Every year as Christmas approaches, the inevitable questions begin to arise in households not just across the country, but around the world. “Do we really need to go to your mother’s house?” “How long do we have to stay?” “What if your uncle gets drunk?” “What if your sister says something rude to me?”
Or something along those lines. It’s true that you don’t choose your family. And while you may have chosen your spouse, you only inadvertently, and perhaps reluctantly, chose their family.
You’ll find a lot of advice out there on how to handle yourself and difficult family members during the holidays. Here, I’ll offer seven strategies that, while perhaps not as conventional, have nonetheless worked like a charm to keep many of my clients sane during the holidays. The goal here is to prevent the conflict you may have with family from seeping into your marriage. So here we go.
#1 – Get out of it. Do you really have to drag the kiddies away from their presents and brave the icy roads on Christmas morning? Or can you—clever ape that you are—think of a workaround? Can you invite the in-laws to your house instead, sweetening the pot by saying their grandkids really want Gramma and Grampa there to see them open their presents? The trick here is to plan early and try to make it seem like you’re doing these folks a favor. In the end, you are perfectly entitled to put your family first.
#2 – Remember that you’re doing this for your spouse. If you can’t get out of it, go. But while you’re there and while your whatever-in-law is poking you with that proverbial stick, remind yourself that you’re not there for them. You’re there for your spouse. Spouses in a long-term and successful marriage have to do many things they don’t want to do, just to make the other person happy. Remind yourself of the things your spouse does for you, and suck it up the best you can.
#3 – Appreciate the bullshit your spouse is agreeing to put up with by going. If your spouse is willing to do #2 (that is, to visit your in-laws for your sake), then you’d better bend over backward to make it as easy for them as possible. Stick by them at the supper or event to make sure that petty in-law doesn’t have an open path to strike. Don’t stay any longer than you have to. And when you get home, be sure to shower your spouse with appreciation. Or sexual favors. Whatever puts a smile on their face.
#4 – Think of the academy. The Academy Awards. That is, play the part. Play the part of the civil wife / husband / daughter / son / sister / brother who is just so damn full of tact, composure and self-assuredness that there is no way some petty family member or in-law can rattle them.
#5 – Forget about setting boundaries. In the real world, trying to set boundaries with a grumpy father-in-law or toxic sibling often does nothing but strain relationships even more. As long as you and your spouse are both on board, aware of what is happening, and appreciative of the sacrifices each of you is making, it is all right if you simply play along and let whatever pettiness someone throws at you slide off, like water off a duck’s back, until you can waddle your way back home and cozy up in your nest together.
#6 – Remember that it’s a temporary situation. In most cases, it’s just a few hours of your life. Yes, they’re miserable hours. But they aren’t forever. Keep the visit as short as possible, have a tactful (or at least reasonably believable) excuse to leave early, and say your farewells with a smile. And if things get really bad, have an escape plan: send a discreet text to your spouse with a number—thirty or ten—to indicate how many more minutes you can hang in there before it’s time to say good-bye.
#7 – Have a reward. Whenever we’re forced to do something unpleasant, it helps to have something to look forward to. So do that. As a couple, plan to decompress as soon as you get home by watching a favorite movie, playing video games, or sharing a shower. And every time things get a little dicey at your family member or in-law’s house, give your spouse the googly eyes that say, “I love you, this will be over soon, and we’ll have fun when we get home.”
Remember, when a family member or in-law tries to stoke conflict—whether consciously or not—they can only succeed in their efforts if you let them. Don’t give them the satisfaction. Use the holidays, and the minefield of personalities and situations that come with them, to build an even stronger suit of armor around your marriage. Show your kids how it’s done, so that when they grow up and get married, they too can successfully navigate that minefield.
Also remember that there’s a reason why Christmas treats like eggnog and rum balls are served with alcohol. Although conflicts with family and in-laws can seem isolating, know that you are not alone. There are millions of people around the world who are sucking it up and waiting for it to be over, just like you are. So find strength, perspective, and hopefully some good humor (Christmas Vacation, anyone?) in that solidarity—and happy holidays to you!
Debra Macleod, BA, JD, is the creator of Marriage SOS™. She has served as an expert resource for major media around the world, from The New York Times and Entrepreneur to ELLE and Men’s Health magazine.