Editor’s note: For many of us, the holiday season means more invitations, more events and more togetherness. While all of the above can be fun, it also requires a healthy dose of boundaries. We’re sharing today’s post, originally published in November 2021, to help us set our own holiday boundaries this season.
During my first few years of marriage, the phrase good holiday felt like a bit of a misnomer. You see, I didn’t think this time of year was very cheerful with the amount of work that went into mapping out how we would uphold each family’s traditions (and expectations) while trying to create our own memories. And full disclosure, there were a few years where I thought if we ever divorced it would be because we couldn’t figure out a way to see both sets of grandparents. he Christmas Eve and reach the midnight service in another state and still get home in time to wake up in our own bed. I really did.
But after fifteen years of juggling two sets of extended families spread across the US, I think we’ve finally hit our stride when it comes to vacation boundaries. If you’re interested in reading about boundary setting, it’s likely that you’ve had some problems yourself in the past. So I thought I’d share a few things we’ve learned – and all of this is assuming that home and family are safe for you – in case you wish you had more ways to speak up for yourself and what you wish to do.
6 ways to set better vacation boundaries
1. Figure out what you want your holiday to look.
It seems simple, right? But putting this initial sketch down is where you need to start. If you’re going to be able to hold the line, you need to know where it is. Would you like to host a meal at some point? Hate hosting? Do you have a meaningful tradition that you want to incorporate into the festivities? A food Is it important to you? Write it all down. Compromise is the ultimate name of this game, so it is important to think long and hard about what is essential and what is negotiable. (Here’s one of my lines: I want to be home on Christmas morning and have the first breakfast together while we open presents. Everyone can spend the night with us, but I really don’t want to sleep anywhere else.)
Compromise is the ultimate name of this game, so it is important to think long and hard about what is essential and what is negotiable.
2. Share your list with your partner – and ask what the need.
Talk to your partner…another no-brainer. (This step applies to anyone you would consider your primary vacation companion, whether it’s a partner, a sibling, a parent, or a friend.) But in the midst of conflict is when I usually start to shut down. Don’t be like me. Because a united front is important; it reduces potential confusion (“Well, I talked to Fred and he said…”) and it makes your opinion stronger when you both share and support it.
It’s also just good to know what they need or want to have a comfortable vacation. Do you need a signal for when they need to leave for air? Do you know when it’s time to move the conversation away from a topic that’s stressing them out? Did you remember to bring their childhood wooden ornaments it shall be present before they start opening any presents? Talk about it up front and things will go a lot smoother, I promise.
3. Remember, the early bird gets the worm.
When it comes to setting vacation boundaries, one of the worst things you can do is wait until the last minute to make plans or share your needs and opinions. Letting your mother-in-law know you always run a 5k in downtown Minneapolis on Thanksgiving morning ahead of time gives her enough time to move her timeline without causing too much unnecessary stress. Are you new to gluten free? Tell your sister before she buys for New Year’s dinner. When you speak up for yourself upfront, it’s easier for others to help meet your needs.
4. Level-set expectations and define everything.
When to show up, what to bring, what to wear, when to leave. Lay it all out so there are no misunderstandings. We’ve had this where we had planned to leave at a certain time but hadn’t highlighted and stressed it to one side of the family and it became a huge hurt feelings issue. So while you’re telling your mom you’re going to “have to go early,” tell her exactly when it is so she’s not left high and dry. Because when you don’t sweat the details, you have more energy to take care of yourself, lend a hand to your host or just be present.
When to show up, what to bring, what to wear, when to leave. Lay it all out so there are no misunderstandings.
5. Commit yourself fully.
You’ve negotiated the terms, everyone agrees, and it’s time to show up for your event. Assuming the planning and boundary setting went well, it’s time to fully commit to whatever it is you’re doing. Do you play puzzles by the fire? Decorate cookies? Sledding? Eating a big meal? Put your phone on silent and put it away. Lean into what’s happening around you so everyone feels like they’re getting it all of you. It’s about quality versus quantity with your time.
6. Consider the conversation.
Finally, it seems that setting boundaries around conversation can do a lot for everyone’s stress levels. (Although I’m not saying you should shy away from difficult topics. Just save it for after your meal so people can join in or remove themselves based on their own needs if things tend to get contentious). I like to have a preset list of conversation starters, and usually find the Arts and Culture section of New York Times, scroll through the latest Netflix releases, and brush up on my trivia before heading to a gathering. And another line for friends and relatives who insist on engaging you in conversation: Learn the phrase, “I don’t know enough about it to have an opinion.” And that’s okay.
Kate Smith is a content producer for a beloved retailer in Minnesota, wife to Fred and mother to Samson (7) and Naomi (5). With her allotted 30 seconds of free time each day, Kate likes to make one frozen tom collinsgrab her new romance writer’s phrasebook and pretend she can’t hear her family knocking on the other side of the bathroom door.