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How to Start New Traditions With Your Spouse

Published:
November 28, 2023
November 6, 2023
Read this article to find out how starting new Christmas traditions for couples can benefit your relationship.|Read this article to find out how starting new Christmas traditions for couples can benefit your relationship.

One afternoon not long after our wedding, my wife Genevieve and I went to buy our first shared Christmas tree. This felt momentous, so we skipped the more affordable pre-cut options and picked a nice fir that a teenager sawed down right in front of us and tied to the roof of my Subaru Forester. I reveled in domestic bliss as we drove home, the tree ritual joining the list of new-marriage activities like purchasing a home and merging our bank accounts that made me believe I was a real-life grownup.

But then we had to haul the thing through the front door — needles everywhere — and get it into the cheap tree stand. After getting the ornaments from the basement, we began to decorate — which was where the real trouble started. We strung lights. Then I started hanging the ornaments on the tree randomly: bauble up at the top, little snowflake to the right, popsicle stick snowman I made in preschool at the bottom, whatever. 

Genevieve reacted with horror. You’ve got it all wrong, she insisted. First, you establish a base of coverage with the boring single-color balls, spread out evenly. Then, you take the more whimsical, unique ornaments and fit them in the gaps between the boring ones. This allows for a nicely balanced tree.

I thought she was joking. Who pays that much attention to how you decorate a tree? You just throw the ornaments on there. That’s what we did growing up, anyway. My brother liked the marching band men ornament set so he hung all the little musicians clumped together. Sure, why not?

And then it hit me. My mom taught us the “anything goes” method. Gen’s mom was much more careful. We had inherited these techniques through our own family-of-origin traditions without even realizing it. Our marriage, the new family we were making together, was bringing these differences to the surface. So I went on Facebook and posted something like this: A married couple decorating a Christmas tree is a battle of their mothers by proxy. I got a huge amount of replies almost instantly. “This is the most insightful thought you have ever had,” a friend wrote, which felt like a backhanded compliment.

It was a small conflict (we decorate in Gen’s style now; it’s fine, I don’t care, please don’t tell anyone that I care), but I do think it illuminated a significant part of marriage: When you’re making a new family, you have to make your own way together, which often means leaving old things behind. This is hard! Especially when it comes to nostalgia-fueled stuff like the Christmas season.

My favorite illustration of family-of-origin conflicts that can arise in new families is from a book about Benedictine monks called “The Cloister Walk” by Kathleen Norris, who spent two extended residencies at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. 

“One monk, when asked about diversity in his small community, said there were people who can meditate all day and others who can’t sit still for five minutes; monks who are scholars and those who are semiliterate; chatterboxes and those who emulate Calvin Coolidge with regard to speech,” she writes. “‘But,’ he said, ‘our big problem is that each man here had a mother who fried potatoes in a different way.’” These things that seem little can add up and lead to real conflict and distrust. Over the 11 years Gen and I have been married now, we’ve tried to navigate these challenges in a few different ways. Here are four commitments I value in this work.

Make new traditions. Our first few Christmases living in our own house, which is a lot closer to where I grew up than where my wife did, I wanted us to join my own family for everything, doing Christmas the way I celebrated it growing up. My wife and I hadn’t been together long enough to have built any of our own traditions. It felt rootless. I had to make a conscious decision to let go of the old and embrace the new, even if it felt less meaningful in the early years. Now, more than a decade out, our own ornament collection has grown and we have our own traditions we look forward to — our annual viewing of the movie Die Hard is toward the top of the list. It can take a few years for these things to stick. It’s natural to feel unmoored in the early going.

Your new family comes first. Sometimes, making new traditions with your spouse or significant other means the events or activities your own family-of-origin expects you to participate in might not work out. That can lead to some tough conversations with your parents or other relatives. But you have to make those decisions sometimes. Your new family comes first.

Communication, compromise, creativity. The last points above don’t mean you abandon all family-of-origin traditions you love! Sometimes, my wife and I bring each other into our old traditions. This can certainly work, though you want to make sure the balance is as fair and equitable as possible. And sometimes those old traditions get a new creative twist. Even if my kids, wife, and I are going to wake up in our own house Christmas morning, a few states away from my parents, we can find other times in the season to celebrate with them. It might not be on Christmas Day itself. This could take getting used to, especially for parents who are used to all their adult kids being together for a holiday, but adaptation is usually possible. Everyone just has to give a little bit.

Go gently. These seemingly little conflicts can get hot, especially around the holidays. Be gentle with your partner, your family-of-origin, and yourself. Love can overcome a lot, even the gulf between those of us who care about where each ornament goes and those of us who are normal.

Creators:
Mike Jordan Laskey
Published:
November 28, 2023
November 6, 2023
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