Expectations and Relationships

Many problems occur during the holidays because our expectations are unrealistic. One expectation is that it should be a magical time (and often it can be). Also we hope that everyone will act “their best” because of the holiday. We hope that everyone will forgive and forget. We expect our family to look like the ones on the Hallmark commercials; the media and advertisements can contribute to our unrealistic expectations.

A healthier approach is to be more realistic. Trying to accept that you can only control yourself and not others will help as well. If you have family conflicts, do not expect them to go away because it is the holiday season. Sometimes conflicts can escalate at this time of year so “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”

We suggest focusing on what makes the holiday meaningful for you. Also making plans to prevent over-extending, over-eating, over-spending and over-drinking will make for a healthier experience. If you are stressed, then this can lead to more relationship conflicts.

One strategy is to limit the time you plan to spend with someone who you are having difficulty with and let them know ahead of time you have a limit.  One example: You have a friend who drinks too much and criticizes you. Let her know you will be by to visit with her for one hour during the time she is less likely to be drinking. Or plan to be with her at an event where she has limited access to alcohol.

Families and friends have expectations too and can make unrealistic demands on you at this time of year, especially for students who have been away from home; everyone wants to see you. The same is true for someone who has recently gotten married or had a baby; everyone wants to see you too. Setting boundaries with loved ones is difficult so you may want to start practicing with that as early as possible.

Some suggestions: You can send an email or make a phone call to let them know ahead of time that you have a limited amount of time for visits. You can also make arrangements to see them at a time later in the year.

The pressure to see everyone on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day is part of what causes us to over-extend. Particularly if you are a newly wed or have a new baby, you can communicate that you are starting your own family rituals for these holidays and want to stay at home. It might also be a financial issue, as travel can be expensive, or it will cost you to take time away from your job. It is okay to let your family know these are concerns you have and then invite them to help with ideas about expanding the meaning of being together to other days of the year.

Be careful of buying expensive or excessive gifts to try to make up for conflicts in relationships or the guilt you might feel for not being with certain people.  This can lead to continued stress after the holidays when you have to pay those credit card bills! Some alternative ideas: restore old family photos and give those to family members. You could also suggest to family members that this year you place a limit on gift costs or challenge everyone to make gifts.

Eat, Drink and Be …  Stressed?

In addition to gifts, the holidays are a time for celebrating with food and drink. Many people will expect you to eat with them or may give you food and alcohol for gifts. If you are also feeling stressed at this time, you might use food and alcohol as a way to try to manage stress. Making a list of other ways to manage stress and keeping that with you can be helpful.

Many times families get stuck in rituals that no longer work. If preparing big meals sends your sister-in-law into major panic, suggest a change in the eating ritual to pot luck or going out together. In other words, identify what is making the family get-togethers stressful and suggest creative alternatives.  Families change because of aging parents, divorces, marriages, and births. Rituals need to change with them. Again, be thinking and communicating about this early so that new plans can be made. 

Some suggestions: You can volunteer for a needy cause together. You can choose to spend less money on food, alcohol and presents and donate to a charity instead. Some families pool their money and take a trip together for the holidays so someone else does the cooking and cleaning. There are a lot of options.

If you are invited to parties, you can eat something healthy before you go which will help limit how much party food and alcohol you consume. Focus on eating more protein and less carbohydrates and sweets. You can also host your own party where you can control the types of food and quantity of alcohol in the home.

Some tips to remember:

  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach
  • Drinking three or more average size drinks in an hour is toxic to the body (and will leave you with a hangover!)
  • Drink plenty of water so you do not get dehydrated
  • If you are taking medications, check with your doctor or pharmacist about the interaction of alcohol with your medication

It is easy to forget your workout routines and other sources of good stress management during the holidays. Again try to plan for this ahead by not over-scheduling your days. If, for example, you have a regular yoga routine, be sure to include it in your holiday planning. You can invite friends and family to join you. Another suggestion is to plan a family walk before or after a big meal or some kind of activity. Especially if young children are involved, games can be a fun way to be together. There are lots of gift certificates for activities that could be stress-reducing for you and your family and help you with gift ideas!


Holidays can also be a sad time because of remembering family and friends who are not here to celebrate. It is difficult when loved ones are missing from the holiday celebrations. By acknowledging this rather than denying it, you can plan for how to best deal with your grief.

It is also helpful to acknowledge that everyone deals with grief differently. You may want to keep a tradition alive that was important to the deceased person but your mother finds that too painful and she does not want to participate. It can be hard to be accepting of what others feel and also get your own needs met. Some families might find that they need help from an outside person, like a spiritual leader, family friend, or a counselor to problem-solve. Asking for professional help with grief or for help with managing the holidays can also be a good stress-reducing strategy.

Hopefully you can enjoy this holiday season and find meaningful ways to celebrate with family and friends.  Please call us if we can be of any help with this.

If you need assistance, you may call our office at 434-982-2252, Monday-Thursday, 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. to schedule an appointment with one of our clinicians.

Best wishes for Healthy Holidays from the Women’s Center Counseling Services!