How to Navigate Family Holiday Traditions with a New Partner

December 16, 2021

Your first holiday season together! A time to reflect on the past year, eat delicious food, surprise loved ones with gifts… And spend four hours driving back and forth across town?

Logistics are the least fun part of the holidays, and yours just snowballed (pun intended) with the combination of two – or more – family celebrations. The first year especially is a testing ground for how this “new way” looks. The subjects: you, your spouse, and your family. The end goal? Happiness. Hopefully.

Like in a laboratory, not all tests will work. You’ll have to try one plan this year and likely make changes the next. Despite that, you can still approach your first holiday season together with a little wisdom gleaned from couples and marriage counselors who have been here before. 

Accept Change

For the last 20 years, you’ve gone to your aunt’s house during Hanukkah and eaten her homemade latkes. But this year, your partner’s sister just had a baby, and that week is the first opportunity you’ll get to meet the little niblet. You might have to miss the latkes this year. Or have your brother take some to-go for you.

Can you accept it? Can you go with the flow? Once you’re open to the idea, it’s time to hone your priorities.

Figure Out Your Priorities

Not all holidays are created equal to different families. Which can actually be a real saving grace.

Make some time to sit down and talk this out with your partner. You might discover that your wife’s family pulls out all the stops at Thanksgiving in exchange for a chill Christmas – whereas your family doesn’t care as much about Thanksgiving, but your mom would cry if you didn’t help her make eggnog on Christmas Eve.

Once you’ve come up with a game plan together, it’s time to let everyone else know.

Be Honest With Your Families About What You Need

You may want to start the “holiday sharing” conversation months ahead of time in order to minimize stress. If there’s going to be family drama, holiday pressures will only make it worse.

For relatives who love last-minute plans, you might need to “train” them. Remind them that now you’re splitting holidays with your partner’s family. 

If they spring a spontaneous invitation, don’t bend over backwards to accommodate. “We already planned to spend New Year’s with Mara’s family. We’ll miss you! We love you!”

Speaking of bending over backwards – some newly married folks will spend 80% of their first Thanksgiving or Christmas on the road, trying to see all the families in one day. 

Perhaps if you only want a short amount of time with certain parts of the family, it’s a winning strategy. However, if driving across town several times in a day leaves you feeling ragged, you don’t have to do it.

Instead, you can lead with requests that will make your life easier. Are families willing to carry out the same traditions on different dates? If it makes no difference, and both your folks get to see you, you just struck a win-win situation! Don’t be shy. It’s worth checking.

Create New Traditions

Save some time and energy for what you want to do, too. Forming new traditions is part of the beauty, privilege, and fun of a new marriage or long-term partnership.

Talk to your partner about what’s meaningful to each of you. Cooking together? An ornament to commemorate a big moment of each family member’s year? You can use the holidays each year to remind yourselves.

This becomes even more relevant if you have children. What do you want your new family’s Christmas morning tradition to be? Employ and enjoy your clean slate!

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How to Weather Big Life Transitions With Your Partner

November 30, 2021

Major life transitions are like a powerful gust of wind. They can throw off even the strongest of relationships. 

While you might retreat from friends during messy or chaotic times, a partner often witnesses it all. And, especially if you live together, you can’t totally stop making requests for time, attention, and energy. After all, somebody has to take out the garbage on Thursday nights.

Fortunately, you just gained a valuable tool to weather life transitions with your spouse or long-term partner: awareness.

What Do “Life Transitions” Look Like?

Couples hit the stickiest rut when they work backwards from the midst of a transition. In other words, you find yourself snapping at each other. You’re grumpy. Low energy. Perhaps even wondering if your relationship has run its course.

And suddenly you realize. “Ohhh! This is because we just….”

  • Changed jobs
  • Watched the last kid move out
  • Retired
  • Lost a loved one
  • Moved to a new city
  • Started house renovations
  • Had a significant income adjustment
  • Embraced a gender/orientation change
  • And so on.

You can see how specific these can become. As many transitions exist as there are walks of life.

Without awareness that you’re undergoing one, you might get stuck in a feedback loop of stressed reactivity, pulling away from more and more prickly versions of each other. 

Instead, if you’re proactive, you can give each other extra space and tenderness to soften the ride. And you’ll be more capable of using the kind relationship tactics below.

Ready to hear them? Let’s go!

Make Time to Communicate

You may assume you’re already communicating. After all, you talk to your partner every day. But asking if they remembered to tell the contractor about the slate tile doesn’t count. 

Take a stand for the health of your relationship by taking time to sit down and check in with each other. Try your best to keep these uninterrupted, even if they only last for 15-30 minutes.

During the check-in, approach your partner with curiosity. Our brain likes to get into grooves for efficiency’s sake -- especially in tense times. Instead, make an effort to see your partner for who they are in this moment.

Use the powerful communication tool of open-ended questions/statements:

  • What emotions are coming up for you since this change started?
  • Tell me about what feels challenging right now.
  • What would make things easier for you?
  • What do you need from me the most?

If you can manage it, add something to sweeten the deal. Split a piece of pie. Share a glass of wine. Cuddle up under a family quilt. A little warm fuzziness goes a long way to repair relationship strain.

Practice Grace

Speaking of ruts, a grudge is one of the deepest out there. You and your partner might make some missteps while you figure out a new way of living.

For small ones -- a sharp tone, jumping to conclusions -- make a habit of apologizing quickly. And forgive even faster to oil the wheels to peace. Nobody’s perfect. 

For larger mistakes, give each other compassionate space to cool off. Tell your partner that you will talk it out at a set time, and follow through on that discussion for each other’s sake. This will help you both feel secure, because you remain on the same team even during confrontation.

Look for Opportunities to Love More Throughout Life Transitions

Beyond damage control, cultivate extra signs of affection that help you and your partner feel close. Small gestures work especially well in this context. 

Anticipate needs. For example, wake up 10 minutes early to have coffee ready for your partner. Replace their pair of everyday shoes that have worn down. Bring a snack in the car when you pick them up from the airport.

Express words of love. Maybe you can’t solve your partner’s discomfort in their new career field. But you can tell them how great that shirt looks on their way out.

Connect through simple fun. Start a game of online Scrabble that you two can play throughout the day. Ping each other with silly animal videos. Play hide ‘n’ seek at the garden center.

Together, with caring and appreciation, you can get through these times together.

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The Surprising Benefits of Teletherapy

June 1, 2021

Would you have tried teletherapy before 2020? The answer, for most, would probably be “No.”

2020 forced us to adapt and give it a try, though. 

What did we gain from this year-plus-long experiment? A bunch of data showing that teletherapy actually works!

We’ve even discovered that teletherapy offers certain advantages that in-person meetings can’t. If you’re still on the fence, read on to discover the unexpected but welcome benefits of teletherapy.

Therapy in Action

Normally, in-person sessions happen in the “bubble” of the psychologist’s office. 

You sit in a clean, uncluttered room on a rattan sofa, surrounded by peaceful music and perhaps a little bubbling fountain. In that almost-heavenly space, you try to describe your chaotic life in words.

Teletherapy happens in the environment where you likely encounter the chaos. And while that might sound difficult or annoying — it certainly can be — it’s also an amazing opportunity to confront these challenges head-on.

Good-bye, Commute

Do you sometimes dilly-dally before a session and arrive late? Have you ever taken on extra work at the end of the day, knowing it means you’ll have to skip an appointment?

Sometimes we make honest miscalculations and miss therapy because of them. But other times… we run these interferences as a defense mechanism. 

Maybe the truth is that you were tired that week, and you didn’t really want to expend emotional energy in session. That’s understandable. Any forthright counselor will tell you that therapy is hard work — but it also comes with great rewards. 

For teletherapy, all that you need is a private enough space, a computer/tablet/phone, and wifi. It eliminates the commute, helping to alleviate both physical and mood obstacles.

Unexpected traffic won’t stop you from attending. And if an emotional block tries to convince you, well, you just lost an excuse. Instead of sitting in a car or public transit, you could take some extra self-care time to restore your energy.

Freedom from Childcare

This benefit goes out to harried parents and caregivers. You might really need therapy, especially since relationships often shift dramatically after children are born. But it can be difficult to secure childcare for an hour or two on weekday afternoons or evenings.

There’s no need to hire a sitter for teletherapy sessions. You can find ways to occupy children for an hour while still giving yourself the privacy you need for a session. 

And even if they do interrupt the session, it’s another one of those golden, real-life practice opportunities. A resourceful therapist will embrace the distraction as a learning experience. 

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A Note on the Lack of Commute

It’s totally normal to feel a little spacey, quiet, or tired right after therapy. Your brain is likely undergoing “passive processing,” digesting all the stirred-up emotions, thoughts, and wisdom from the conversation.

Commutes used to be the perfect time to let this process happen. Without that buffer, we recommend you build in purposeful pre-appointment and post-appointment downtime.

Schedule 20-30 minutes to go for a walk, make a meal, or just sit. It will optimize gains from your session, and it will help you avoid possible negative consequences from neglecting this need. If you have children around, it’s the perfect nap time or a chance to sit and cuddle with them.

Without a pre-session commute to mentally prepare, it’s okay to take 5-10 minutes at home to do that. Do things that help you feel centered. That could mean writing down a few goals for that session, stretching your body, or simply doing nothing. 

Some clients benefit from breathing exercises, too. Set a timer for a few minutes, then bring a gentle focus to the physical sensation of your inhale and exhale. 

If you need to calm down from a hectic day, count four seconds for your inhale and six seconds for your exhale. Try to keep extending the length. Just don’t get light-headed! 

Keep the exercise mellow, so you’ll be energized for the work ahead.

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Walt Ciecko, Ph. D., BCB
605 Wynyard Rd
Wilmington, DE 19803