Ask Team Practical: Unmarried Holidays

My mom and I have always been pretty close, but we had a blow out argument the other week that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. Basically, she told me that since I am not married I have no obligation to my boyfriend’s family and should be spending more of my holiday time with her. Now, my boyfriend and I have been together for five years, and I feel my mom gets more than her fair share of our time—at least fifty percent with the other fifty percent divided up between my boyfriend’s family and my father (as my parents are divorced). I feel guilty not spending every holiday with my mom since she doesn’t have a significant other, and I feel that if I’m not there, she’s alone, but that’s not really fair to everyone else in this equation.

I really would appreciate the advice anyone who has gone through this situation has to offer. How do I show my mother that I do care about my own family, but still feel an obligation to my boyfriend’s family? We plan on getting married, but I don’t think my single status in the meantime should demote the value and commitment of our relationship. I’m just so frustrated and really don’t want to hurt feelings!

-Not Married But Still Important!!


I think you pretty much said it yourself. Marriages aren’t the only valid relationship. As an adult building a community around yourself, you get to choose whose lives you’d like to invest in, who you enjoy being around, and how you spend your time. That’s the same truth whether you’re married, engaged, dating, or if you’re single and enjoying your friendships. Sure, a wedding makes a nice symbolic gesture of growing up and out of your parents’ home, but that same kind of change happens when you grow up whether you’re married or not. Parents eventually need to move over a bit and make room for all of the other awesome folks in your life.

But that’s all stuff you know! I’m just preaching to the choir, I think. The real question isn’t whether you should spend time with folks other than your mom on the holidays, right? It’s how to go about it. I guess, as usual, the first step is a conversation. Talk to your mom, make it clear that you love her, but you can’t always demonstrate that by giving her every second of your holiday time. She’ll probably be hurt or angry or (if she’s like my mom) try a guilt trip. (If she mentions anything about carrying you for nine long months, just run in the other direction.) But the point of this conversation isn’t to make her angry or make you feel guilty; it’s to reach a compromise. Knowing that she can’t possibly have all your time (stand firm on that!) find out what would make her feel she’s getting a good chunk of “us” time.

She very well may continue to argue that you’re not married to this guy, so you don’t owe his family anything. And while it’s true that you’re not married, that’s entirely beside the point. It’s not about who you owe your time, it’s about spending time with the people you care about in this moment. Combating, “You’re not married!” with, “But we will be someday!” isn’t so effective as being frank that even though you’re not married into this family, they’re important to you right now.

The “right now” is sort of key to me. Because the thing is, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future—even if you do get married. Relationships wax and wane, and maybe some years you’re going to want to spend the holidays with just your family, or just his. But the point is, trying to predict the importance of that future now is futile. So you’ve gotta work with what’s in your hand now. If spending time with your partner’s family is important to you right now, then that’s valid. (Do you hear me? It’s valid. Keep repeating that to yourself.)

All that said, your mom counts among those that are important to you right now. You want to be sure that you are including her, though maybe not giving her every second of your time. Being alone around the holidays can be a really terrible, painful thing. Having that chat about how to make your mom feel loved during the holidays can prevent her from feeling left out, while allowing you room to care for all of the other important people in your life.

Of course, the reality is that even with these diplomatic conversations, your mom may never be happy with the idea of sharing you. Transitions like these, they take time. And as much as it might suck, sometimes part of that transition is having the people you love be unhappy with your decisions. So if this year doesn’t work itself out how you’d hoped, don’t beat yourself up over it. You can’t make everyone happy all the time; all you can do is honor what you know is best for you and your family (both new and old) and own your decisions without regret (which I always have to remind myself of this time of year).


Team Practical, how do you balance caring for your important relationships around the holidays?

Photo: Vivian Chen Photography.

If you would like to ask Team Practical a question please don’t be shy! You can email Liz at: askteampractical [at] apracticalwedding [dot] com. If you would prefer to not be named, anonymous questions are also accepted. Though it really makes our day when you come up with a clever sign-off!

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  • Amy March

    I’d also remind yourself that your mother doesn’t have to be all alone just because you aren’t there. Extended family, friends, neighbors, church, volunteering, group travel are all ways to share the holidays with someone. If she has none of those back up resources that isn’t your problem to solve.

    • Amanda

      “If she has none of those back up resources that isn’t your problem to solve.”

      This statement hurts my heart, on behalf of non-coupled Moms everywhere (my Dad died 14 years ago and my Mom has not remarried and is not seeing anyone). If anyone in my nuclear or extended family took this attitude, I would be crushed. Just consider the flip side if your Mom suddenly said – find your own holiday plans, single daughter!

      There are great solutions for including NMBSI’s Mom, and not leaving her to her own “too-bad-for-you” devices.

      • Audrey

        While I think it’s important to try and give a non-coupled parent time during the holidays if you can, I do think at some level it’s “not your problem to solve”. There’s a difference between making loving decisions that involve trying to include your non-coupled parent and feeling like you have to visit them for every single holiday because they are alone and it’s “your problem”.

        I’m interested in what the great solutions you have in mind are, because honestly I find that short of managing to get everyone to magically live in the same city there often aren’t great solutions.

      • Jen

        this is less holiday-specific…but remember that non-coupled moms have probably had other times in their lives where they’ve had to fend for themselves and go out there and make friends and build a community and be on their own. My dad died when I was quite young, and my mom never re-married or even started dating anyone! When I was finishing high school I told someone that I would probably stay at home for university because I would feel too guilty leaving my mom all alone in a big house…my mom somehow got wind of that through the grapevine and sat me down and told me to follow my heart and do what I needed to do for me, because she “had lived on her own before, and was completely capable of doing it again”.

        I don’t feel like it’s so much a “too bad for you” attitude, but more like trusting that you’re not the one person responsible for your parent (and their life and their happiness). That they’re adults and they’re capable of fending for themselves and that it’s okay to leave them to their own devices every now and again!

    • Other Katelyn

      Agreed. Single people can still have community (duh). If the OP’s mom hasn’t developed the community she should have as a grown-up and if she’s counting on her daughter to fill that role, it’s not sustainable or healthy– and it’s not the daughter’s job to fix the situation.

  • Kelly

    My fiance and I have been going through a similar thing over the last few years. We only just got engaged in September, but we were together for five years before that, and had been splitting holidays for about three years. His mom is widowed, and he’s her oldest son, so she puts a lot of weight on his presence at things. She also feels like we spend more time with my parents than with her, which I’m not sure is valid but I’m not keeping score, so I suppose it’s possible. This year, I really wanted to have our first Christmas together in our own home, just the two of us. She FLIPPED OUT, and basically told us that if we weren’t at her house on the actual day of Christmas, we may as well not come and she wasn’t going to buy us gifts and on and on and on.

    It is really hard to draw boundaries with people you care about and love and don’t want to hurt, but at some point you need to put your foot down and indicate what is and isn’t possible/important for you. Whether you’re married yet or not (and man, that is a tough one that I struggled with for a long time), it certainly sounds like you’re building a family with your partner. Let her know that your new family (as in him and you, not as in his family) is important to you, and that while you love her and of course want to have time with her, your baby family needs some TLC to get it off the ground, where as your relationship with her is strong and you know it can stand up to a little time apart. Will it hurt her? Probably. Will it hurt you when she’s hurt, and will she say things that aren’t fair? Probably. But it’s a battle you need to fight, and if you keep putting it off it’s never going to get better. And honestly, once you do, it will only get easier every year.

    Hang in there!

  • ….why isn’t it possible to include your mom in your boyfriend’s families holiday? I mean, maybe I’m being presumptuous here, but if your mom is completely alone if you are spending holidays with them, I’m looking at this from her side and I can see how that would hurt. If you and your boyfriend are planning to be married someday, I don’t see why you can’t start combining your families now.

    • Kat

      “If you and your boyfriend are planning to be married someday, I don’t see why you can’t start combining your families now.” This was my thought exactly, Kristy! If you enjoy spending time with your partner’s family, they are probably great people who would welcome your mother with open arms. That’s what the holidays are all about! :)

    • Breck

      This is our plan for the holidays next year. We won’t be married then and will probably be living close to my guy’s family, so we’ll invite my mom and brother to come stay with us (or in a hotel near us) for the few days around Thanksgiving and Christmas. I have exactly zero extended family, so, unless something changes, this is probably how we’ll do holidays after we’re married as well. Just like you said, we think it will be a great way for everyone to get to know each other better and get accustomed to system that is probably going to be in place for many years in the future. Yay for everyone (mostly) winning!

    • This is a great idea, but I definitely understand if it’s not possible to combine families. That would absolutely be the case for my husband and I, it’s imperative to everyone’s sanity that we keep our families quite separate, especially at holidays. In fact, our wedding is probably the first and last time that they will all be together.
      If this is the case for you, sometimes it helps to make a special time for just you and your family. For example, given the cost of flights etc… I have made New Years a special time that I spend with my family, which leaves me free to spend Christmas with my husbands family, who lived closer. Now we live far from both families, and will need a new strategy, but creating special traditions around a separate, more flexible holiday might give your mom the consistency she needs to feel included.

      • Another Meg

        We do something similar- there are six of us kids in my family, but my partner is an only child. So my parents spend Christmas with my brother and sister and we spend Christmas (at least for now) with my partner’s parents. Then, around New Year’s, my immediate family, spouses, and kids have dinner at my sister’s and do Christmas (it’s kind of a nut house). I like this tradition, and it’s become necessary for my family since there are currently four in-laws with their own families to think of.
        It also seems to make it easier on my parents- I know my mom would prefer having craziness happen at her house on Christmas day, but they’ve started a new tradition on Christmas- my parents volunteer in the morning and then have a big dinner later that day. And she still gets to see everyone later, so it cushions the blow.
        It took us a few awkward years to grow into this, but we figured it out, bit by bit each year.

      • SusieQ

        Just wanted to second EmilyF’s comment: Sometimes you have to keep the families separate, depending on the people involved. That’s ok too.

  • Abby J.

    As usual, Liz has excellent advice. I don’t know if this is feasible, but if the mom and the boyfriend’s parents live in the same relative area, couldn’t Mom be invited to the boyfriend’s house for the holiday? Being along does suck. If LW and her b/f have been together for 5 years, I’d assume that Mom and the BF’s parents have at least met once or twice, and now might be a good time to encourage them to get to know each other better. Perhaps they can become friends.

    My SIL’s (my brother’s wife) mother and my mother have become close friends and frequently have dinners at each other’s house. My parents and my husband’s parents get along famously as well – only geographical distance prevents a closer relationship.

    Especially if LW and her boyfriend plan to get married some time in the future, helping the in-laws to get along and perhaps become friends is necessary – both sets of parents are permanent parts of your life and will be permanent parts of your spouse’s life after the wedding.

    • AnotherCourtney

      I was going to suggest this, too. In my family, my dad’s sister is single and tends to be the one who ends up alone on holidays. My whole life, she’s just joined my family whenever it’s feasible, even if it means coming to my mom’s parents’ house for Thanksgiving dinner or something. From my perspective, it’s made my family (my WHOLE family) closer, since they’ve all gotten so many chances to get to know each other well.

      Also, while I completely agree with everything Liz said about being firm, don’t forget to tell your mom you love her. This will be my first Christmas of my entire life that I wake up without my mom, and, in an effort to let me do my own thing (I think), my mom told me it was no big deal if I wasn’t at home for Christmas. That caused a whole lot of heartache for me until she finally told me how much she wanted me there, even though she knew I can’t be. It seems so silly now, but I felt so unloved until she actually spelled it out for me. She thought that wanting me at home was so obvious that it could go unspoken. So, in the midst of being firm and forging your own path and all that, just don’t forget to remind your mom that you love her, too, even if she knows that already.

      • Jessica

        “So, in the midst of being firm and forging your own path and all that, just don’t forget to remind your mom that you love her, too, even if she knows that already.”

        This has been really important for me as I navigate more options for the holidays. Along the same lines, verbally recognizing that just because we’re doing things one way this year doesn’t mean it has to be that way forever has made things easier. I spent Christmas with my boyfriend’s family three years ago, the next year with a friend, and then was back with my family last year. Having all of us together for the first time in a few years made it especially fun and special. This year, I’ll actually be on an airplane Christmas day and arriving Christmas night. I know it has been especially hard for my mom to shift away from the Christmas traditions we used to have, and there were some big arguments even on years where I ultimately spent the day with my family, but since time has shown that one year away doesn’t mean an end to our holidays together, it is getting easier for us all to see that the only reason it’s an issue in the first place is because we love each other and want to spend time together, even if love sometimes takes the form of a guilt trip.

  • Em

    I think Liz’s point about talking to your mom about what would feel like a good chunk of quality time is really key here. My mom and I had some of this kind of tension last year — I thought we were spending lots of good time together (many more days than with boyfriend’s family, because my parents have an extended vacation in the place we live every year) but she wanted a different kind of quality time (in her house, at a holiday). It’s obvious, in retrospect, but we had to sort it out.

    Maybe your mom wants a little quality time with just you and her. Or maybe she wants time with you and your boyfriend, if she feels like she’s not getting that. Possibly she needs your help to figure out exactly what it is that she wants.

    • Ros

      “she wanted a different kind of quality time ” – if someone could have told me that about my mother, oh say, 5 years ago, it would’ve been a lifesaver. When that happened to me, though, I basically just stood firm: the quality time she wanted was just not something I could give (every holiday and all days off around them, at least 2 weekends/month, picture-perfect discuss-everything relationship… )

      It came to a head over a fight where my mother basically wanted lots of help in throwing the extended-family parties at her house, for every holiday, and that reached a boiling point my first year after college: I was working 80-90 hours a week (advertising agency…), several hours away from my parents, and was just not willing to leave town after work on the Friday before the holiday (after a 14-hour day, at minimum) to go clean her house and help her throw a party for the extended family on my first day off in 4 months (because 90-hour work-weeks don’t leave much time for weekends…).

      It took a full year of the intense guilt-trips (me: “if you need help, I can do the shopping/make dessert/take care of appetizers/drive your mother/etc, and I can show up for the party a few hours before to help with last-minute prep, just let me know.” Her: “No! I need you here the whole weekend, otherwise that’s useless to me! (direct quote)” Me: “… That’s not going to happen. If you need help *repeat phrase above, over and over”.) It was a rough year, let’s just say, but figuring out the most I could offer, offering it, and stand firm on the fact that this is what I can offer PERIOD came in really handy when it came to setting boundaries for apartment access (no keys get handed out), holidays with in-laws, decisions about what we did for the wedding, relationship decisions (no, I’m not going to talk about the details of my relationship with my husband deal with it), etc.

      Setting boundaries and holding firm is a GREAT pattern to set, but it’s also really important to set the boundary at the place where you’re not going to budge, because giving in afterwards sets a whole different pattern.

    • Em

      I should also have added that once we got on the same page about what it was that was important to my mom, it turned out it was important to me too! In my attempts to be fair and practical, I really underestimated how much having a full holiday weekend, in my parents home, with my (now) fiance would matter *to me.*

      All families are different, and in a lot of ways I am very lucky in my family — but I guess I just wanted to say that what initially seemed confusing and unfair coming turned out to be legit motherly wisdom, once we got to the heart of it. Go figure.

  • Jessica

    I have a similar situation, divorced parents where my dad is happily remarried and my mom is not. My boyfriend’s parents are married. So with 3 sets of parents unless we combine one set of my parents and his parents for holidays (my parents can’t be together) then one set of parents is always the odd man out for the holidays.

    We are just beginning to work this through. This year I spent Thanksgiving with my boyfriend’s family. We will each spend Christmas with our own families, too much to work through just yet. My mom & sister spent Thanksgiving by themselves. I felt somewhat guilty (my mom is prone to unreasonable arguments and manipulations… Also does not seem to see she gets 50% of our time). So I feel you on this one.

    But then I reminded myself my mom had other invitations for Thanksgiving. I invited her to join us (would have meant a flight & hotel for her), as did her sister. So I think at some point you have to balance recognizing she is an adult and has made relationship choices to get where she is today. Those choices are not your fault. And you can be compassionate, inviting her to join your boyfriend’s family where possible. But her choices are not your fault.

    Lasr point : ) It’s operating from such a different place to WANT to spend holidays with your boyfriend’s family because you VALUE those relationships. Your mom’s comment on you are not obligated to is limiting. Wouldn’t she want to raise a daughter who values relationships and invests time in them? My guess is she is having trouble seeing beyond the consequences this choice has for her right now.

  • Martha

    This is great advice! I love this part in particular “So if this year doesn’t work itself out how you’d hoped, don’t beat yourself up over it. You can’t make everyone happy all the time; all you can do is honor what you know is best for you and your family (both new and old) and own your decisions without regret (which I always have to remind myself of this time of year).”

    I am engaged and really struggle with this – we live about 900 miles from both of our parents, who live about 40 miles from one another. Let’s all try to achieve “Holiday Zen” (much like wedding zen).

  • EE

    I hate to be the guilt-trippy type that Liz mentioned, but I hope you can find a way to spend the holidays with your mom. At least bring her along to your boyfriend’s house if it’s feasible. I just don’t see how someone could have a good time at another holiday gathering knowing their mom is all alone (whether or not it’s of her own doing).

    And think about it this way: would your boyfriend let his mom spend Christmas all alone? Would you want him to do that just so he could be with your family?

    • Ros

      Question: “I just don’t see how someone could have a good time at another holiday gathering knowing their mom is all alone (whether or not it’s of her own doing).”

      Answer: by realizing that you made offers, set boundaries, provided alternatives, she had other choices (friends, extended family, etc), and that you have other obligations that also need to be met, and that’s ok and a part of growing up.

      While I do sympathize, at a certain point, “I’ll be all alone so you have to be with me” becomes a HUGE manipulation tactic (never mind the in-laws; what if she said ‘I’m going to spend time with dad this year, since I’ve spent the last X years with you”? Would the same answer apply?) I’m not saying that the OP’s mother is using it as a manipulation tactic, but it is really easy to fall into that trap.

      • Dawn

        Exactly. And to be completely blunt, if I’m choosing between obligations to multiple people/events, the one who is guilt tripping me is going to be the one who gets left out first because it will tick me off.

        I guess I am very lucky in that my parents are very accommodating (and respectful of the fact that my relationship with my boyfriend has as much value while we’re unmarried as if we were married) because I just can’t even imagine catering to the needs of someone who doesn’t seem to respect my unmarried relationship. That to me is the biggest problem here. I understand the mom being sad if she has to be alone for the holidays (though I’m not completely clear if she’s going to be completely alone for the entire holiday or just part of it) but devaluing my relationship with my partner sure wouldn’t be the way to make me want to spend my holidays with her.

        And who’s to say if/when they get married that will change. I know my parents had to go through some rough times in the early years of their marriage because my maternal grandmother felt that first loyalty is always to the original family and not to your spouse — as in you should always still come over for dinner every Sunday even if your husband is working full time and going to school full time and the only time you see each other is on Sunday. And even at Christmas, when I was young we had three separate celebrations with various combinations of my mom’s family but only one with my dad’s side. Hmm, I think it just dawned on me why my parents are so flexible now — they don’t want to subject me to what they had to deal with.

        • Ros

          “Exactly. And to be completely blunt, if I’m choosing between obligations to multiple people/events, the one who is guilt tripping me is going to be the one who gets left out first because it will tick me off.”

          This. So much this.

      • I don’t know. As someone with a deceased parent, this makes my heart ache, and I can’t help but feel for the mom alone.

        The reality is that if my mom told me when I was single that she was going to go off for the holidays and I was on my own, I would have been pretty freaking pissed. As children, I think we have a tendency to take our parents for granted. They are there for holiday events on OUR schedule. When we want to have Thanksgiving with them, we take it for granted that they will have Thanksgiving with us.

        I agree that manipulation is shitty, but I think it’s important to experience some empathy for where the manipulation is possibly coming from (and in this case, I don’t think it’s clear that the OP’s mom is trying to manipulate her; seems like she’s actually being pretty straight forward with what she wants from her daughter.) It’s very possible that, “I’ll be all alone so you have to be with me,” is coming from a place of pretty honest fear. And that is scary. I’d be terrified to be alone over the holidays too.

        I’m not saying that the OP should just give in to her mom so she won’t be alone. Being an adult and expanding your family means often making sacrifices and choosing between two shitty options. But I think approaching the whole thing from a place of loving EMPATHY (not just sympathizing to a point) could really ameliorate the situation.

        • Manipulation doesn’t have to be intentional to be manipulation. Her mom can be doing this out of fear, but it’s still manipulation, and that’s still not ok. The letter writer can have sympathy with that without giving in to it, and so can we.

          • Brittany

            I completely agree that manipulation doesn’t have to be intentional to still be manipulation. This is something my husband and I talked about a lot while planning our wedding, and is coming up again as we plan our trip home for the holidays. His mom chose to prioritize spending time with his dad’s family after they got married because she’s from a big family, and my husband’s dad just has one sister, so his mom felt that her in laws “needed” their time more. Now that my husband and I are married, she seems to think we need to make the same choice because she “only” has two kids, and my mom has more. In her words, I’m more expendable to my family than my husband is to hers. My mother in law has taken to asking what we are planning for every moment of our trip, and any time spent with any member of my family is expected to be matched minute for minute with time spent with her and my father in law. She constantly reminds us that any time not spent with her she will miss us for, and lays it on thick with me, telling me how hard it is that I’ve “taken” her only son, and how it must be easier for my mom because she has other daughters.. It’s hard to approach because she is so emotional, and I know that she’s not intentionally being manipulative, but that’s what it is either way. Since she’s so sensitive, we usually go through my level headed father in law to calm her down and set boundaries. For us, having a third party involved has helped us explain our decisions without sounding so harsh.

    • KB

      I definitely see the point of trying to reach a compromise so that your mom isn’t all alone (because that TOTALLY sucks) – but the OP also pointed out that her mom gets more than her fair share of time. [Incidentally, this is why the holidays make me so frustrated – there’s this pressure to have The Perfect Holiday when, really, it is just another day(s). You don’t see people duking it out like this over Labor Day.] I think this is an important point because there comes a time when you have to realize that, yes, you need to be considerate and caring of your family and make time for them – but when that time is apparently not enough for them, you have to realize that you can’t be responsible for someone else’s happiness. For instance, assuming her mom vetoes going to the boyfriend’s house, does that mean that she has to run herself ragged every year for the rest of her life (or until her mom gets a significant other) in order to fit her mom’s vision of the holidays?

      I’m not saying it’s black-and-white, there’s no good answer because someone feels cheated in the end – but I think there comes a point where you have to say, “Look, this is the amount of time that I have and I am totally happy to give you without making ME feel bad and resentful.” And then let go – or try to at least.

      And, importantly, I think this would ALSO apply if it was her boyfriend guilt-tripping her. Two-way holiday street here.

      • Alexandra

        I would duke it out over Labour Day. But then, I’ve also come to the realization that I cling possessively to all holidays because they all have strong family traditions associated with them and want them all to continue to be exactly what they were before I had my boy and his family.

        I’m uh… working on that. Though, so far, the boy doesn’t mind (because apparently his family doesn’t have as strong of traditions) and he loves my family’s traditions.

    • KC

      Making someone else feel good about the holidays (or your wedding) is really-truly not anyone’s responsibility. It’s nice to accommodate people within reason, and it’s certainly something to keep in the equation… but:
      1. it’s out of our power (they can choose to have lousy, lonely, grumpy holidays whether or not we’re there; see cases where the One Missing Person makes everything miserable, even if there are lots of other people there)
      2. sometimes it’s not compatible (see cases where there are four “alone” divorced parents in the mix, or cases where there are geographically separated and/or estranged and/or ill relatives)

      I guess, if you are going to determine that you cannot possibly enjoy something if someone else will be unhappy about your decision (or is just going to be unhappy generally), that is going to suck (especially if you have more than one other person in your life). Being realistic about how much a specific person being unhappy is going to affect you and taking that into account: good; but, trying to minimize that effect on yourself when there aren’t any “everyone is happy” options: also good.

      My family has recently somewhat uncomplicated themselves (hooray for random un-estrangement!), but while they were being complicated, we had 7 potential “but they’ll miss us and/or be alone at Christmas!” locations, sprinkled around a bunch of different time zones (plus more family locations where we would be welcome, but not urgently wanted). There is literally no way to make everyone happy about that. So, most of the people sad about missing us made alternate plans (travel, volunteering, joining other people who were alone for the holidays) and we tried to sneak out of whatever we were doing to call in at time-zone-appropriate times for those where a call-in helped. And yes, I was sad about some things sometimes (missing important events, people *really* wishing we were there), but me being Extra Sad does not help anyone out, really (at least not in a healthy way!). Yes, helping the people in your family/community: good; being held hostage by that: bad.

      (although I also hope they figure out some way for Mom to not be alone at Christmas; but I guess my point is that her happiness is basically her responsibility, not theirs.)

    • Liz

      I think the sticking point for the whole letter, for me, is that NMBSI’s choice isn’t being invalidated because her mom has no one else (that seems to be self-imposed guilt). Instead, it sounds like her mom is dismissing her choice to spend time with her boyfriend’s family because he’s”just a boyfriend.”

      So, sure, working out how much time to give mom, making sure she has a nice holiday, etc is one problem. But sort of tangential. The big overarching thing here (to me, at least) is that other relationships matter, too. Would mom still be arguing if NMBSI was married? Maybe. I mean. I don’t know. But, that seems to be the point of contention right now, in this situation.

      I’m not disagreeing- I think making sure the people around us who don’t have someone deserve our attention (moms or not). But that’s almost a side point to the main thing here.

      • I wonder if it wouldn’t help for NMBSI to ask her mom to talk about what she thinks holidays would look like if NMBSI and her partner were married? It sounds like “because you’re not married yet” might be the kind of excuse that is actually masking a deeper fear of losing her daughter to another family. Asking questions about the future might strip away the excuse and help NMBSI and her mom get to the root of the problem.

    • See, I don’t fall for this because I realize that my parents’ happiness (or lack there of) is not my responsibility. It isn’t my job to make them happy, because I can’t force anyone to feel anything anyway.

      As someone else mentioned further up, they are adults who get to make their own choices. Do I feel bad *sometimes* that as an only child I don’t spend the holidays with my parents? Of course. But they chose to move to rural Virginia. They chose to move away from both sides of the family. And you know what? It’s worked out so much better than I would have ever thought, likely at least in part because I kept my fingers out of it. My parents started working on making friends in their area, and have built themselves a wonderful network of people they can spend time with. And you know, I think they have a more active social life than I do now!

  • Solidarity fist-bump on figuring out non-married holidays. I’m in a similar situation as Martha, in the comments above- the bf and I are over a thousand miles from our parents, who live about 40 minutes apart. Since we’ve lived in the Midwest, every trip back east has included me endlessly driving back and forth between. The holidays are always complicated thanks to my parents’ divorce, too.

    So this year, I’m trying to set boundaries for the first time, too, starting with where I’ll be sleeping while in town. I decided I’m staying with my bf’s parents throughout my stay- I’m much more comfortable there and I don’t feel like I’m choosing one of my parents over the other. I’m also going to suggest my dad and brother come over to my bf’s parents for Christmas brunch. Usually it’s just the three of us at Dad’s , so the more the merrier, right?

    I agree with Liz’s advice- good luck in figuring it out!

  • Anon

    It sounds like NMBSI is doing her best to split her time between three places–her mother’s, her father’s, and her boyfriend’s parents’. I find it interesting how many people want to rush to the mother’s aid because she’s “all alone!” Everyone seems willing to let the other parts of the family (the remarried father in particular) see less of this lovely couple just so–heaven forbid!–a woman doesn’t have to be alone for a holiday. I think the three branches of the family are entitled to equal time, regardless of their relationship status.

  • Family holidays are all about compromise, and that goes on all sides. I can definitely understand that your mom might be feeling lonely and left out, but you’ve also been invited to spend time with your boyfriend’s family as well. It can be very hard trying to fit in everyone during the holiday season, but if you have the means, you might try it. Right now, we live closest to my husband’s family so Christmas Eve is spent with his dad and Christmas Day is sometimes spent with his mom’s side of the family or we spend a lot of time on Skype with my family. While it would be great to see everyone during every holiday, sometimes that doesn’t work out or is too stressful and while it may be hard for parents/grandparents to get – sometimes you have to put your foot down and say this year we’re spending it with his family and next year your family. Or, Thanksgiving with one, Christmas with the other and switch the following year. Not everyone will be gung-ho to do it that way, but too bad.

  • KB

    Leaving aside the issue of where to spend the holiday, I just wanted to say something about dealing with the blow-up factor. Just something to keep in mind (and not saying that this is your situation, obviously), but sometimes people – family in particular – react poorly to this kind of news out of fear. They can’t express themselves or use their words like normal people because family is fraught with emotional obligations and unspoken history. So when someone says that they’re not going to spend the holidays with the family, it can feel like a rejection – or they REACT like it’s a rejection because they don’t know how to say, “I’m scared I’ll be lonely,” “I’ll miss you,” “I’m afraid that we’ll never have Christmas together again,” “I’m scared that you like them better than me,” – all kinds of things. I’d just prompt the think-about-it question – hopefully, she doesn’t mean to make you feel bad or ruin your holiday – she’s just subconsciously focused on her own feelings.

    And that’s totally not to say that you shouldn’t stand firm – but more like, if it IS the case, you might feel a little better about it since it’s about her and not you.

  • imp

    I have struggled with a similar situation for years. I tried to have many rational conversations about it with my mom, explaining that of course I would love to be around my fam for every holiday, but that it is just not physically or financially possible, especially given that bf and I go as a unit if we go anywhere (and our parents live clear on opposite sides of the US, with us in between). After some time, it became clear that she simply was not choosing to view the situation rationally. When I asked her to be specific about what would make her happy, she said that she wishes I could visit for a couple of weeks at a time. That’s right – my ENTIRE vacation time for the year. On each visit. Realizing that in fact there was no possible way to make her happy was actually somewhat of a relief. It really distilled for me the idea that it is self-destructive and more often than not futile for me to try to take responsibility for my mother’s feelings. (And kudos to the comments that point out that it is also not your responsibility if you are the only person she has a meaningful relationship with such that holidays without you are holidays alone).

    I do not try to rationalize with my mother anymore, or change her feelings. I am as honest and non-confrontational as possible about my holidays plans, and make it as gently clear as possible that they are not up for negotiation. I love my mom a lot, and tell her so. It totally hurts that no matter what I say, I know it will hurt my mother. But I repeat like a mantra to myself that I do as much as I can to make her happy while also keeping myself happy and sane, and prioritizing my relationship with my boyfriend and his family on equal footing with my family is part of that, whether or not she sees that as valid. You may not be able to change your mom’s mind on that one. Taking responsibility for your own feelings, on the other hand, is totally possible.

    Oh, and I don’t think my mom will ever be “over” the reality of my holiday schedule. She still pouts. But she doesn’t try to argue with me about my flight plans any more. So that’s a step up! :)

  • Katie B

    I am going to throw out a potentially unpopular thought here: Maybe whether or not they are married IS important. If the creation of new family bond and obligations that are on par with those of our families of origin is not one of the purposes of marriage, I don’t know what is. I think the letter writer’s mother might have a point. We can’t say marriage makes a difference and then act like it doesn’t when it is inconvenient/uncomfortable for us.

    • Liz

      Marriage does make a difference. But, it’s not the only thing that does. I think it would be unfair to say that marriage is the only valid relationship at the holidays. Married, engaged, single alike all have different people in their lives that are important for different reasons. We use “baby family” as a sort of trump card- because that’s the truth. Parents immediately become second priority once you marry. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other relationships that also should be prioritized. Every adult is, in some way, forming their own “baby family”- whether through marriage, having kids, or investing in friends.

      Marriage creates an automatic top priority, yes. But that doesn’t mean that parents are top priority in all other situations by default.

      • Laurel

        There are a lot of ways to look at marriage. For me, getting married wasn’t a bright line marking the day my partner became family. It was a celebration of something we had already built together. She was my family when we moved 3000 miles together; she was starting to be my family years before that, when we put together a household and started sharing finances.

        Now that we’re married, that doesn’t mean she’s the automatic top priority. Sometimes other priorities need to come first: a friend has an emergency, a family member gets sick, whatever. People feel differently about this, too. I have friends who are married who will probably never again spend the holidays apart. I have a friend whose husband gets back from 2 months overseas, and then leaves the next day to have Christmas with his parents; she leaves a day later to have Christmas with hers.

        The letter-writer is in a situation where there’s no Correct Way for her to spend the holidays. She has a bunch of competing priorities. Her mom might be using their marital status as an argument for something she’d want anyway, or she might genuinely believe it. Either way, NMBSI is entitled to make her own decisions: prioritize her boyfriend, herself, her mom, her dad, whichever is right for her. I know that sounds selfish, but it’s not. Part of figuring out what’s right for her includes figuring out what honestly expresses her love for her mom and her desire to be a good and loving daughter.

        • KB

          Also – they’ve been together five years. That’s a hell of a lot more committed than, “Hey, I went out with this great guy before Thanksgiving, see ya.” I think there’s a difference between a real-life (as opposed to mom-pronounced) “just a boyfriend” and “pre-engaged/committed boyfriend.”

          Me personally, I didn’t spend Christmas with my boyfriend’s family even when we had been living together, it’s only now that we’re engaged that we’re splitting the holidays. It was a hell of a lot easier to take that line. But not everyone has a neat orderly timeline.

    • KEA1

      I agree, but honestly, once you’re an adult, you get to make choices according to what is best for you, and you don’t have a responsibility to “make your parents happy.” Or anyone else. If the LW had said that she wanted to spend her holiday time backpacking in Tanzania because she got a great opportunity to do so, that is her prerogative. Ditto for if she had said that she wanted a holiday to herself. Maybe the LW’s family does need a marriage in order to acknowledge the legitimacy of the relationship, but honestly, acknowledgment of the “adult and therefore eligible to choose for herself” would matter even if a holiday weren’t involved.

    • KateM

      I think this is a completely valid point. Marriage DOES change things, doesn’t mean that there isn’t validity to unmarried relationships. Your mother needs to respect you decisions and not view his family as somehow less important. BUT I know that last year when we were engaged, we both stayed at our respective parents houses. It was important to both of our mothers that they got one last Christmas before they had to step back and let things change. Neither of us thought it was an unreasonable request. This year, now we are married, I really want to start some Christmas traditions of our own. I think flexibility is the key here for everyone involved. Holiday’s carry huge emotional weight, starting new traditions is really hard, and we tend to attach more importance than we should to being with family. My brother and sister-in-law drive their 4 children 20hrs to North Dakota every Christmas so she can be with her family for Christmas. If you live in the frozen tundra (my brother’s nick name for ND) maybe it makes more sense to start 4th of July vacations, and be home for Christmas.
      Sometimes the new traditions are better than the old, maybe you should consider hosting Christmas, bring everyone to you. In my dad’s family of 8, the siblings took turns hosting Christmas every year. It would rotate. I have great memories of cousins at Christmas time, and each year, we did something a little different, and those make for some great memories. It is ok to be emotional about the holidays, but they really are crazy. Spending 3x’s as much on travel for 3 days isn’t really always worth it.

    • Jen

      I agree that marriage/some sort of public committment matters to some degree. Marriage is not the only way to have a meaningful committed relationship. However, I do think that the idea that Marriage is down the road means that times are changing and that is rough for a lot of parents I am engaged and untill this Holiday season, my significant other and I did not do Thanksgiving or Christmas together, even though our parents live 20 mins apart from each other. We knew we would have the rest of our lives to spend holidays together and make our own traditions, but so did our parents. So they were not quite ready to let those go even though they knew they would have to. I think it helped that we didn’t chnage our holoday arrangement untill now, when we are engaged, because I think our parents are ready for it now.

    • Just because marriage has that purpose FOR YOU doesn’t mean that it has to have that purpose for everyone else. Marriage doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.

      For many years, from the time I came out as a teenager, I did not expect to ever be able to marry a woman I loved. It’s only recently that that’s started to change. And yet, I was perfectly capable of making a family with a woman, with or without legal niceties, with or without a ceremony. Marriage means something very different to me than it does to you. And it gets to. You don’t get to dictate to the LW what it has to mean to her.

      • Katie B

        WOW! I wasn’t saying I get to dictate what marriage means to the letter writer. I do think that marriage might mean similiar things to me and the letter writer’s mother so I was merely pointing that out.

        (Also as a side note, since your reply implied a sort of homophobia on my part: A. I am queer. B. One of the reasons I am so passionate about marriage equality is that I believe that there is a cultural currency in marriage that is not reproducible by other institutions. This currency, as much as marriage legal value, is important and useful to couples and families.)

        • Maybe whether or not they are married IS important. If the creation of new family bond and obligations that are on par with those of our families of origin is not one of the purposes of marriage, I don’t know what is. I think the letter writer’s mother might have a point. We can’t say marriage makes a difference and then act like it doesn’t when it is inconvenient/uncomfortable for us.

          Sure sounds a lot like you dictating how much marriage matters to the LW to me. Or anyway like you generalizing from what marriage means to you to what it means to society in general, which amounts to much the same thing. The LW’s mother is trying to use what you’re calling “cultural currency” to emotionally blackmail the LW into doing what she wants. Only “cultural currency” isn’t the issue, the personal relationships involved are. And the LW is the only one who gets to decide how she prioritizes that.

          I don’t care whether you’re queer or straight. I was talking about how MY experience with marriage shapes MY perception of it, and what’s important to ME.

  • Lauren

    I feel this. My boyfriend and I spend the holidays apart to appease our parents, and because we’re not engaged or married (yet!), family members don’t understand why I would rather have him along with me or be wherever he is.

  • Caitrin

    My first APW post, I am usually just a lurker, but this hit very close to home so here I go!

    My now-fiance and I caused extreme agony two years ago when we decided that, after 6 years of splitting up at the holidays in order to avoid hurt feelings, we were going to spend Christmas day together. We faced a similar situation, we both have divorced parents, so there was a lot of people to consider not just my family or his. It was really hard. I think we broke every one of our parents heart in some way (his mother’s most of all) but thanks to my stubborn personality we stood our ground and ended up seeing everyone at some point but most importantly saw each other on Christmas morning for the first time. This is what was important to us so we made it happen. We now have a mantra for this time our year, “It is our holiday too!” It helps us remember to think about what we need, while also considering family.

    After two years we are still figuring it out but my biggest advice is try to create some sort of consistency for you and your families. We realized what was hardest for our families was to expect something, and then be let down. So now we have a schedule of sorts. My mom knows that she can expect us every other Christmas until further notice. His Mom knows that Thanksgiving is hers, but the day after Thanksgiving is ours. Holidays are so much about tradition that creating new ones for you and your partner are very important too.

    Good Luck!

    • Liz

      A schedule has really helped our family, too. I thought it would please everyone more if we tried to cram everyone in on each day, but that just left everyone feeling like they were missing out (except me. I just felt effing exhausted.). So then we thought we would do the flip-flopping, turn-taking holidays so it wouldn’t feel like “NEVER having Christmas with you AGAIN.” But that meant that it wasn’t stable and consistent.

      Determining this family gets Thanksgiving, this one gets Christmas every year for the rest of forever means everyone knows what to look forward to for each year (and sort of sets up a new standard of tradition). Until, that is, we get a house. Then everyone can come over and I can stay in my pajamas. EVERY HOLIDAY.

      • KC

        Hooray for pajama holidays!

    • Crayfish Kate

      Speaking of traditions, this got me thinking. LW/OP, it sounds as though your mom may be feeling, I’m not sure if ‘threatened’ is the right word, but maybe something more along the lines of ‘jealous’. And I’m not sure if this makes sense to you, but might it be possible to do a trade of sorts, or start a new tradition with your mom?

      For example, is there some holiday tradition you both hold dear, like baking Christmas cookies each season? If so, you could promise your mom every year you’ll spend a day/weekend/whatever with just her, carrying on this tradition, in exchange for some time with your boyfriend’s family. That way, you could spend some time with your boyfriend’s family, and maybe your mom won’t be as hurt knowing she will have this special time with you every year. Just a thought :-)

  • Melissa

    “Of course, the reality is that even with these diplomatic conversations, your mom may never be happy with the idea of sharing you. Transitions like these, they take time. And as much as it might suck, sometimes part of that transition is having the people you love be unhappy with your decisions. So if this year doesn’t work itself out how you’d hoped, don’t beat yourself up over it. You can’t make everyone happy all the time; all you can do is honor what you know is best for you and your family (both new and old) and own your decisions without regret (which I always have to remind myself of this time of year).”

    THIS. I too have a similar situation, and this advice is spot on for my holidays this year. My boyfriend of 5 years and I officially relocated to PA after college. This put us less than an hour from his family and over 4 hours from mine. Consequently, I see his family often and mine only when schedules align. To make matters worse, my mother (unhappily single) and I currently have a very strained relationship. This year, it’s come down to my boyfriend and I running about like crazy people on Christmas to see all of my family, or making a solid choice which leaves my mother alone for part of Christmas. It comes down to setting those boundaries that will protect and build your baby family–even if you’re not married yet and especially if your parents don’t respect your choices.

  • I am so glad I got to read this letter today. I’ve been having similar stresses with my own mother, even beyond the holidays. She has always invalidated my relationships and made it abundantly clear that my boyfriend should always be last priority, and that I am faaar too young to be committing myself to one person (I’m 23 and have been an 100% financially and emotionally independent adult since 19, I don’t exactly consider myself a child). I have zero doubts that my current boyfriend and I will get married. We discuss it in terms of “when” rather than “if.” So last summer when we moved in together, my mom stopped talking to me and started trash talking me TO MY BOYFRIEND’S MOM (thankfully his mom adores me and thinks nothing of it). My dad is going through a severe midlife crisis and has been living in Thailand on and off for the past year, and I couldn’t even stand the thought of Thanksgiving with someone who makes me feel so worthless so I jetted off to the east coast and spent Thanksgiving with my best friend. Now with the holidays approaching and my dad (hopefully) back in town I don’t know what to do! Both mine and my boyfriend’s families live nearby, but I would much rather spend the holidays with them. How do I even broach the subject with a mother who has ignored me for nearly 6 months?

    • This sounds like such a tough situation and I think you’re really brave to reach out for help. I would suggest gently approaching your mom with a heart toward reconciliation. I don’t know how your family dynamic has been growing up, but it seems that she has been dealing with a lot of her own insecurities and fears. With your dad leaving, your mom might be feeling particularly vulnerable and questioning her own choices, using you or your relationship as a springboard to work through her emotions. She might be dealing with issues of abandonment so her antics are more of a defense mechanism to protect herself from further hurt. From your tone, I can kind of sense that you’re still willing to work through the tension with her, which is great. Why not start by asking your mom to a mother-daughter lunch or dinner? Make her feel like you just want to spend some time with her. If she senses any anger or frustration in your voice, she may quickly shut down and bask further in her “I know best” attitude without really digging deeper. Once the two of you get together, perhaps you can ask her very honestly, but compassionately, why it is that she’s having such a hard time with your relationship choices. Don’t be accusatory, but try to let her know that you really do want to understand where she’s coming from and you’d like for everyone to be a united front; tell her that you love her and want her in your life and you’re willing to compromise so that she feels involved and respected. I know it must be so difficult to feel like your mom is pitting herself against you, but I do believe that the ability to forgive and heal is at the core of every healthy relationship. Best of luck!

  • Roisin

    I feel for the OP. I desperately, desperately don’t want to leave my girlfriend to the mercy of her horrible family, but *my* parents will pitch an absolute shit fit if I don’t go visit them. It’s more complicated because we haven’t exactly announced ourselves as being in a relationship – at least partially because we went straight from “friends” to “old married couple” and this doesn’t feel like any of the other relationships either of us have had – but it makes things really hard.

    In fact, they will *still* pitch an absolute shit fit if I go but don’t go for “long enough” – my mother always does this when I go to visit for less than a week. I do like seeing my parents, but after about 4 days I start seriously resenting the fact that I can’t go home yet.

    My parents also refused to come down and have christmas with me, and they won’t pay for my girlfriend to come visit with me (which is fair enough, but she can’t afford to get there), and so I’m stuck between “make myself and my girlfriend miserable over christmas” and “stir up a metric ton of bad feelings and angst and arguments with my parents”.

    So. Yeah. By this time next year, everyone will know that we’re in a relationship and have been for a year (lots longer, actually…) and at that point I will insist that we will be spending christmas together, however this is to be arranged.