Tolerating the In-Laws over the Holidays

Tolerating the In-Laws over the Holidays. 

Do you dread approaching holidays as it means more time with the in-laws?  Do you worry about who your partner becomes around his or her parents?  Does your partner leave you stranded to defend yourself during these holiday gatherings? The holidays are portrayed as a time of rekindling family relationships and joy.  Yet for many of us this period of time entails increased stress and conflict, especially when multiple family relationships are involved.  You are not alone if you experience this!  Below I will provide strategies to help you manage this stressful time of the year.

The United Front

The most important thing couples can do is be a united front.  The united front is when you put the relationship with your partner ahead of all other relationships.  This relationship should always come first if you want to be successful in your marriage.  A common issue in my practice is when a partner starts siding with a parent, sibling, or child and forgets to support his or her spouse.  Is your partner one of these? I suggest you sit your spouse down and discuss the importance of being a team to be successful this holiday season. Are their common occurrences around the holidays with in-laws? Does Mother-in-law criticize your parenting, appearance, or career?  Does your spouse agree to activities without asking you? What are the usual core issues that present themselves when you are with your in-laws?  Make a list of these issues and discuss with your spouse how he or she can support you if these events should occur.

How to prevent a conflict from escalating

Having a united front will not stop conflicts from occurring, but it can make them less impactful.  So what do you do when the conflict presents itself?  You, after all, have no control over how family members react; but you do have control over how you act.  Below I have given some things that you should avoid during a conflict with the in-laws, as all of these triggers are likely to ignite a bigger and more explosive conflict.

Harsh startup: A harsh or aggressive startup is when you start a conversation with an accusing, domineering, critical, or sarcastic tone.  When we have a harsh start-up we put the other person on the defensive.  This will result in your family member not hearing you and putting all of their energy into defending themselves from your attack.

Criticism: Criticism is the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or a mistake.  When you are critical you are saying that something is intrinsically wrong with the person and not addressing a behavior you dislike.  An example of a critical statement would be “You never watch your kids; you just allow them to run around and make a mess”.   What you are saying in this comment is that the person is a bad parent instead of addressing the behavior of the children. Instead you want to be able to give a complaint about the behavior.  An acceptable complaint would be, “I noticed that your child is having difficulty calming down and it is currently overwhelming me.  Could you please assist in managing your child’s current behavior?” In this sentence you are addressing the behavior and not the parent.

Defensive responses: Defensive responses are when your family member brings up a compliant and you immediately defend yourself.  When you do this your family member begins to feels invalidated.  This will actually escalate the conflict versus resolving it. Is important to validate what your family member is experiencing versus defending yourself.

Stonewalling:  Stonewalling is when you the tune out your family member during a conflict.  Some indicators that you are stonewalling during a conflict include: not giving your family member eye contact, not following up with cues you are listening, or physically walking out of the room.  You are actively choosing to not engage during a conflict.  Basically what you are saying when you stonewall (without actually saying anything) is that what your family member has to say it not important and I am not going to validate my family members attempt to address the conflict.

Body Language: It is important to be aware of your body language during conflict.  Body language can communicate a lot more than what you say.  If what you are saying is followed by an eye roll, a sneer, or a shaking of the head we are communicating contempt.  Being aware of our body language can assist in more effective conflict management.

Tone of voice: The tone of your voice conveys a lot during a conflict.  If you take a condescending tone it doesn’t matter what the words are coming out of your mouth.  It is going to be interrupted as criticism and your family member is going to become defensive.  It is important to pay attention to the tone in your voice during your conflict. Do you find your family member starting to be defensive when the words you are saying are not aggressive?  This could be a cue it is the tone of your voice.

How to heal after the conflict has occurred. 

The united front with your partner didn’t hold, a huge conflict occurred, and now you are not sure what to do.  You are asking yourself, “Can this get any better?”  I am going to tell you that it can.  It can by you attempting to repair the damage the conflict caused with your family member.  To create repair you need to take accountability for your actions. That being said, I am not saying that what your family member did was not damaging; you just don’t have any control over what they choose to do.  But your actions may create a more positive reaction in your family member versus escalating the conflict.  Are confused what actions need repair? Look to the list above, did you do any of these behaviors?  Here are a few examples of behaviors:

-You rolled your eyes when your mother-in-law brought up her concerns about your job.

-You got defensive when your sister-in-law brought up your children’s behavior.

-You ignored your mother when she insisted on a family photo.

-You yelled at your daughter out of frustration at your mother-in-law.

Now you are starting to realize that maybe you were doing some of the behaviors above.  How do you think that these behaviors affected your family member?  How would you feel if these behaviors were done to you?  Now this is how the accountability can start.  I have given examples below to show you how you could take accountability and repair the conflict from the examples above:

-“I am sorry I rolled my eyes I am sure that felt very dismissive.  I think what was hard for me is when you bring up your concerns about my job it makes me feel like you don’t value what I do.”

-“I realized I got defensive there when you brought up my children’s behavior.  What happened for me was the way that you said it made me think that you thought I was a bad parent and that was painful”.

– “Mom, sorry I ignored you when you wanted to take a photo.  I know that couldn’t have felt good”.

-“Sorry that I yelled at you honey, I was angry with someone else and it wasn’t right of me to take it out on you”.

Do you notice something else I did in these responses?  In the first two I also gave you effective ways to give a complaint about your family member’s behavior and how it affected you.  When I discuss relationships in my practice I state that it is not the individuals in the relationship that are the problem but rather how we relate.  That being said, your family member has a piece and is also accountable for what happened in the conflict.  If you can effectively give complaints about behaviors, family members will hear you more often and be less likely to escalate the conflict.  In this scenario everyone wins as everyone’s experience is validated!

How to have Gratitude

One of the activities I give to family members is remembrance of gratitude through appreciation.  This is a great ritual for families to have weekly, especially over the holiday season.  This entails each member sitting down and sharing two things that they appreciate that each family member has done in the last week.  To create this into a holiday ritual, all family members could share at the family gatherings two things they appreciate about each member.  Some of my clients have even created gratitude trees where each family member attaches a leave to the tree with something written down that they are grateful for.   Family members than pull the leaves off the tree at the holiday gathering and read what is written. By creating a ritual of gratitude it creates focus on appreciating our family members.

I hope that what I have provided above allows you to have a more joyous holiday with your family members.  By creating the united front, avoiding escalating conflicts, healing from conflict, and creating gratitude everyone can have a more meaningful and enjoyable holiday experience!