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6 Tips for Dealing With Difficult In-Laws Over Holidays

Don't ring in the New Year wanting to wring someone's neck

By Terri Orbuch, Ph.D.

While holiday parties and family get-togethers can be loads of fun, they can also be extremely stressful, especially if you have controlling in-laws and relatives who don’t like each other — or worse, you.
Last week one of my university students, who’s returning to get her master’s degree after raising her two daughters, came to speak with me about the stress she’s feeling given the impending holidays. Christine, a petite 55-year-old Cuban-American, told me, “Every year the holidays become harder for me to enjoy, because the season means one thing: more time with my in-laws, especially Ron’s mother.”
Christine and Ron have been married for 28 years, and the relationship with Ron’s parents continues to be a strain for their marriage and for Christine. They live far enough away that they don’t visit all that often, but during the holidays, they stay with Christine and Ron. “No one ends up happy,” she said. “Because he’s an only child, Ron’s folks just assume we’ll be with them every Christmas. But my mother in-law has so many expectations and demands and different views that I feel like she’s having a miserable time. And of course, so am I.”
Christine has tried to be nice and accommodating, but most of the time she just wants to pack her bags and leave when her in-laws come to town. She told me Ron is oblivious to his mother’s criticisms and controlling nature, which frustrates her even more. His father mostly sits and watches TV. “You just kind of dust and vacuum around him,” Christine said with a laugh. The differences between family backgrounds also become more apparent over the holidays, because her in-laws — upper-middle-class Midwesterners — have their own traditions and aren’t open to changing any of them.

(MORE: Confessions of a Daughter Outlaw)
Trying to Make Everyone Happy Doesn’t Work
Christine reminisced about her own childhood holidays, when her parents, both deceased, would invite the whole extended family over for a huge Christmas Eve pork roast, celebrate with cervezas and loud music, and play a game of family trivia. It was a super-fun contest among all the relatives, and they would party into the wee hours.
She tried to continue this tradition with her own daughters, now 21 and 23, but her in-laws refused to participate. Instead, her mother in-law insisted on doing things she was used to: baking cookies with the girls and listening to Christmas carols.
Christine and I had a good chuckle about the contrast between the two cultures, but I could see she was genuinely distressed. So I offered her the following survival tips, which I feel are useful to everyone whose in-laws sometimes get the best of them.
How to Deal With Annoying In-Laws During the Holidays

  1. 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 don’t try to change them or assume that things will be different this year. Instead, strive to find some common ground. When Christine and I discussed this, she said: “Oh my gosh, I get it. I think on some level I’ve been disappointed because they just can’t replace my own mom and dad. This is helpful because I can stop expecting that.”
  2. Make it a team effort. Include your in-laws in the planning. A team effort makes every family member feel like an essential part of the meal or party. If someone doesn’t like to cook or bake, have him or her bring something to drink, flowers, a game or the plates and napkins. “I never thought of asking for help because Ron’s mother is so pushy,” Christine said. “But this might calm her down a bit.” She added that she was going to ask Ron’s mother to bring one of her famous apple pies and her father-in-law to sharpen all the knives, one of his specialties.
  3. Recognize it for what it is: a control issue. Often we take comments from our in-laws personally, especially if it’s about something important to us, like our marriage, parenting style or work situation. Keep this in perspective: Your in-laws’ comments aren’t about you; they’re a reflection of them. Usually the most prickly issues are about who will have the most influence. Parents are fearful of losing total control over their child. They also don’t like to acknowledge that they are getting older themselves — and losing some of their power. Once you recognize this, you can let them know, gently, that this is the way you like to manage your household. (But also stay open to the possibility that they may actually have helpful advice to offer.)
  4. Respect differences. You can’t change anyone’s behavior or opinion, so be a role model and show respect for everyone’s point of view. If there’s a topic that creates too much conflict — like politics or religion or food — steer clear of it. You don’t have to accept your in-laws' opinions, just respect them and listen to them.
  5. Set emotional boundaries. Don’t spill your guts about everything in your life, and establish limits around what you ask others — and how much you’re willing to shape-shift to accommodate them. Most of us want to be accepted and liked, especially by our in-laws, and sometimes we do and do and do for them at our own expense. Christine told me: “I like to go to the gym every morning, so I will. Ron’s mother can cook their breakfast. In the past, our house was like a five-star bed and breakfast. I was always exhausted by the time they left, mentally and physically.”
  6. Enlist your partner’s help. If you’ve tried to communicate directly with your in-laws but there’s too much tension and conflict, it might be time to ask your spouse to step in. He might have to talk to them alone or come to your rescue when you’re in their company. This may not be easy for him, because parents tend to push our buttons. He might have to say, for instance, “Mom, this is how my wife feels about this issue. Please respect her. It’s important to me that you two get along.”

Christine shared a story that I found very endearing: “Ron has a look he can give his mom that just shuts her up. When he sees that I’m stressed out, he comes over and puts his arm around my shoulders very protectively, shoots his mom The Look, and she knows to back off.”
A final thought: It’s helpful to remember that your in-laws are the people who raised the person you love and married. There’s a profound connection between them, even if it’s difficult and challenging for you. But as Christine put it: “They obviously did something right, because Ron’s a great guy. So I guess I can find a way to be decent to his folks.”

Terri Orbuch, Ph.D. (aka “the love doctor”), is a relationship therapist, professor and an author of five books, including Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship. She is also the project director of the largest and longest-running NIH-funded study of married and divorced couples ever conducted. Read More
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