Did you grow up in a family that gives passionate, long hugs every night before bedtime? Or was affection restricted to a peck on the cheek on special occasions? Do your partner’s parents give enthusiastic, sloppy kisses or do they seem to avoid physical contact altogether? Whatever your upbringing, it is likely that your expectations with regard to touch, affection, and sex differ from those of your sweetheart.
We often talk about the challenges of blending families from different cultural and religious backgrounds, but family norms with regard to the body can also cause friction during in day-to-day interactions and family get-togethers. During the holiday season, dinner parties, gift-giving, mistletoes and visiting relatives can create tension around physical touch, sleeping arrangements, and even dinner conversation. Read through some of the more common challenges below along with some tips for graciously navigating divergent expectations.
Kissing under the mistletoe or holding hands while sitting side-by-side is perfectly acceptable in some families and frowned upon in others. This can be a point of contention for couples who come from disparate backgrounds, as one might expect more affection both in public and private. If you happen to fall on the heavy side of the PDA scale, consider these tips:
- Ask for more affection without complaining. Start by telling your lover how much you love kissing, hugging and touching him/her and then lead by example.
- If your lover clams up in public or in front of family members, sneak off into a private space to make-up for time lost beneath the mistletoe.
- Alter your usual affection to reflect the style of your partner’s family — especially when you’re in their home. Compromise will get you everywhere! For example, if you usually slip a little tongue into your kisses regardless of watchful eyes, try a closed-lip kiss that lingers for a second longer.
If your lover’s PDAs make you or your family uncomfortable, consider the following:
- Explain that you love affection, but want to limit it in public on account of your own comfort level. You might include a reference to your upbringing and acknowledge that there is no universal standard with regard to what is in/appropriate.
- Consider compromising by offering light affection like a gentle brush of the lower arm or a warm hand on the shoulder.
- If you’re simply not comfortable with physical touch in public, consider other ways in which you can express affection (e.g. eye contact, purposeful smiles, sweet words whispered in his/her ear).
Huggers vs. Non-Huggers
Some people crave bear-hugs and warm embraces each time they greet you, while others limit their physical contact to cheek-to-cheek air hugs and kisses. Whatever your style, it is important to respect the wishes of your friends, family members and in-laws.
Dr. Ruth Neustifter, Assistant Professor in Couple & Family Therapy (Dr. Ruthie) offers the following suggestions to manage the divide between bear-huggers and air-huggers:
“It may be helpful for the person who doesn’t like to hug to often have their hands full or be otherwise busy. It’s hard to hug someone who is offering a tray of cookies, for example. The big times for hugging are often at the beginning and end of the event, so planning ahead to have a useful task that creates distance can be a good idea.
If your partner or child doesn’t want to be hugged/smooched, consider how they do like to receive affection. They might like side hugs (arms around the shoulders) or being verbally appreciated. Perhaps touch is too much in general and that is fine. They may like to hear that they’re doing well in school or that their outfit looks nice. Whoever is closest to the individual can have a respectful and positive conversation to share this information with everyone else. The person who gives the affection will still want to be giving, and hopefully will be open to other opportunities. By enlisting them in an additional way to be helpful and caring, you help them to feel important and motivated to respect individual rules/boundaries.”
Talking About Sex and Intimacy
Even if both of your families agree that sex talk doesn’t qualify as acceptable dinner conversation, sexual innuendoes, jokes and revealing intimate details of your relationship can cause tension at family gatherings. Add alcohol into the mix and you have a recipe for disaster. To avoid discomfort and awkward situations, let the hosts set the tone with regard to tone, language, and content. If you feel your lover’s family is too prude or too lewd for your liking, remember that when it comes to sex, intimacy and relationships, there is no one-size fits all approach, so check your judgment at the door.
Whether you’re heading home for the holidays to introduce your new love to your parents or packing up the car to visit the in-laws with your college-aged kids and their significant others, sleeping arrangements can cause tension during overnight visits. Some families believe that sleeping in the same room is a privilege reserved for married couples and others are open to more liberal arrangements.
The solution to differing opinions with regard to sleeping arrangements is simple. Regardless of age, the host sets the rules in his/her home, so you have a choice: respect their rules or book a hotel room.
Nudity may not be an issue over the holidays, but the topic can cause friction in relationships more generally — especially when it comes to raising children. Stripping down to bare skin may have its benefits when it comes to body image and self-esteem, but walking around in the buff simply isn’t for everyone.
Some parents embrace their birthday suits in the presence of their children to normalize (and desexualize) nudity while others feel more comfortable covering up around family members. As long as we do not treat the body as dirty or shameful, a range of behaviours can be healthy. Here are a few tips for those who just don’t see eye-to-eye with their lovers when it comes to the naked body:
- Talk about your fears and concerns and try to understand your partner’s perspective.
- Agree to behave according to your individual comfort levels. You may be a team, but you don’t have to agree on everything. Part of raising healthy children involves exposure to a range of perspectives; if one parent prefers to lock the bathroom door while changing and the other is perfectly comfortable undressing with the door ajar, the kids will embrace the message that boundaries vary from person to person.
- If your family members (e.g. parents or grandparents) offer unsolicited input with regard to your child’s attire (or lack thereof), consider having a polite conversation about the value of diverse perspectives. You might politely explain that while you appreciate the norms with which you were raised, you’re also open to new ideas including those of your partner.
Since no two people are alike, it follows that no two families are identical and issues of differing values and expectations are bound to arise. When they do, talking to your partner about your concerns, wishes, and boundaries is of paramount importance, so don’t be shy. Voice your concerns and open your mind to the possibility that your way isn’t necessarily the right way. Together you can carve out a new approach that blends the best of both worlds by drawing from each of your family’s traditions and values.