The Holiday Survival Kit: How to Manage Your In-Laws

Why holidays are a financial bonanza for psychotherapists.

If you adore your in-laws and delight in their company, consider yourself one of the lucky ones and read no further. But if the thought of spending time with your partner’s family has you activating your body armor and bracing for impact—then this article is for you.

In-Laws & You

Look at it this way: you may have married into your partner’s tribe, but you’re still an outsider. They’ve been together a lifetime; they share history, language, behavior…especially DNA. All this reinforces your interloper status. Don’t make the mistake of trying to fit in too quickly.  After a decade or two, you’ll have a slim chance of being accepted as kinfolk, with reservations, of course.

When families get together for the holidays, adults tend to slip into their childhood roles. Everyone, including you, regresses. Depending on the nature of one’s childhood, these regressions can be light-hearted and fun or an express train to crazy town. The phrase Proceed with Caution should flash across your mind in neon lights as you pull into your in-law’s driveway.

Remember, your partner has dished a lot of dirt to you about his or her parents or siblings, no doubt making you privy to family secrets, old grudges, and taboo events. This adds to your already sweaty feelings of apprehension and can trigger intense emotional reactions. You may have the impulse to speak out or defend your partner. You may fly off the handle and say things that you’ll later regret. Or in a last ditch attempt to avoid conflict, you become sullen and withdrawn, an unreachable introvert wondering the halls of a childhood home.

And as long as I’m keeping it real, let’s face the facts: every family is different. Your family is unlike your partner’s family. Your family may be loud and boisterous, comfortable with taboo subjects or PDA’s; your partner’s family may be soft-spoken, formal, or repressed. It’s going to take you half a lifetime before you even begin to understand these people. Why be so surprised that they’re different from you?

All this emotional baggage can make holiday dinners with your in-laws as harmless as tap dancing in a minefield. So before you blow extra cash on therapy sessions, here are a few tips to make the visits more manageable.

Ten Ways to Manage Visits to Your In-Laws

1. Have a Plan

Before you arrive, make a plan with your partner. Have a strategy that includes emergency exits, secret calls for help, time-outs. Check in with each other throughout the visit, stay united, and be supportive.

2. Be Well-Rested

Showing up to a holiday gathering sleep deprived or exhausted is a big mistake. Think of family gatherings as preparing for a marathon: you want to be in shape.

3. Lay Off the Booze

Alcohol dulls your mind and distorts your senses. It can make you more impulsive or a crashing bore. Either way, drinking too much is a risk not worth taking.

4. Avoid Hot Topics

Topics like politics or religion are great for talk shows, but terrible for holiday dinners. Do not allow yourself to get pulled into those conversations: change the subject to lighter fare.

5. Help Out

You’ll score more points doing dishes or clearing a table than trying to impress your in-laws with your knowledge of Wikipedia. Always, always, always help out.

6. Take a Break

Slip away for some fresh air. For longer stays, make sure you exercise or go for a run. It will help your mood, clear your head, and keep you on your toes. As an added bonus, you’ll burn off those extra holiday calories.

7. Don’t Play Therapist!

The holidays are not the time to try to resolve ancient family conflicts. Keep it light: don’t be dragged into family history or unresolved skirmishes from your partner’s past.

8. Think Time-Limited

For goodness sake, don’t stay too long! If you do, plan lots of activities, and keep busy. Enough said.

9. Don’t Come Empty-Handed

Call ahead: find out what to bring. A small toy for the kids or flowers paves the way for a smooth and generous entry.

10. Skip the Advice

Solicited or unsolicited advice will always backfire. In general, listen more than you talk. People love good listeners and will feel relaxed in your presence.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Holidays always induce nostalgia in us. Like signposts, they signal another year gone by. They remind us of loved ones lost; they trigger childhood reminiscences. Each holiday we find ourselves a little older, a little greyer; we gather a new holiday memory and store it away with the old ones.

The best advice I can give you? Leave the past behind, focus on the present, and determine to enjoy yourself no matter way. Find a way to have a good time with your partner’s family. Don’t be pulled into complaining or blaming; it may feel satisfying but it’s empty calories at best. Keep you sense of humor, appreciate your partner, and count your blessings. With that spirit, no matter where you are, the holidays will be well worth celebrating.