyone, and stress makes us more emotionally and mentally rigid. Of course, being nonjudgmental doesn’t mean to pull up the anchor on all your values and let your partner run roughshod over you, but avoid starting in attack mode right out of the gate. Instead of winning the conversation, the goal is to listen to your partner to understand where their feelings come from and why. You might assume you already know what they’ll say, especially if you’ve had this conversation before, but listen all the same. 


“We have to really listen to one another with curiosity, and don’t assume that we know what one another is feeling or needs,” said Jenny TeGrotenhuis, a relationship therapist and certified clinical trauma professional in Washington. On the surface, you may disagree with each other, but there’s likely a common thread of emotions thrumming underneath that both of you could recognize: fear, loneliness, isolation, depression, anxiety. Seeing and connecting on those foundational feelings can help remind you you’re on the same team.

“If someone in a couple doesn’t have the resilience to get through the holidays without some kind of get-together, [those feelings] have to be factored in—but look at what that costs,” TeGrotenhuis said.

Get realistic about the details. If your partner feels they can’t make it without seeing their elderly parents for the holidays, talk through what it would actually take to make that happen: Seeing their parents might make your partner feel better, but what risk does it pose to their parents, and everyone else your partner encounters on their travel? Is there a way they could fulfill their needs around feeling close to family that doesn’t include physically being present?

Couples don’t always have to agree or do everything together, but in this case, see if you can find common ground in respecting each other's values, even if they differ.

Apply the same open and exploratory mindset to talking through safety measures as you map out potential compromises.

If one partner feels inflexible on needing to see their parents for Thanksgiving, and the other person feels inflexible about not being exposed to COVID-19, potential compromises could include the traveling partner agreeing to a strict 14-day quarantine upon their return, or inviting the family to you to socially distance with masks and windows open. “Try to think of anything that will work for you, no matter how small that might be,” Rusnak said. 

Prioritizing the health of the people most vulnerable to COVID-19, such as elderly and immunocompromised people is a solid foundation on which to base your decision-making and compromises about potential travel plans. Talk through the potential travel and visitation: How you’ll get there; the size of the group; the COVID-19 activity in the location of the gathering; whether you’ll gather indoors; the quarantine habits of other attendees prior to and during the gathering; and how long you’ll all be together. If the family members in question are elderly or immunocompromised, it may be best to wait. 


If you're worried about traveling with people on planes, is it possible to drive, even if it takes extra time, and to limit the amount of stops you make by creating a strict itinerary beforehand? If your partner is concerned that your family will be lax about masks, can you have a conversation with your family about it beforehand and let your family know that your presence depends on everyone masking up? All the while, keep everyone you’ll encounter in mind, not just the family you plan to see: Even after you're tested, how will you be exposed to others as you go, or how will others potentially be exposed on their way to you?

Come up with alternative ways to address the feelings that come up around family and the holidays.

You may decide that prioritizing the most vulnerable means sacrificing time with them to keep them safe. It could also mean coming up with creative solutions for connecting with loved ones without being in the same room. 

“Intent matters a lot,” TeGrotenhuis said. “If we can’t give them our physical presence, can we give them a little bit more of our heart.” As a couple, you can brainstorm ways you could be present for your families without being physically present, like recipe sharing, caroling outside homes, taking extra time each day to talk with family members, or sending thoughtful gifts and care packages. 

Should you choose to skip the gatherings this year, if you’re comfortable with it, it’s OK to express to your family that you’re just as disappointed as they are about not getting together, either alone or as a team with your partner. “Whoever is missing us, they’re going to have their own loneliness," said TeGrotenhuis. “They might be surprised if (you) crack open that door a little bit. There might be opportunity for deeper connection and intimacy."


Just don't blame your partner to your family—you can say that it's a decision you made together, but treating them like the person who's at fault isn't fair to them. 

If you can’t agree, find ways to respect each other's choices as well as your own.

If your partner needs to be with their family, and you can’t bend on travel, perhaps they can go on this trip alone. If you can understand that they need to go, they’ll need to be flexible on their return to account for your needs, like agreeing to a quarantine upon their return, even if they don’t personally believe it’s necessary.

If one of you wants to travel to see family but the other absolutely can’t be alone for the holidays, see if one partner could make the trip before or after the official holiday season. 

If you do spend the holidays apart, come up with a plan together to stay in touch. Send a care package, schedule a set call time for each day, or send them flowers or a meal. Whatever it is, let them know they’re safely in your heart, even if you’re apart. 

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