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How to survive the holidays with your in-laws

Less-than-joyful about spending the holidays with your partner’s family? Get refreshingly honest answers on how to deal here.

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Robert De Niro plays overprotective father Jack Byrnes

Robert De Niro plays overprotective father Jack Byrnes in Meet the Fockers (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures).

To paraphrase Dickens: It is the best of times. It is the worst of times… The time of year has arrived when you’re duty-bound to entertain your partner’s nearest and dearest. For some, this obligation may be experienced joyously. For others, it’s going to feel like a perverse form of torture. Whether you’re an anxious newlywed or a battle-scarred spouse of many years, here are six tips for surviving the holidays with the in-laws.

1. Forget about creating the perfect moment
Of course you want to prepare the perfect meal for your perfect extended family, and of course you want to celebrate the season memorably. Of course! But you’re daydreaming. Do yourself a favour and lose any (and all) unrealistic expectations.

“There’s just so many expectations about how wonderful it’s supposed to be,” says Guelph, Ontario-based marriage and family therapist, Melinda Burns. Life is not a greeting card, or 3D advent calendar with a chocolate treat behind every door.

“Hallmark has set us up with an idealized view of what this holiday is about — gathering family together and everyone is happy and gets along and is happy to see each other and enjoys each other’s company — and that’s really not the truth.” But that’s okay.

2. Settle for uneventful and pleasant over perfect
We mortals are only allotted a handful of truly perfect days within our lives. Rarely do these golden hours occur in the presence of one’s in-laws. Even fewer occur during the holidays with one’s in-laws. Instead of getting tripped up by seasonal fantasies, think of the holidays as a collection of days that are subject to the same ups and downs that characterize the average working day.

“A realistic expectation will be that there will be moments of great joy and beauty and there will be other moments that will be anything but,” says Burns. “Cherish those few moments that occur that are really beautiful,” she adds, while brushing off those “anything but” moments as the price of being mortal.

3. Understand your role
It doesn’t matter whether your relationship with your in-laws is fantastic or fraught with tension, your role is clear. Support your partner in “dealing with the emotional charge of family. Because everybody has issues with their family,” says Burns.

She says that in an ideal situation, you encourage your partner to appreciate his or her family in a whole new way. At the other end of the scale, you maintain cordial and polite relations with them so as not to cause your partner pain.

“Always remember that they will be your spouse’s relations for life. Honour that connection even if you don’t like the person.”

That support goes both ways too. If you’re having trouble with your sister-in-law, you should be able to discuss it calmly with your partner (with the caveat that insults are off the table). “It’s important to say what you find difficult in the other family and ask your partner for help in dealing with it.” 

4. Negotiate conflict
If you’re debating where to spend Christmas Day — he wants to see his parents and you want to see yours — Burns says draw on assertiveness training to ensure both parties get what they want.

“Ask for 100 percent of what you’d want if it were entirely up to you,” she says. Once your partner has done the same, begin to negotiate. The solution will be a compromise between each other’s needs and wants. Maybe that means you spend Christmas Eve with your family and Christmas Day with his, or that you gather everyone together at your place. A new family all your own, when you negotiate with your partner you’ll create new traditions that blend those from each of your origins.

5. Make a coffee run
Your mother-in-law just said that thing that drives you crazy — again. Your head is about to explode, right? Don’t let it. Make a coffee run. Go for a brisk walk. Take any kind of timeout that you need to recoup your composure and clear your head of revenge fantasies. While you’re walking you can remind yourself that this too shall pass, says Burns. If that doesn’t work think about something you’re really looking forward to — a hot bath, or the drive home.

6. If all else fails — remember this
The holidays aren’t the time to deal with conflict; in fact, they’re the time to let conflicts fall by the wayside. When you feel your anger or resentment rising, repeat the mantra: peace on earth and good will to all.

“That’s what this season is supposed to about,” says Burns. “You have to do your part in it no matter what you do.”

Do you spend the holidays with your in-laws? Tell us how you like it in the comment section below.