Spending time with your in-laws may leave you feeling like you’re walking on eggshells.
Perhaps you got into a huge disagreement about politics earlier this year and things have been tense ever since. Or maybe you get the impression that your in-laws just don’t like you, and haven’t really accepted you into the family.
Dr. John Gottman says “every marriage is a cross-cultural experience regardless of whether people are from different or the same cultures. They come from different families and the family they create is a brand new culture that has never existed before.” The holidays can bring mixed feelings and expectations about this new family culture, especially when it comes to in-laws.
The following suggestions will empower you to handle uncomfortable situations with confidence.
Focus on your relationship
Surviving the holiday hustle requires open communication between you and your partner. Use a softened startup when sharing the things you are anxious about to have more constructive conversations that will bring you closer.
Look for sliding door moments where you can really share what you’re thinking and feeling with your partner. These seemingly small moments are actually huge opportunities that can make or break your connection throughout this stressful season.
Let your partner know the non-negotiable boundaries you may have about the things you are uncomfortable talking about or doing at family gatherings. Make sure you are both on the same page and ready to support one another.
Remember, this is your partner’s family and they may have a different perspective of them than you. It’s normal for couples to have to adjust to each other’s feelings about their parents. If you can maintain respect and open communication throughout this process, you’ll both win.
Check your expectations
This time of year can create high levels of stress with lots of meal prepping, alcohol consumption, gift buying (for people you may not even know very well), and awkward conversations.
It doesn’t take a psychologist to notice your in-laws are different from your own parents. Recognize that you are engaging with people who have their own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors completely separate from you.
Acknowledge that your partner’s family traditions are often just that: generational traditions that began years before you. If you bring a mindset of curiosity to your family gatherings this year, you may learn things about your partner and their family (and yourself!) that you never knew before.
Nobody is perfect, so don’t pressure yourself to be, and don’t expect to receive that from your family. Knowing this can help you not take things so personally.
People-pleasing your way through the holidays will lead to you feeling drained, anxious, and resentful. It is understandable to want to walk into holiday get-togethers on your best behavior, but you don’t need to filter your actions to the point of putting everyone else’s needs and wants before your own.
When it comes to in-laws, it is vital that you focus on being yourself. Allowing your partner’s family to get to know you the way your partner does is the first part to developing authentic relationships with them.
So, don’t say “yes” when you mean no.
Pick your Battles
The holidays really don’t need to be about confronting family issues. You don’t have to get into it over pie and champagne. If you foresee family drama occurring over the holidays at any of your get-togethers, sit down with your partner beforehand and create a game plan together.
Come up with the exact things you will say to shut down any confrontation or fighting with other family members, especially in-laws. It’s simply not appropriate. You are allowed to set boundaries!
Here’s some great starters:
“I have decided not to discuss that today. If you’d like to call me sometime next week to talk about that, I’ll be available then.”
“This is not something I’m comfortable discussing right now.”
“Sorry, but I won’t be getting involved in this conversation right now. We can talk about it another day after the holidays.”
You do not have to accept an invitation into an altercation or family feud. You can be the bigger person, even if you are not the older person.
Have an exit plan
When all else fails, especially if your partner comes from a high-conflict family, have an exit plan. You get an A for your effort in trying to be there for your partner’s family on special occasions, but you also do not have to stick around to engage in unhealthy, abusive, or extreme situations where you don’t feel comfortable.
Create a code word or phrase and agree to remove yourselves from any potentially scarring situations before they get too out of hand. Believe it or not, there are many people who feel that dysfunctional and abusive family dynamics are just something they have to endure and get over, which is simply not true.
Nurture your connection
That’s right, consider how you might actually lean into your relationship with your in-laws this holiday season. The first few years with my husband, I took a back seat and would simply “show up” to holiday gatherings. I didn’t want to create any unnecessary drama or awkward vibes with anyone. While this is typical for my more introverted personality, I realized that it sometimes came off as disinterested or as me not making an effort to engage with my new family.
So, I actually came up with an idea to do a pie decorating contest at our family’s holiday get-together. I stepped (okay, jumped) out of my comfort zone and called my in-laws to ask them what they thought about the idea and if they’d like to help me get some of the ingredients we need ready. They thought it was great!
It was a hit, and not to mention a total ice-breaker between me and my in-laws. You never know how a simple, playful idea could actually mend the gap between you and your family and bring you closer.
Commit to trying some new ways to respond to, and connect with, your in-laws this year. Growth begins when you step out of your comfort zone. Take this opportunity to dive into some new ways of relating to the people who will be in your life for years to come.
I’d love to hear from you. Share what has worked for you in the comments below.
Sign up for the Love Notes Newsletter and receive a free downloadGet the latest on relationships, parenting, therapy and more from the experts at The Gottman Institute. Sign up now and receive a free monthly download.
The NEW Gottman Relationship Adviser takes the guesswork out of improving your relationship. Measure your relationship health with a research-based self-assessment, then receive a tailored digital plan proven to heal and strengthen your connection.