My family or yours? Using integrative negotiation to allocate holiday time

With the holidays fast-approaching, many of us face a decision: my family or yours? As anyone who has made this decision can attest, its consequences often stretch far beyond December.

Dividing up family time can be contentious. But it’s negotiable!

For this post, imagine you’re married or in a serious-enough relationship to worry about the division of family time. Imagine, further, that both you and your partner have already insisted that, “It’s my family this year!” Having one family in Chicago and another in San Francisco, having one week of vacation, and having both refused to back down, you’re now on the brink of crisis. Specifically, you can only see three options:

  1. 50/50 time split: You both spend two days in Chicago, two days in San Francisco, and about 3 days flying Reunited Airlines. Obviously a bad option, and not just because you have to deal with Reunited. Two days with each family is not nearly enough: both will feel slighted, and you’re likely to feel unfulfilled if not exhausted.
  2. 50/50 person split: You spend the week with your family in Chicago, and your partner spends the week with his/her family in San Francisco. But that doesn’t sound so great either – who wants to remember 2015 as the year they spent the holidays apart?
  3. 50/50 relationship split: You could actually see this discussion getting so heated that—in combination with other various and sundry disputes over the years—it strains the relationship itself. Though that might facilitate the second option, it’s obviously not preferred.

In short, you’re stuck in a holiday pickle. But why? Because you’ve assumed that the pie is fixed—engaging in what negotiation researchers call distributive or win-lose negotiation. In other words, you’re trying to slice one fixed resource—the week of holiday vacation—rather than entertaining the possibility that you and your partner could discuss multiple resources. The latter would imply that the pie can grow, which researchers call integrative or win-win negotiation.

Integrative negotiation is a HUGE topic that many researchers have studied for many decades, and that I will write about for a long time to come. The current point is not to describe integrative negotiation in all of its glory, as that would be a 1,589,230-word posting. The point is to highlight the difference between distributive and integrative negotiation and mention some of the many solutions to the holiday pickle that become possible when we assume that the pie can grow:

  1. Trade the holidays: We spend Christmas (for example) in San Francisco and Easter (for example) in Chicago. Come to think of it, that sounds better, as only a masochist would try to fly Reunited into O’Hare in December.
  2. Trade this holiday: We spend this Christmas in San Francisco and explicitly agree to spend next Christmas in Chicago. In other words, we recognize that this is a repeated decision, bringing time into the equation to develop a schedule. Come to think of it, that sounds better, as your brother will probably be able to make it next year.
  3. Introduce a new issue: Suppose that you love extreme downhill skiing but rarely get to do it, tethered as you are to the rolling hills of the East Coast. The sounds utterly irrelevant to the holiday pickle until your partner suggests five days in San Francisco and two in the Sierras. Come to think of it, that sounds awesome.

These are not earth-shaking ideas, nor do they come close to exhausting the possibilities. The point is only to emphasize the power of integrative negotiations. By assuming that there are many possible resources to discuss—multiple holidays, multiple iterations of this holiday, an extreme skiing trip—the holiday season looks a lot rosier.

How have you resolved your own holiday pickles?

16 thoughts on “My family or yours? Using integrative negotiation to allocate holiday time

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  13. I used to have this problem with my ex-husband. My mother was insistent that Christmas “was her holiday”. Which…does not work well when the other family is up for sharing. We finally got everyone on the alternative holiday train, but not without some crying, phone slamming, and wine. With my new partner, while his parents are both deceased, we had now 3 children. Luckily they are grown and we are more than happy to have them Christmas Eve and make the trek to Pennsylvania for Christmas with my family. This makes the girls’ mom happy and my mom happy.


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