Expectations and Relationships

Our vision for the holiday season may be one of warmth, loving relationships and meaningful rituals: “the most wonderful time of the year.”

Sometimes, we are able to have these positive experiences, yet often we feel let down and hurt when our hopes and expectations are not met. We hope that everyone will be “on their best behavior” because of the holiday.

A healthier approach is to be more realistic about what may happen instead. Trying to accept that you can only control yourself and not others will help. We suggest focusing on what makes the holiday meaningful for you. Noticing and creating little moments that feel special can provide stability and meaning. Also, making plans to prevent over-extending yourself, over-eating, over-spending and over-drinking will make for a healthier experience.

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 be prepared.

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

If you find you cannot get out of spending a lot of time with difficult family members or friends, be sure to have a support person who can be with you or can be on stand-by for you to call or visit afterwards to discuss your experience. Having just one person who cares about you and knows your perspective can be very helpful.

Families have expectations 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 that as early as possible. 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. One strategy is to schedule a weekend in January and say something like “I look forward to celebrating the New Year with you then at a time when I am less stressed and can really enjoy our visit.”

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. Try to expand the meaning of being together to other times of the year.

Be careful of buying expensive or excessive gifts to try to make up for conflicts in relationships. 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?

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 mother into major panic, suggest a change in the eating ritual to potluck 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 families volunteer for a needy cause together and spend less money on food, alcohol and presents, choosing to donate to the charity instead. Some families pool their money and take a trip together at this time of year 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 also 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 an activity like bowling or dancing. There are lots of gift certificates for activities that could help you manage stress 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. 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. If your grandmother is ill and in a nursing home, you may be feeling that the family needs to send her presents and visit on Christmas Day. Your parents may want to have her acknowledged quietly at a religious service in prayer and resist the sending gifts idea.

It is hard to be accepting of what others feel and also get your own needs met. Especially if your missing family member was an important part of the holiday rituals, it can be hard to accept the changes that come with their absence. Some families might find difficulties like this need help from an outside person, like a spiritual leader, family friend, or a counselor to facilitate communication. Asking for professional help with grief or for help with managing the holidays can also be a good stress-reducing strategy.

We hope you 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.

Also, see our Tips for Self Care Over the Holiday Break.

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