The holiday season is already rife with situations of unavoidable small talk. You gotta be your best, most social self at your end-of-year work party, at your significant other’s family dinner, and—especially when your own family is blended—the house where you grew up might not even be safe from cringeworthy communication this time of year.
Maybe your mom brought her new boo to the Christmas family feast for the first time—and she’s a total snooze. And maybe it’s Dad’s girlfriend’s second stint of spending the most wonderful time of the year with your brood, but talking with her still feels forced at best. When you don’t like a parent’s choice in significant other, it’s basically just a rift waiting to happen—and there’s nothing like the holidays to highlight that reality.
But as a grown up, you know that simply not appreciating the personality of your parent’s partner isn’t cause for ruining the holidays. Unless this person is abusive, a narcissist, or a sociopath, you gotta tolerate them—as tough as that may be. “Usually, your parents are the leaders,” says psychotherapist Aimee Barr, LCSW. “But when the parent and their new significant other need to be accommodated and tolerated, it alters the dynamic.” Now, instead of your parent serving as the welcoming committee to your new fling, you’re the one working to keep an open mind and heart.
Still, since you may well just not like this person, experts share the dos and don’ts for dealing.
7 tips for dealing with your parent’s crappy new S.O. over the holidays.
Do: Make an effort with your parent’s partner
Hard as it may be, do your best to share space peacefully with this human (and potentially their family, too). Since you just want the best for your mom or dad, try to see the good in the new addition to the family dinner. To do this, psychotherapist Kathryn Smerling, PhD, says to ask your parent what they like about this other human, and then you can try to focus on those traits. “Or try to focus on what you have on common—even if it’s literally just that you both love your parent,” she says.
Also, be reasonable with yourself about the endgame. After all, this is not someone you’d personally choose to spend time with. “The goal doesn’t even have to be for you to like the S.O. The goal needs to be for you to cohabitate, for you to tolerate each other,” says Barr. And be open-minded about the potential to warm up to each other more down the line. After all, if you don’t live in the same area as your parent, you may only see their partner a few times a year. “Connecting with people doesn’t happen overnight,” Barr says. “It’s okay if it takes a little long,”she says. Remember, time takes time.
Don’t: Let your parent (or their partner) know how you really feel
The overwhelming response I heard from experts about not liking the new S.O.? Tough noogies. “Don’t be a brat,” Dr. Smerling says. “Don’t refuse to go to dinner with this person—it’s childish. Don’t make it obvious that you don’t like them. Sometimes you just have to deal with it.”
If you’re struggling find the strength and patience to do this in practice, consider seeing a therapist who can help you develop coping strategies, she suggests.
Do: Reflect to try and figure out the source of the distaste
It’s possible—probable, even—that the reason you dislike this new person stems from a protective place. “When we love and care about someone we don’t want to see them get hurt,” says therapist Shadeen Francis, LMFT.
While the instinct is valid, Francis recommends asking yourself the following questions to ascertain what the real issue is that you have with this person:
- What is it you don’t like—can you pinpoint it?
- Is it their habits or their values?
- Do they bring out a side of your parent you find annoying or inauthentic?
- Is it how they treat or speak to you, specifically?
Dr. Smerling adds that the following introspective-leaning questions can help you sort the validity of your concerns:
- Does this partner remind you of one of your exes?
- Are there ways this partner is very similar to you?
- Is this the first partner your parent has had since they split or were widowed? If so, maybe you have some feelings about a past traumatic situation to deal with.
Again, a therapist can help you sort your answers to these questions, as can podcasts about mental health, or a journaling habit.
Don’t: schedule one-on-one time with the S.O.
How would you feel if your parent took your partner out to lunch when you know the two of them are hardly besties? Probably somewhere between “uhhh could you not?” and “anxious AF.”
“There is zero need to put coffee with your parent’s S.O. on your to-do list. Usually, it will feel like you’re drilling the partner which is uncool and unfair to your parent and the partner,” says psychotherapist Courtney Glashow, LCSW. The only caveat? If you’re planning something special for your parent, says Dr. Smerling. And even then, she suggests asking your parent’s permission before scheduling the one-on-one time.
Do: activities like bowling or watching movies
This time of year, there are tons of opportunities to sit around and schmooze—you don’t need another. So if you’re not connecting with the partner via good old-fashioned chitchat, sociologist and founder of ESME (Empowering Strong Moms Everywhere) Marika Lindholm, PhD, suggests that you quit forcing it and do something active instead. “If just sitting around and talking is the activity, it might highlight your differences. But going to the movies, playing mini golf, playing board games, bowling, or going to the batting cages can be a fun way to find common ground.”
For a zero-cost option, just stream one of the many made-for-TV holiday movies we’re inundated with this time of year. Even better? “Turn one of these activities into a tradition. Whenever you blend two families, new traditions can create a feeling of togetherness,” says Dr. Lindholm.
Don’t: go home without a plan
This is, quite simply, the best way to handle new family dynamics and relationships within families, says Glashow. “It’s really hard to just walk into a family gathering when there’s a new partner, especially if you haven’t proactively thought about what that’s going to look like.”
Consider how much you want to be around this new person and in what contexts you’ll feel comfortable with them. And, if this is the very first time you’ll be meeting them, what environment that would be best in. “Communicate this info to your parent, and work together to make a plan everyone will be comfortable with,” says Francis.
Just make sure the schedule includes one-on-one time with just the parent (sans S.O.), Dr. Smerling adds. “No matter the kid’s age, it’s important for parents to spend quality time with them.”
Do: create a support system
Remember, you’re your own best advocate, and it’s perfectly reasonable to spend some time away from your fam. “Having friends to vent to and friends who relate to what you’re going through can be a serious savior,” Glashow says. Plus, remember that the holidays are your vacation time, too.
Sometimes a few hours away from the new S.O.—with dessert or a cocktail with your high-school bestie—is all you need in order to be more tolerant.
While we’re on the topic of tough family dynamics, here’s how to help a loved one who seems depressed over the holidays. And here’s how to talk with your parents about their unhealthy habits without being disrespectful.
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