Is Your Partner 'the One'? The Surprising Way the Holidays Can Help You Decide

A new study indicates how couples handle rituals together can say a lot about their future 

Loving couple enjoying Christmas
Photo: Getty

‘Tis the season to find out if the person you’re dating is marriage material, according to a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Researchers analyzed in-depth interviews of 24 couples who had been dating more than two years (selected randomly from a larger study examining the commitment to wed in heterosexual pairs) to determine the role that rituals—like those centered around celebrations—played in how they thought of their relationship.

What they found was that these rituals highlighted three key areas: family interactions, relationship awareness, and conflict management. The couples' behavior in those situations helped researchers determine if they were headed for marriage; their reported commitment to wed either increased or decreased according to how well their interactions went.

Of course, the holidays are a huge source of rituals like the ones the resources studied, which means this season is scientifically a make-or-break time for many relationships. “For many people, the holidays are a stressful time, and your ability to connect and be supported by your partner during them can make a big difference [and] informs quite a bit about a relationship,” says Dr. Donna T. Novak, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist in Simi Valley, CA.

While this year may be a bit unique because travel isn’t advised due to COVID-19 restrictions, so the traditional "meet the in-laws" moment may be off the table, there are still plenty of opportunities to put your relationship to the test this season. Read on for three “relationship indicators” - and three tips to set yourselves up for success - in order to up your chances of truly ringing in the New Year.


Indicator to look for: How much of a unit you are

Big events present an opportunity to take stock of relationship status, according to the study, so it makes sense if you’re suddenly looking more closely at your partnership. Not sure how you’re feeling? Pay attention to how much you both use “we” when discussing the future with family at holiday gatherings—that could mean you’re a packaged deal for the future.

And there’s another clue that your partner may think of you as “the one,” according to Dr. Supriya Blair, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in Albany, NY. “When you meet others who are important in your partner’s life, and they say, ‘I’ve heard a lot about you!’ that signifies that your partner is so excited about you that he, she, or they share their excitement with others.”

Indicator to look out for: Seeing a different side of your partner

If you find yourself thinking you don’t even recognize your significant other (in a bad way) when holiday snags arise, stay alert. While not necessarily the kiss of death - he or she may just be particularly anxious with their family and temporarily acting out - it could indicate a more fundamental problem if it’s more than a passing moment or two.

“People’s true characters often shine through when they experience difficult times. It could be easy for someone to make a good impression when a situation is going according to plan; yet, what happens when a holiday trip is canceled or rescheduled?” says Dr. Blair. After all, she reminds that “reliability, emotional stability, and grit are crucial to every relationship.”


Indicator to look out for: How you handle conflict together

Holiday arguments happen to even the most stable couples - in fact a survey by OnePoll found that couples report having seven disagreements over the course of the holiday season. The important part is how you guys come together to work them out.

Explains Dr. Novak, “Ultimately, when having your partner around makes it harder for you during the holidays rather than a source of comfort, this is something that needs to be thought through.” Communication can help you work through your issues, but it’s wise to try to confront the stressors now - or your relationship may not make it to next December.

The inability to “hear” one another or talk through and resolve recurring arguments are what Dr. Novak considers “yellow” caution flags; a few red flags to look out for include name calling, passive aggressive communication, or, of course, physical aggression.

Success tip: Stay out of their family conflict

If tensions mount in your partner’s family, try to let him or her handle it unless there’s a request for backup. “Family-of-origin dynamics are rooted in a history of interpersonal dynamics that start long before partners get together,” reminds Dr. Blair.

Allowing them to play out is your best bet for not taking on blame if things get heated. Plus, observing how your significant other handles these situations can provide you valuable information. “Paying attention to how conflicts are resolved is telling,” says Dr. Blair. “Is it resolved sincerely or are there passive-aggressive dynamics involved?”

One good sign to watch out for: If your partner takes ownership of any behavior that may have caused family tension (e.g., “I completely forgot about...that’s on me”), which could mean good things for the two of you down the road.

couple winter fun

Success tip: Have a pre-game talk

Setting up expectations during rituals can help ease conflict before it starts—for example, does one of you typically stay in pajamas all day around the tree, while the other likes to put on a special-occasion outfit? Compromising on these issues beforehand can help head off disagreements.

Establishing a game plan for unexpected problems that arise can also be a help—especially if you’re spending time with family, says Dr. Novak. This gives you a chance to prepare for any awkward moments; for example, the fact that your aunt always corners your boyfriends with pointed questions.

If you find yourselves surprised by an unplanned curveball, Dr. Novak has a solution: “Have a code word or signal for when you need some check out time together or individually to regroup.” You can also name a reserved spot in the house to escape to together when frustrations arise.


Success tip: Change tactics if you’re feeling insecure

If you feel a first meeting with the family isn’t going well, you may want to check in with yourself and make sure you’re not just feeling sensitive or expecting too much out of the situation. “In those moments you [can] start to get in your head about if they are liking you or if you did something wrong,” Dr. Novak points out. Her advice: “Ask yourself some questions, such as ‘Am I getting defensive or taking things personally when I don’t need to be?’ or ‘Can I shift my approach with them, now that I am getting to know them more?’”

If you feel at a loss, talk to your partner privately and see if you can’t come up with solutions together, like preparing conversation starters for harder-to-engage family members: "This will help you work together as a team and also show your partner that you value their input."

And, finally, although the study found that family acceptance is important for long-term potential, you may still be able to survive as a couple if either of you struggles to blend at first. Says Dr. Blair, “You do not necessarily need to be compatible with your partner’s family. In-law problems are not a problem unless either of the two parties bring it into a relationship.”

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