Christmas with the In-Laws

Today’s #ThursdayThoughts blog post is an article by the Centre’s lead therapist, Sharron Grainger, on coping with the in-laws at Christmas. So for those of us with an in-law problem, Sharron’s insight and tips may be just what is needed to help pull off the much-desired, but rarely achieved, stress-free Christmas!

Christmas with the in-laws

At this time of year couples often bring up the issue of how to handle their respective in-laws through the Christmas period. Some go as far as saying they are nervous about the holiday period as they feel that they are walking on eggshells or waiting for the land mine to explode!

The reasons for these feeling may be because of an argument between one partner and their parent’s in-law sometime during the year over grandchildren or perhaps they were ‘butting in’ on the couple’s relationship. Or it could be that your partner is a people pleaser and won’t stand up for themselves in order to avoid conflict, which then leads to arguments between you as a couple. Or maybe it’s simply that one or other partner has always felt that their in-laws haven’t fully accepted them for the simple reason that every marriage has their own unique culture regardless of where the family of origin is from, be that the same culture or different.

Whatever the reason, this time of year can bring out the worst in people.

During Christmas, feelings and expectations about the new family culture can be upsetting especially for those in-laws who are set in their ways. Accept that your partner’s family traditions are often generational traditions that have been handed down for years before you two got together and that in time, you will develop your own traditions to be handed down to future generations.

Some couples may be ‘lucky’ enough not to have to spend much time visiting or being visited during the year by their respective in-laws. But perhaps there is an unwritten rule that Christmas is an exception, so all bets are off. Some couples invite their parents and avoid telling their partners ‘until it’s too late’ to change anything, which then inevitably leads to arguments about being left out of the decision-making process.

But whatever the state of play between you and your in-laws is at this time of year, here are a few suggestions to enable you to manage uncomfortable situations with confidence.

Firstly, your partner comes first: In order to survive this time of year you MUST have open communication between you and your partner. Set aside some time to share the things you are anxious about in order to have more constructive conversations that will bring you closer. Look for opportunities to talk to your partner and if needs be, set aside 15 minutes each day from now until ‘in-laws day’ to discuss your feelings. Taking that brief time now will pay dividends later and can help to strengthen your relationship through this stressful season.

Make sure you and your partner are on the same page. If there are non-negotiable areas that you are uncomfortable about in relation to your in-laws make sure you are both very clear about these. Remember it is normal for couples to have different feelings about their parents and to have to adjust. Maintaining open communication and being respectful will benefit you both.

Being aware of your expectations is also vitally important due to the high levels of stress with lots of shopping for ‘that perfect gift’, alcohol consumption, meal planning and preparations and not to mention awkward conversations with in-laws who may be very different to your own parents. Remember to separate their feelings and behaviours from your own.

Don’t be a people pleasure! Remember you can’t please all of the people all of the time and it’s exhausting trying. So, focus on yourself. When you mean no, say no!

Pick your battles and if you know something may erupt have a plan to change the subject or excuse yourself. Discuss what you will accept and shut down any conflict that is not acceptable. Make an exit plan in case you need it. Use a code word or phrase, remember you don’t have to tolerate confrontation.

It’s really important to compromise. Look at each issue from your partners perspective. It might be that you decide to spend alternate years at your in-laws or to invite them to yours or indeed to spend one year at home and then alternate between both of your parents for the next two years. By doing this you can cultivate a mutual understanding and hopefully keep Christmas a season of good will.

Above all remember that nobody is perfect, not you and not your family. Knowing this to be true may help you to not take things so personally.

Sharron Grainger – Lead Psychologist at the Connolly Counselling Centre.

Phone: +353 1 2100 600
297 Beechwood Court
Stillorgan, Co. Dublin, A94 N726