Holidays and the In-Laws

dinner table

I’ve been blessed. I have amazingly awesome in-laws. I actually look forward to the holidays so I can spend time with all of them. Some of you aren’t so lucky, though; the holidays are a nightmare because of what you go through with your significant other’s family.

Obviously I’m not speaking from personal experience here, but as someone who has heard just about every horror story imaginable in my counseling office, I have some thoughts on what you may be able to do to handle certain situations that may arise.

Situation #1: The age-old war of which family you’re supposed to spend the holidays with.

The easy answer? Take turns from year to year. The hard answer? Negotiate with everyone involved. The first round of negotiations will more than likely begin with your spouse, unless, of course, they too would rather not spend their holiday with their own family. In that case, you don’t need to read this article. (Just kidding!)

You and your husband have to be a united front on this issue. If you can be strong together, then you can handle any disagreements and arguments your respective families give you when you tell them what your schedule is going to be. And that’s just the thing — it needs to be your schedule, not the extended family determining the schedule for you.

Probably the easiest solution is to do Thanksgiving at your in-laws’ and Christmas with your family one year, and then swap it around the following year. Or, make both holidays with the in-laws one year and then both holidays with your family the next year.

If the entire situation gets really out of hand, decide that you are only going to spend the holidays together as a couple, or as a family, if you have children. I’m serious. I know, everyone will hate you if you make this decision, but don’t they already disapprove of you at this point? You have nothing to lose except maybe trying to please everyone and still coming up short no matter what you do.

Situation #2: You are treated poorly.

You have in-laws that can not, for the life of them, refrain from making snide and rude comments to you every time you see them. Short of cussing them out and refusing to ever get together with them again, it seems like there is nothing you can do about this. There is something you can do about this, however. You have one of two options:

One, stay silent. Don’t say a word. In fact, act like you don’t hear them. This may drive them nuts and increase the comments, but eventually, like the middle school bully, they’ll get it and find a new person to belittle and put down.

Two, you can respond. Not with snottiness or sarcasm back at them, but with firmness and strength, laying down boundaries for what is acceptable behavior and what is not.

For example, your mother in law has been snidely making comments about, “Before our son married you, he had such potential in his particular career field. But he gave it all up so he could support you and the kids instead. Such a waste.” And with this, she clucks her tongue and shakes her head.

Your response? “Your son made his own decisions. I did not force him or manipulate him into making them. You have been telling me this for years and it needs to stop. It is what it is, and you need to accept it. I will no longer allow you to make me feel as if I have ruined your son’s life by marrying him. The next time you begin to say these things, I will walk away from the conversation.”

Situation #3: Your husband won’t defend you.

Complicating the above issues is having a husband who will not support you in front of his family. This can be one of the most hurtful things that can occur when it comes to in-law situations. Even as I write it, I think of the frustration and helplessness that women have shared with me as they have spoken of their husbands just staying silent while their family members pick them apart.

Without attacking your hubby, clearly state your hurt about the entire situation. An entire article on communication could be inserted here, but briefly, this means stating your feelings and your perception of the situation.

Instead of, “You never stick up for me,” try, “Whenever your father begins criticizing me, my heart hurts because you don’t defend me. I don’t feel valued or loved when I’m being left on my own to withstand his cruelty.”

The difference in these two approaches are “I” statements versus “you” statements. Always state your side of the situation using “I” statements, not “you”. “You” statements can make a spouse feel attacked.

Hopefully your husband will hear what you are saying and a great conversation will take place, with some changes being made on his behalf. If he doesn’t hear what you are saying, or worse, it turns into a huge fight, you may want to seriously consider seeking out counseling to work through the issue. Ultimately, if he won’t defend you but his family is that horrible to you, you may have to gently but firmly tell him you will not be attending his family functions until something changes. Obviously, you don’t need to pull this card out if just rude comments are being made, in which case, refer to Situation #2, but if what they are doing falls into the “absolutely cruel” (a.k.a. emotionally and mentally abusive) category, this may be an option you have to consider.

(Note: If you have children, don’t deprive them of seeing their grandparents, unless, of course, the grandparents are being emotionally abusive with your children as well, in which case it is more than appropriate to keep the kids from them.)

Situation #4: In-laws disciplining your children.

I can hear the teeth grinding now as some of you think about the last time that happened.

Unless you have implicit trust in your in-laws (and your own parents, for that matter), it is inappropriate for them to play the role of disciplinarian in your children’s lives. As hard as it is, you need to gently but firmly lay the boundaries down as to what is appropriate with their involvement with your children’s behavior and what is not.

For instance, it is appropriate for them to come to you if they find your son hitting one of his cousins so that you can handle the situation as the parent. It is not appropriate for them to take it upon themselves to send your son to another room for time out or to spank him.

Situation #5: In-law relatives who don’t discipline their own children.

Their kids hit your kids, spit at you, and use language that most adults wouldn’t use. It makes you want to turn them all over your knee and give them a spanking — and you don’t even believe in spanking! However, just as your husband’s relatives have no right to discipline your kids, neither do you have the right to discipline their children.

The hard part about this particular situation is that really, how they discipline their children and what they let them get away with is no more your business than how you parent your children is their business. But the results of their way drives you absolutely bonkers! Now, if the kids are being physical, it is ok to speak up and say something. But if they’re just plain brats, you’re pretty much going to have to grin and bear it until you go separate ways.

If your children ask why their cousins get away with such and such, or why they can watch that TV show that you have banned from your house, don’t use the opportunity to bash their aunts and uncles. Instead, just say that different families have different ways of doing things. Explain why you have chosen the way you have as a family.

Situation #6: Family Fights.

Finally, there are just some families where a huge family fight is inevitable every single year. I’m not talking about arguing, I’m talking screaming-matches-fights. If you have learned that this is a part of your spouse’s family tradition, plan ahead of time, if possible, to leave before it gets out of hand. If you can’t leave, make a point of leaving the scene and taking yourself (and your children) to another part of the house, or even on a walk, until it dies down.

Whatever you do, don’t try to play peacemaker. The fact is, they’re blood family and your “just” the daughter-in-law, so even the side you try to take will end up turning on you in the end just for the sake of family loyalty. Do whatever you can to stay uninvolved in the chaos.

Thankfully, if you have difficult in-laws, Thanksgiving and Christmas only come one time a year. Do what you can to get through it and leave it all behind you when you walk out the door.

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