Is there some sort of monster hiding, waiting to ruin relationships come holiday time? This year, refuse to let it get you…or at least come prepared if it does.
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1. You Have Holiday Sex With Your Ex
THE DRAMA: "My high school sweetheart and I hung out at a bar over Thanksgiving," says Kelly*, 24. "One thing led to another, and we ended up fooling around." The next morning she realized: mistake! "I prayed that it was a dream," she recalls, "but it was clear from his texts and emails that he thought we were back together. It was incredibly awkward."
THE DEAL: Connecting with an ex over the holidays is common, says Bethany Marshall, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist in Pasadena, California. "It's a nostalgic time," she says. "You gravitate toward things that are comfortable and familiar, and there he is." You know, like your favorite kind of pie, except in guy form! So just make sure you both know where things stand. "Listen and hear where he is emotionally," says Marshall. If he's trying to make plans with you for New Year's and you're totally over him, let him down gently (which, Kelly admits, can be secretly satisfying if he's the one who dumped you in the first place). And next year don't do the bar thing, OK?
2. Your Gift Makes His Look Tiny…
THE DRAMA: "Michael and I weren't exclusive yet when the holidays rolled around, but I thought it was getting serious," says Alyse, 28. "I got him this really nice silver bracelet engraved with his name. He opened it and put it on right away." Then Alyse opened his gift to her: a set of Austin Powers DVDs. "It was comical but also awful," she recalls. "I wondered if we weren't as close as I'd thought. When a relationship is that new, how can you tell?"
THE DEAL: Don't assume a small gift means small feelings. "Some people are just lousy gift givers, especially in the beginning," says Paulette Kouffman Sherman, Ph.D., who specializes in relationship coaching in New York City. "If you gave too much, consider yourself generous, and be glad you made another person happy." But if you're just not that Zen (who is?), and his teeny little, ahem, package spooks you, explore those feelings: Alyse laughed off the mismatch but had The Talk with Michael a few days later, and they agreed to be monogamous. To avoid overgifting in the future, Marshall suggests experiential things you can enjoy together, like tickets to a basketball game or a play. Of course, if he gives you diamond earrings in return…actually, that's fine.
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3. …or His Gift to You Is Heinous
THE DRAMA: Any relationship, even a marriage, that's been tootling along just fine can hit some rough patches when it comes to gifts. "One year, my darling husband gave me cookbooks for Christmas," says Seattle's Jennifer, 40. "Not just cookbooks, but diet cookbooks. I had no idea what to say. He'd obviously heard my whining about my figure. It wasn't snark or meanness. But I was really surprised." And it wasn't just that they were diet books, she adds: "They were hard-core vegan-and I'm not. I had that 'You don't really know me at all' feeling."
THE DEAL: There are women who would be perfectly happy with a vegan diet book as a gift, but it was the wrong gift for Jennifer-and it shook her faith in her marriage. (See also: giving flats to the woman who never takes off her stilettos, ski lessons to the woman who shivers when it's 70 degrees or paperbacks to the woman who reads everything on her Kindle.) "People want an idealized holiday experience, which includes a perfect gift," says Marshall. "They expect the other person to magically know what they want." As most men are not actually able to read minds, this is unlikely to occur. Instead, make your desires known via the ancient tradition of a wish list or even a face-to-face conversation (!), sweetly suggesting the types of gifts you like-pampering rather than useful, or the other way around, for example. Whether you leave your list where he can find it, email it to him anonymously or just program it right into his phone is up to you.
4. You Break Up Just Before the Holidays
THE DRAMA: Sara, 29, of Portland, Oregon, and her boyfriend of two years had split in November, and, she says, "I was miserable at the thought of weeks of holiday events as a newly single person." When she tried to put up her Christmas tree on her own and it refused to stay in the stand, she recalls, "I cried for the millionth time." A plucky Sandra Bullock would play Sara in the movie, but how can you get through the holidays with a broken heart?
THE DEAL: The key is to not generalize events that occur this time of year, says Marshall. "Some people feel that if they don't have someone on that special day, that means they never will. But just because there's no one right now doesn't mean you won't find love. This is not your whole life." Silver-lining time: All those holiday breakups mean there are more available men out there than there were a month ago! Go get 'em.
5. You Insult His Family
THE DRAMA: On her first trip home for the holidays with her boyfriend Chris, Jamie, a 28-year-old Texan, played things pretty well at first. When Chris's mom insisted she eat some black-eyed peas as part of a family tradition, she complied, despite hating them. Good-girlfriend moment achieved! But after the meal, while talking to Chris' sister, things went wrong. "I said the peas were gross and I hated eating them," Jamie recalls. "His mom overheard me and burst into tears. I didn't know traditions were so important to her; I later learned that she had been using the same exact wrapping paper every holiday for 25-plus years! I felt pretty terrible."
THE DEAL: Once the damage is done, you've got to move quickly to repair it, says professional matchmaker and dating coach Suzanne K. Oshima: "Don't ignore the situation and hope it will go away, because it won't. You will always be known as the girlfriend who offended his mother. Apologize and make amends so everyone can move on." Jamie did just that, and thankfully it worked. Of course, the best solution is to head off such problems. You googled your boyfriend (admit it) when you started dating; do similar research on his family, with him as your expert source. Find out what their conversational third rails are (Obama? plastic surgery?) before you arrive, and avoid them. And eat your peas.
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6. You're Not Included in His Holiday Plans
THE DRAMA: They'd been dating for a year and a half, so Katie, 32, wanted to spend the holidays with her boyfriend Scott. Scott had other plans. Plans that involved tequila but not her. "He informed me that he was going to Mexico with his family for New Year's-and I wasn't," she says. "He had also not invited me home for Thanksgiving." Understandably, she was hurt.
THE DEAL: When confronted with this type of disappointment, says Kouffman Sherman, resist the urge to make it bigger than it is. "Don't turn 'He's going without me' into 'He doesn't love me,'" she says. Look for alternative explanations. "Perhaps his family always goes on a trip alone and significant others aren't invited," she says. "Ask before you assume the worst." But Katie and her guy had been together well over a year; at that point, a noninvite is a warning sign but not a death knell. "If he isn't ready to include you, maybe you can have a nonpressured conversation to find out why," says Kouffman Sherman. "Look at his overall behavior. Does he invite you to weddings and work parties? Does he speak about your future? Does he leave the room to take phone calls?" Those, needless to say, are clues worth heeding.
Katie was honest with Scott about her feelings, and it helped. "I told him that I was upset," she says, "and then he had some time to really think about it because I went off on a trip to Costa Rica with my sister without him." When Katie returned, he invited her to Mexico after all. A happy ending and tequila for everyone!
7. Your Family Can't Deal With Your Being Single
THE DRAMA: Elizabeth, 29, of Columbus, Ohio, has spent the past few Decembers kicking it solo. Well, not entirely solo; her family has relegated her to the kids' table to make room for everyone else's girlfriends and boyfriends. "Generally I play babysitter," she says-a bit of a conversational letdown, considering she's working on a Ph.D. in history. "It's as if being single means that you're not a true adult," she says. "The first question out of some people's mouths is 'Are you seeing anyone?' It all gets pretty annoying and stressful. I'm actually happy with my life!" Short of hiring a fake escort for the season (that movie would star Tina Fey), how do you cope?
THE DEAL: "There is so much pressure on young women to be paired off," says Joan Allen, a relationship expert and author. "If you called a guy who's single at Christmas, he would be sitting back watching the game with a beer, not crying into it." Allen suggests stopping love-life inquisitors dead in their tracks: "Just put a smile on your face and say, 'Why do you ask?' It makes them realize how they sound." Allen also endorses Elizabeth's strategy: focusing the conversation on what she's doing-her dissertation-instead of what's not happening in the romance department.
8. You Were So Sure He'd Propose
THE DRAMA: Thirty-year-old Laura, of Belvidere, New Jersey, was looking forward to the holidays-and a proposal. "We'd been together over a year and were talking about getting engaged," says Laura. "He even took me ring shopping!" On Christmas Eve, he handed her a jewelry box from her favorite shop. "Any girl looking at that box would have thought, This is it," she recalls. "But there was an MP3 player inside." Laura was crushed by the proposal fail and mortified that it all happened in front of her family. "I felt tricked," she says. He wasn't done with his shenanigans: After he pulled a similar Valentine's Day fake-out, she dumped him. Smart girl.
THE DEAL: It's easy to get focused on when and where you are going to get that ring (so shiny! so sparkly!), but you have to go deeper than jewelry to see what his actions (or nonactions) represent, says Marshall: "Look at the intangibles. Does he have empathy? Does he make references to the future? If you have those factors, that's more important than a ring." On the other hand, "If he never talks about the future, not getting a ring isn't your biggest problem," she says. "He may not be emotionally invested in the relationship." This was true for Laura. "After Valentine's Day," she says, "I knew he was never going to commit to me." It was time to move on-and she did, to a new guy who is now her husband. Did we mention she's smart?
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