Have a conflict-free holiday with in-laws

A family gathers for a holiday meal. Such family meals are a common sight during the Christmas holiday. file photo

What you need to know:

  • It is the holiday season and many families are visiting their in-laws.
  • Even if one gets along well with their in-laws, they may still find it difficult to spend long periods of time with them.
  • And this is largely because of rocky relationships that may exist between in-laws.
  • So how do you make it through a visit to the in-laws?

A week before Christmas, a friend confided in me about the stress she’s feeling given the impending holidays. My usually bubbly and jolly friend looked like she was getting ready for a dental root canal just at the thought of spending an extended amount of time with her husband’s parents.

“Every year the Christmas holidays become harder for me to enjoy. My husband’s parents were hard to deal with when I was still just a girlfriend but things have not become easier now that I am a wife,” Angela lamented.

The couple dated for five years before tying the knot two years ago but Angela’s relationship with her mother-in-law continues to be a source of strife. They live far away that they do not visit them often. “No one ends up happy. My mother-in-law has so many expectations and demands and different views that I feel like she’s criticising everything I do and does not think I am good enough even for her son,” she said.

Balancing between families
Angela’s ordeal is not different from George’s who says it is difficult for him to balance between two families —his and his wife’s. George says his wife’s parents also demand that they visit them during the Christmas holiday.

He adds that not even saying they will visit them during the year comes off peacefully. “I find them not considerate to me at all. Because I have not honoured several of their invites over the years due to financial constraits most of the time, I am seen as the prodigal son-in-law,” George says adding that, “I cannot spend big amounts of money on two families in one month.”

While holiday parties and family get-togethers can be fun, they can also be extremely stressful, especially if you have controlling in-laws and relatives who do not like each other or worse, you.

So how can one get through the holiday season with your sanity and relationships still intact?

Dr Terri Orbuch, a relationship therapist and author advises that the best way to handle these situations is to first manage your expectations. “Setting realistic expectations is the key to not getting frustrated or angry with your partner’s family. It’s inevitable that there will be differences and disagreements, but do not try to change them or assume that things will be different this year. Instead, strive to find some common ground,” he advises.

He adds that most conflicts with in-laws stem from control issues. The in-laws are not yet ready to hand over control of their child yet the spouse feels should be their show to run.

“The best thing to do here would be for both parties to compromise and work as a team. Team effort makes every person feel an essential part of the family. Let each one of you handle those activities they are passionate about. If your mother-in-law cannot trust you in the kitchen then let her take the leading role there as you take over cleaning and decorating the house,” Dr Orbuch advises.

Cultivate a genuine interest
Semanda, a married father of four, says people love talking about themselves and your in-laws are not different. He advises that couples need to find a way of asking questions and get their in-laws talking about their work, childhood, hobbies, without seeming like an interrogation. “This has an added advantage of keeping them busy focused on their lives that they won’t have time to scrutinise and criticise you. Also when you truly know a person it is less likely that you will offend them with insensitive comments or actions.”

“My mother-in-law is actually a darling. The one I dread most is my father in-law,” relates Joanna. “He is of the cantankerous variety for whom no amount of compromise or appeasing is ever enough. Every time he gets a chance, he asks Ronald, my husband, where he picked me from in that tone you use when your toddler shows up with your knickers in their hands.”

Joanna says despite getting hurt in the beginning, over time she has got used to the attacks and simply laughs them off.
“Whenever he criticises me, or a member of my family, I simply smile and reply with a neutral comment and let it pass.” To Joanna, in-laws’ comments are not about you; but are a reflection of them. They are trying to remind you that they still have more influence on their child and psyche themselves that they are still in control.

Tame your conversation
Dr. Orbuch says talking about things such as the weather is fine but he says one should not encourage topics that create too much conflict such as politics, religion or food. “You can never change anyone’s opinion and you do not have to accept your in-laws’ opinions either, just listen and respectfully decline to comment.”

Minimise the little time
Evelyn who usually spends her holidays at her in-laws says families should not overstay their welcome. “You can plan fun activities for the children away from home to get out of your in-laws’ way or take solitary walks every evening. But most importantly inform your spouse that you should not stay any longer than necessary and enlist their help to make this happen.”

At the end of the day, couples should not focus on the negative aspects of the visit and miss a chance to enjoy themselves. “Look for those moments of pure pleasure and hold onto them,” Evelyn advises.

How to behave when hosting your in-laws

Host a gathering
Invite friends with similar interests to meet your in-laws. Your friends will create lively conversation over dinner and help the evening go smoothly, creating a buffer so you don’t have to entertain alone.

Let your in-laws be involved
Do not forget that your in-laws are family. More often than not, they will want to help out when it comes to preparing meals or tending children.

Retire to your room early
Make your end-of-the-day routine well known, even if it means retiring to your own bed early. Simply say, “Today has been great but I am going to bed. Feel free to stay up as late as you would like. See you all in the morning!”

Weigh your risk of hurting the relationship versus hurting your marriage. Although spending one week with your in-laws may seem overwhelming, it’s in everyone’s best interest to maintain a healthy relationship.