Staying Married through the Holidays: Mission...Possible?

They say "you can't go home again" but this coming holiday season, millions of us will defy both conventional wisdom and our better judgment and try anyway. For married couples, there are few more death-defying feats than negotiating each other's family-of-origin holiday traditions, cranky cousins, and unfamiliar foodstuffs. For some couples, the whole thing makes the idea of getting divorced by Labor Day and remarrying after New Year's Day—every year—seem oddly appealing.

Well, before you put your attorneys on retainer, here is a list of things you and your soul mate can do to survive, and maybe even thrive, during this holiday season.

1) Remember who your family is.

The day before we got married, both of our families went certifiably insane. There was more drama than a bad telenovela. (Is there such a thing as a "good telenovela"?) Our pastor rode with us to the rehearsal dinner and in response to our complaining about our respective kin said, possibly, the wisest thing anyone has ever told us, "Just remember, after the wedding, they aren't your family anymore. You are."

Did he mean that we would never have to see those crazy people again? We wish, but no. What he meant was, once you're married, your husband or your wife and your kids are the only family that matter. You need to remember that around the holidays. One of the biggest dangers in returning to your family-of-origin is that you can slip into old roles where you think of yourself more as son, or daughter, or little sister, or big brother instead of husband or wife. Remember who you really are, and you who came with, and who's taking you home later. Being mindful that you are married first will help you avoid turning on each other because you've turned into some strange being your spouse neither knows nor likes.

2) Have a plan.

A successful foray into enemy territory always begins with a plan. Before you see your family over the holidays, discuss a plan. How will you handle the problems that have arisen in the past if they come up again? As we remind listeners to our radio program, "Never underestimate the human capacity for being surprised by the same damn thing happening over and over again." If your mother-in-law commented on your weight, or ignored you, or inappropriately disciplined your children or any other thing the last time you visited, and the time before that, and the time before that, chances are—wait for it—it is going to happen again the next time you get together! We know, it's unbelievable, but still.

Rather than this being a depressing reality, anticipating these problems gives you power. It enables you to come up with a plan and have it at the ready if you need it. When Greg's parents consistently "forgot" to put the car seat in their car before taking our children on outings when they babysat, anticipating this problem and planning ahead enabled us to put the car seat in their car ourselves before even walking through the front door to drop the kids off. When Lisa's mother's negativity began to suck all the life out of Greg, anticipating this enabled us to come up with a plan that involved both slightly shorter visits and a list of ways to either redirect the conversation or leave the room for a few minutes without drawing too much attention to it.

The most important thing to remember about surviving the holidays is that you and your spouse are on the same team. Anticipate the problems each other may experience and demonstrate your desire to take care of each other by developing practical solutions before you are under the holiday gun.

3) Don't catastrophize.

We know. You have a conflicted relationship with your parents. We get it.

Oh, and you aren't crazy about your in-laws. Check.

Still, not every offense is worth dying on the hill over. If you respond to every comment, fight back against every offense, and harbor resentment for every boundary violation, you'll only be hurting yourself and undermining your credibility when it comes time to address something that actually matters.

Before you open your mouth to complain or fight back, ask yourself these questions. "Does the offense I'm about to respond to potentially harm me in some real and lasting way or is this just a petty, momentary irritation?" If it is more of an irritation, then take a deep breath and let it go. It may feel like it's killing you, but let it go. You'll only wear yourself out.

Second, ask this question. "Does saying anything do any good?" If the offense won't change if you complain about it, it probably doesn't make much sense to bring it up again. That said, if the offense is serious you have to address it. You do this not by complaining, but by making a plan to solve the problem and addressing the issue yourself (as in the examples in #2 above.) Notice we didn't ask Greg's parents' permission to put the car seat in their car. We just did it. We told them about it once, and when they ignored us, we handled the problem ourselves by setting and enforcing a boundary. Same with the example with Lisa's mom. Sometimes the best way to address an offense is not to say anything, but to do something to diffuse or neutralize the offense in the first place.