Poly survival guide for the holidays
Kathy Labriola is a counselor, nurse and poly educator
Many people in open relationships approach the winter holiday season with anxiety and trepidation. This season can be extremely stressful and exhausting for everyone, regardless of relationship style, due to the demands of cooking, shopping, traveling to visit relatives or friends (or hosting visiting relatives or friends), extra expenses, time conflicts, and blended families with complex child custody arrangements. Not to mention the unrealistic expectations fueled by the media that picture everyone having blissful and elaborate holiday dinners with perfect, happy families, and spending a lot of time and money on gourmet food, booze, fancy outfits, and gifts.
Poly people face some unique challenges. We are trying to manage all of the usual holiday dilemmas, but with the added stress of trying to include more than one partner in our holiday plans, and to make sure no one feels neglected or disrespected. Many poly people say they never liked the holidays in the first place, and that they don’t have any attachment to Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Solstice, Christmas, Kwanza, or even to partying on New Year’s Eve. But the additional demands of juggling multiple partners and their needs and expectations are so overwhelming that they start to dread the winter holidays as soon as the Halloween candy is polished off. And for people who have only one partner, but that partner has other partners, there is the fear of being alone on a major holiday and feeling less important or demoted.
Don’t panic! With some forethought, discussions, and planning, you can actually enjoy whatever holidays you either choose to celebrate, or feel obliged to participate in because they have meaning or significance for your partners or family members. Here are a few tips that may be helpful in keeping your sanity between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
Tip One: Think through what would be ideal for you!
Many poly people say that are so worried about keeping everyone else happy that they don’t even think about what they want or what would work best for them during the holiday season. They go through contortions trying to give their partners, family members, and their friends whatever they think they want. In the process, they become exhausted and resentful, losing any enjoyment of the holidays, just feeling relieved when they’re over. Often they discover after the fact that they have busted their butts to do everything to please others, only to find that they have spent a lot of time, energy, and money doing things no one actually wanted. Or they have tried their best, but fallen short of pleasing everyone because it was just not humanly possible to be in more than one place at a time, or impossible to do so many things in one day
So start by thinking about what you actually WANT to do for each holiday, and keep your needs and desires in mind when making any plans with family, friends, colleagues, and partners.
For instance, Clarice hated Thanksgiving as it had been the scene of drunken fights between her parents while she was growing up. She was a nurse and could make overtime pay by working on Thanksgiving. She enjoyed spending the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving cooking and having a nice meal with her partner and his teenage daughter, then she worked the day shift on Thanksgiving day and then took her other partner out for a fancy dinner after work.
Jimmie hated Christmas but was willing to spend Christmas Eve with his partner Joseph, having dinner with Joseph’s family and exchanging gifts, and spending the night together. Then he spent Christmas Day having some romantic time alone with his other partner Asa.
Central to the success of this strategy is to think carefully about your needs well in advance, preferably by the beginning of November. This way, you have plenty of time to decide what you want, and then to ask your partners about their desires, find out what family members may have planned, and negotiate with each stake holder so that everyone, including you, gets most of what they want. If you wait until a few days before Thanksgiving to start thinking about holiday plans, you’re likely to fail. By then, your partners and family members may already have made plans or have developed expectations around the holidays that may be difficult to change or modify, and this leaves someone, sometimes everyone, feeling hurt and dissatisfied.
Tip Two: Make time for conversations with each partner (and family member) about their needs, desires, plans, hopes and fears around the upcoming holidays
Preferably at least a month before the holidays start, set up a specific times with each of your partners when you can have a relaxed conversation about their needs and expectations, what is most important to them about the holidays, and how they would like to be included in your plans. It is also wise to communicate with any family members or friends who may expect to see you over the holidays.
Be sure to ask specifically about Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day. Some people attach much more significance to Christmas Eve than to Christmas Day, while for others, Christmas Day is extremely important and they would be crushed to wake up without you on Christmas morning. For Bengkt, his Scandinavian family always celebrated Christmas Eve as the “real” holiday with a huge dinner for the entire extended family and exchanging gifts, while Christmas Day was just a fun day off, when you ate lots of leftovers from the Christmas Eve feast. His partner Eva’s family always spent Christmas Eve madly doing last-minute Christmas shopping and wrapping presents, and staying up till 2:00 AM cleaning the house and cooking for the relatives to arrive on Christmas Day. For her, Christmas Eve was stress and drudgery while Christmas Day involved presents, a huge meal with relatives, and drinking and partying. She was devastated when Bengkt told her he had made plans to spend Christmas Eve with her, but wanted to spend Christmas Day with his other partner. He assumed she would want to spend Christmas Eve with him and his family, and she had assumed he would want to spend Christmas Day with her and her family. By the time he realized his mistake, he had already promised Christmas Day to his other partner and she had organized her entire holiday around those plans.
For pagans and even non-spiritual hippies, the Winter Solstice may be much more important, and a partner may be distraught if you are not available to spend that day or night with them, They may expect you to attend Solstice parties, rituals, and events, both religious and otherwise. And for people who identify as culturally or ethnically Jewish, whether or not they are religious, Hanukkah may be very significant to them personally or may be a very important family or community celebration which they want you to attend.
Listen carefully during these initial discussions of holiday plans. Be clear with each person that you are not able to commit right now, and that you will have another conversation very soon to make solid plans with them. Right now, you are gathering information that will allow you to ascertain how much overlap exists between what everyone wants and what you can realistically deliver. The goal is for each person to have their core needs met, for their most important priorities around the holidays.
Tip Three: Make a list of everything everyone is asking of you during the holidays, identify any conflicts, and think over carefully what compromises may be possible.
Karen’s girlfriend Helen didn’t care about Christmas but loved the Solstice and wanted to go to several events and rituals together on Dec 20, 21, and 22nd. Her other partner Janet wanted her to drive all day with her on Dec 23rd to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with her family. Karen said she “just got lucky,” as she was able to comfortably meet the needs of both partners and of her family.
Most poly people find that their partners have conflicting desires for holiday time. Often, two partners both want you to spend Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, or New Year’s Eve with them. You may have to go back to each one and ask which one is their number one priority, and suggest picking one of those holidays and agreeing to give up another. It is also sometimes possible to divide your time on a given holiday, such as having Christmas morning with one partner and the rest of the day with another, or New Year’s Eve with one partner and New Year’s Day with the other. However, some people feel insulted or abandoned if they spend part of a holiday with you and then leave to be with another partner. They may prefer to forfeit any time with you on that particular holiday, and instead have you dedicate a different holiday completely to them. Jasmine said, “I felt too much like ‘the other woman’ when he had Christmas Eve dinner with me and my family and then rushed off at 9:00 PM to spend the night with his wife and have Christmas morning with her. Next year, I would prefer that he reserve either Christmas or New Year’s for me, and not have to share him time with anyone else that day.”
Tip Four: Clarify expectations about any holiday gift traditions
Many poly people want to exchange gifts with their partners for Hanukkah, Solstice, and/or Christmas, while many others hate the commercialism of these holidays, don’t have the time or money to buy gifts, or just hate shopping. This can create a lot of stress, resentment, and disappointment if you make the wrong assumptions about whether gifts are expected, and if so, what is the appropriate amount of money to spend, and what kind of gift is desired.
Comparisons between what gift was given to one lover and what gift another partner received can compound the drama. If you buy a $10 box of chocolates for one partner and an expensive smart-phone for the other, that may inadvertently send the message that one partner is a lot more important than the other, even if one partner loves chocolate above all else and the other just happened to need their old phone replaced. For instance, Paul bought ruby earrings for his wife for the Solstice, to match the ruby bracelet he had bought her for her birthday earlier in the year. He did not buy a gift for his partner Jeannette because he was treating her to an expensive weekend trip over New Year’s and thought that was a great gift. Unbeknownst to Paul, Jeannette had spent months knitting him an intricate Solstice sweater and was very hurt to be left empty-handed when she gave him the sweater. Beatriz also struck out when she bought both of her girlfriends the same DVD boxed set of “Star Wars” movies, and they were outraged that she was treating them like they were “interchangeable parts.” In her defense, she said, “But they are both total Star Wars geeks, and if I just got it for one of them, the other would be upset about whatever gift I got her!”
Sometimes you just can’t win, in the poly holiday gift “mine field.” But you will increase your chances if you talk to your partners well in advance about your own feelings about gifts, and ask them to clarify their desires and expectations. If you have very different beliefs and needs, try to find a happy medium that will work for everyone. Rena and her partner Barry said “We have too much stuff already and don’t want any gifts,” so they agreed not to give each other gifts But they each had other partners who expressed a desire to exchange gifts. So Rena and Barry agreed to exchange gifts with their other lovers, asking that these gifts be limited to “food, beverages, booze, or weed,” that could be rapidly consumed and would not add to their clutter.
Tip Five: Whatever amount of holiday events and activities you THINK you can do, decide to do LESS than that!
Most poly people have horror stories about holiday plans that looked fine on paper but turned into a nightmare. Perhaps it was that New Year’s Eve where you thought you could go to the beach with one of your lovers and watch the sunset and toast the new year with a bottle of wine, then rush to a bar to meet another lover and a few friends for a couple of drinks, then rush off to a party at 11:00 PM to ring in the New Year with your third lover. Unfortunately, you were so drunk by the time you got to the party that you were barfing in the bathroom until your partner left in disgust, and the hostess finally kicked you out at 3:00 AM. The next morning you noticed several angry texts from the partner you had been with at the beach, calling you a callous dick for abandoning her at 7:00 PM on New Year’s Eve. Apparently you forgot to mention to her that you had plans with your other partners and she believed she would be spending that night with you.
And Linda talked about that unfortunate Christmas Eve where she committed to two events, one with her partner Tim and the other with her husband Daniel. She and Tim drove two hours to his parents’ house for dinner at 4:00 PM with his whole family, including his born-again Christian sister who told Linda during dinner that she was going to hell for being an “adulteress.” She had also agreed to go with Daniel to his family’s Christmas Eve dinner, because they had a family tradition of having dinner at 9:00 PM and then opening presents after dinner. However, two of Tim’s family members got the time wrong and were two hours late, so his mother postponed dinner until they arrived. So even though she left as soon as dinner was over, she was over an hour late getting to Daniel’s event, and his whole family blaming her because dinner wasn’t served until nearly 11:00 PM.
The take-home message is that planning to participate in more than one holiday event with more than one partner on a given day is fraught with peril. You can increase the odds of it working out well by building some “wiggle room” into the plan by making sure there is ample time between events. Despite the best-laid plans, holiday dinners and parties are notorious for starting hours later than advertised, or plans being changed at the last minute, not to mention cars breaking down in the snow or holiday traffic jams slowing everyone down. There are just too many variables (and too many people) that are out of your control, so someone (or many people) will be very unhappy, and you will be sure to be blamed.
Tip Six: Don’t make the holidays into a test, because if you do, your partners will fail that test.
Many poly people make the mistake of seeing the holidays as a test of their partner’s love and commitment, and then are crushed when said partner “fails” that test. Often heard laments are:
“He spent Christmas with her, so that means he doesn’t love me.”
“If I were important to her, she would have taken me home to meet her family over the holidays.”
“Her other lover got Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and I only got Christmas Eve, so she clearly is not prioritizing our relationship.”
“We’ve always spent all the holidays together, but now I’m being forced to share them with someone else, so clearly I’m being replaced.”
“If he loved me, he wouldn’t publicly humiliate me by bringing his new girlfriend with us to our Chanukah dinner with our families.”
“I was all alone on New Year’s Eve, while she was in Acapulco with her wife. So I’m a loser sitting home with no date, while she’s frolicking on the beach drinking Tequila, and could care less about me.”
In each of the scenarios above, the offending partner claimed they had no idea that their actions would create such distress and that in fact, their partners ascribed motives and meaning to their behavior that were not accurate. Many misunderstandings can be avoided or at least mitigated by talking with your partner(s) about what spending certain holidays together “means” to them.
For many people, spending holidays together signifies a high level of commitment, or means that they are special, chosen, or the “favorite.” It may not have the same meaning for you as it does for them. If you can “surface” the meaning your partners may be attaching to your holiday plans and choices, it is much more likely that you will be able to modify your plans or propose alternates that will meet their needs.
A common mistake is making assumptions based on a few offhand comments your partner may have made about holidays. Ryan explains, “Jean told me she hated Christmas and preferred to ignore it, but then was outraged that I made plans to spend Christmas with Hannah and her two kids. Hannah had asked me to dress up as Santa to give the kids their presents.” It turned out that Jean wanted to spend some quality time with Ryan on Christmas, going hiking or to a movie, she just didn’t want to exchange gifts or cook a turkey. Ryan said. “How could I have possibly known that?” to which she answered, “You could have consulted me before making other plans!”
Iris told her lover Julia that she did not celebrate Thanksgiving, explaining that in her Native American community, that holiday is seen as the precursor to the genocide of indigenous peoples. So Julia announced that she would be leaving at 6:00 AM on Thanksgiving morning to drive with her other partner Leonard to his parents’ house for Thanksgiving dinner. Iris was crushed, and explained that because Thanksgiving had such negative meaning in her culture, she expected Julia to be with her and be supportive on that day. Donna and her partner Sarah are pagan clergy who lead religious rituals and then host an all-night party on the Winter Solstice. Since Donna’s other partner Joe is an atheist and had no interest in her religion, she assumed he would not want tot to participate, and was puzzled that he felt hurt that she did not include him. He explained, “I know how important this holiday is to you so I wanted to be there with you. When you didn’t invite me, it felt like Sarah must be more important to you.”
Talk to each partner about each of the holidays and find out what kind of meaning they associate with each holiday, especially what it would mean to them if you are NOT able to spend one or more of these holidays with them.
If you have only one partner, but your partner has two or more partners, think carefully about what you IDEALLY want from your partner around each holiday, as well as what is the MINIMUM ACCEPTABLE SCENARIO for each holiday. This is tricky, because you should not be a doormat and just accept anything your partner offers, but don’t be create completely unrealistic expectations either. If you have to choose, which holiday is most important to you? Would you prefer to have part of each holiday or one holiday that you don’t have to share? How do you feel about the option of spending some holiday time with your partner and their other partner(s)? Sometimes people can only find this out by trying what they think will work, only to decide that next year, they will do things differently. It is fairly likely that you will be spending some of the holidays alone, while your partner is with their other partner. Make plans to spend time with family members, friends, or going on a trip or other activity that you are likely to enjoy, rather than feeling abandoned at home alone. Would phone calls, emails, or texts from your partner be helpful in feeling loved and connected, or would that just be annoying to hear from them when they are spending holiday time with their other partner? Communicate your preferences and needs as clearly as you can to your partner, and try to negotiate something that will work for everyone.
Tip Seven: If you are thinking of including more than one partner in a holiday event, proceed with caution and talk through any potential problems.
The idea of spending holidays all together as “one big happy metamour poly family” looks great on paper, but often doesn’t work in real life. While having Christmas morning with all three of your lovers, or ringing in the New Year getting drunk with both your husband and your boyfriend may sound romantic and delightful to you, one or more of them may not agree. Often a poly person with two or more partners thinks it is a brilliant solution to spend holidays all together so no one feels left out. However, many people find it extremely painful or just plain uncomfortable to have to sit through Thanksgiving dinner or several hours of a New Year’s Eve party if they have to share your time and attention with your other partner or partners. There may be some negative history between your partners, or they may never have liked each other, or one may feel mistreated by the other or treated unfairly by you in relation to the other, or they may just not know each other very well or have little in common. And watching you toast your other partner or introduce them to friends and family members as your lover may make them feel humiliated. Or it may just totally NOT be their idea of a good time to see you kissing your other partner under the mistletoe or holding hands with them in front of other people.
Be sure to ask each partner how they feel about spending any or all of the holidays with your other partners, and try to respect their wishes as much as possible. Some people would rather divide up the holidays so they do not have to cross paths with your other partners. For instance, Jacob spent Christmas Eve with Ming since Christmas Eve was very important to him. And Ming was planning to spend Christmas Day with his family, who refused to believe he was gay and did not welcome Jacob to their home. Jacob then spent Christmas Day with his partner Lawrence and his parents, since they were hippies and were thrilled that their son was gay. Ming was envious of Lawrence and of his family welcoming his lover, and did not want to have to spend any time with Jacob and Lawrence together.
Eileen’s partner Millie disliked her other partner Harry and did not want to spend time with him. When Eileen first introduced Millie to Harry, he immediately proposed a threesome, which shocked Eileen and horrified Millie. He claimed he was only joking and accused them of being “irony-challenged,” but Millie never trusted him after that. So Eileen spent Thanksgiving with Millie, and Harry went to Thanksgiving dinner at his other partner Jann’s house since she was cooking a big dinner for her kids. Since Eileen and Harry both had the four-day Thanksgiving weekend off from work, she spent that Friday and Sat with Harry and then spent Sunday with Millie, so both felt they got plenty of time with her over the holiday. Eileen tried to persuade Millie to spend Christmas Day with them at her brother and sister-in-law’s house, so she wouldn’nt be alone, but Millie said, “Do you think I want to spend Christmas tagging along with two straight couples? I’d much rather be at home binge-watching Game of Thrones.”
Some people opt for what has been jokingly called “the staggered holiday poly partners” or “the tag-team poly holidays.” This approach requires delicate but explicit negotiations with each partner to attend holiday events for a specific period of time, and then make a graceful exit in time for another partner to arrive for their part of the festivities.
Some poly people have copied this strategy from blended and divorced families. Ingrid says, “My parents divorced when I was five, but my father’s family still wanted my mom to participate in their Christmas celebration. Me, my brother, and my mother went to my grandparents’ house on Christmas morning to open gifts and have brunch. Then my mom would leave to go to her sister’s house for Christmas, and my dad and his new wife would show up at my grandparent’s house for the rest of the day. If this could work for my parents, who were mortal enemies, it could work with my poly partners, who actually like each other but did not enjoy spending holidays together. Neither of them even cared about Christmas, but they both wanted New Year’s Eve. So now, every year, I take the day off work on New Year’s Eve, spend the day with Dave, talking about our plans for the coming year and reminiscing about the romantic times we had this year. That evening, we go to a party at a friend’s house. Dave likes to get to bed early, so he leaves the party around 11:00 PM, after we toast the new year and say an affectionate good-bye. Then Tony shows up at the party around 11:30 PM after spending the evening drinking at the pub with his buddies, and he and I dance till 2:00 AM and then spend New Year’s Day together nursing our hangovers and watching movies.”
Deborah engineered what she called “the overlapping poly holiday celebration.” She has two lovers, Joshua and Ken, and Ken has another girlfriend named Rena. On New Year’s Day, Deborah has an open house party all afternoon and evening for her friends and family. She asks Joshua, Ken, and Rena to let her know what times they plan to show up. She lets each of them know the others’ plans, so each person can decide how much time, if any, they want to spend around the other partners. Ken and Rena usually plan to show up together at the beginning of the party, then Rena leaves a couple hours later so Ken can have some time with Deborah. Joshua usually shows up about an hour later and Ken leaves a little later on, and Joshua has some time with Deborah. Joshua helps Deborah clean up after the party and spends the night with her. Ken says, “The first year Rena said it was a lot of planning to do just to go to a party. But by the next year, she had gone through some poly holiday drama with a new lover who ruined our Christmas by showing up and freaking out because she was spending the day with me. She realized that it only takes five minutes to plan what time to show up at Deborah’s party, and then everyone knows what to expect, and there are no surprises. Everyone has a good time and is pretty chill, and each person gets to spend a little time with their partner and a little time with the metamours if they want to, you can leave whenever you want to, and it’s a great way to start off the new year.”
Tip Eight: When poly holiday plans go awry, be willing to apologize for any mistakes or problems, and do aftercare as needed
Holiday plans can fail spectacularly for a variety of reasons, some factors totally out of your control, and some due to careless or non-existent planning or inaccurate assumptions. So when things go wrong, be prepared to take responsibility for any part of it that may have been caused by you, and apologize for the pain that was caused. This is a lot harder than it sounds, because most of the time, someone makes a small mistake, but the drama and distress created by that minor error can have a cascading and pretty dramatic effect on ruining at least one person’s holiday (and usually everyone’s).
For instance, guessing wrong about how bad the holiday traffic will be can make Thanksgiving dinner three hours late and make it impossible to attend that second Thanksgiving party you promised your other lover you would attend with them, leaving them alone on the holiday. Or you thought that you and you lover were going to the 8:00 PM early show on New Year’s Eve, to see that band you both really love. In fact, you accidentally bought tickets to the 10:00 PM show, and the tickets cost $150 apiece. So now the plans you made to go to a New Year’s Eve party with your other lover after that won’t work at all, since the show goes until 2:00 AM. Or your partner’s sister forgot to thaw out the turkey for Christmas dinner that was supposed to happen at 3:00 PM, so dinner won’t start until the turkey comes out of the oven at 8:00 PM. So your partner, her sister, and her whole family now think you are an asshole because you had to leave at 6:00 PM, since you promised your other partner and her kids that you will host them at your place for dessert and showing Christmas movies on your big-screen TV.
None of these disasters were entirely, or even mostly, your fault. However, some small thing you did unfortunately led to a holiday debacle where one or more people lost out on spending a holiday with you that they were counting on. Rightly or wrongly, they feel that you actively chose another partner over them, since the circumstances conspired to end up with you spending the holiday with another partner instead of them, making them feel expendable. No matter how many times you say, “It’s not my fault my plane was cancelled due to the snow in Boston,” you still have a lover who is angry and hurt because they did not get to see you for Christmas, and that you stayed with your other lover for three days longer until you could get a plane home.
What to do? Listen, show compassion, and apologize profusely. Try to restrain yourself from being defensive and making excuses. This does not mean that you should take responsibility for things over which you had no control. Rather, the goal is to acknowledge whatever part you played in this situation, and express your sadness and regret for the pain your partner (and/or any other affected parties) experienced as a result. Blaming your partner for overreacting or dismissing their feelings will only make them feel more angry and hurt. Try to imagine how you might feel if the tables were turned, and if you were the poly partner who “was the one without a chair in the poly holiday game of musical chairs,” as one person put it. No one enjoys having their holiday plans wrecked at the last minute and feeling alone and excluded, so try to provide whatever “after care” may be helpful.
This may include promising a partner some quality time in the near future, a special dinner out or even a short trip out of town together. Or it may be just offering “extra” time as soon as possible, if your partner feels they have experienced a scarcity of time with you, particularly weekend time or other “prime” time that may have meaning for them. Or they may just need you to call and apologize to their mother for missing her Thanksgiving dinner when she spent hours making that vegan casserole just for you. Or they may want you to “make it up to” their kids by taking them on a special outing because you had to flake out of spending the holiday with them.
Whatever you do, don’t try to fix this by promising them any specific holiday times next year! You will be certain to regret making any commitments now, about the distant future, promises which cannot be reliably kept. It may be tempting to say, “I’m so sorry Christmas didn’t work out this year, but next year I’ll spend it with you.” An awful lot can happen between now and then, and you are very likely to end up breaking your partner’s trust again.
So good luck, and happy poly holidays!
Kathy Labriola is a counselor, nurse and poly educator. Reach her at (510)84-5307 or at www.kathylabriola.com.