If you’re staring down extended family time this Thanksgiving and aren’t looking forward to the inevitable clash of wills/personalities/logic that characterizes your relationship with yours, speak now and don’t hold your peace. That’s the recommendation of couples therapist Michael Batshaw, author of Before Saying I Do: The Essential Guide To A Successful Marriage. “If you don’t get along with your in-laws and think you’re keeping it to yourself, you’re delusional,” says the couples counselor. “You’ll communicate it nonverbally to your wife and your in-laws and that leads to greater conflict. You have to own it.”
Every year around this time, Batshaw finds himself counseling couples on intra-parental problems. Here’s what he tells them:
BEFORE YOU GO
1. Clear The Air
Bring up your issues up in a way that doesn’t put your partner on the defensive, using a “positive-negative-positive” approach:
- Start by acknowledging how important her parents are to her.
- Segue into an explanation of why her parents drive you crazy, “not to bitch or criticize,” but in order to lay out the issues so a solution might be found.
- End by giving them credit for raising the person you love so much.
The same approach works if you’re bringing up issues she has with your parents. Just acknowledge the ways in which those issues are valid, and praise whatever efforts she’s made to work through them instead of just calling your mom a nag and your dad a fascist.
2. Work Together
There is no worse place to try and work out issues than in the time-and-space-compressed context of a family holiday – so don’t try.
Now that you’ve both acknowledged that Thanksgiving with the in-laws will likely result in a “situation,” you can plan for that. “These types of conflicts are patterns that we get into when we visit and it’s not 70 different things – it revolves around 2 or 3 things that happen every time and we make the same mistakes when we encounter it,” says Batshaw. “What did you do in the past? Now, strategize around a different way.”
ONCE YOU’RE THERE
3. Watch The Weather
Keep an eye out for when the pattern of conflict starts to unfold, e.g., the first time your father-in-law sneers “Obamacare,” or your mom pours her third glass of Zinfandel. “You always want to catch things before the storm has formed,” says Batshaw. “Engage your strategies before it becomes a conflict.”
4. The Best Offense Is Defense
Put simply: Your time there will be filled with bait. Don’t take it.
Whatever the specifics of your issues with her folks (or vice versa), there is no worse place to try and work them out than in the time-and-space-compressed context of a family holiday – so don’t try. “Agree to disagree; talk about it later, the best thing is deflection,” he says. “Avoid the heat.” If things aren’t going according to your best laid plans, don’t be afraid to remove yourself from the situation and talk with your partner about what’s going on.” Put simply: Your time there will be filled with bait. Don’t take it.
5. Take Breaks
One of the most effective solutions is also one of the simplest: An hour or two spent away from the family each day. Hit the gym, visit friends, run errands, or just go sit in a parking lot rocking out to old Rush albums (and try not to get arrested for loitering). “That 8 percent changes the outcome for the other 92 percent of the weekend,” explains Batshaw. If the tension goes the other way, it’s on you to identify opportunities to give your partner a break. “Be protective of your partner,” he says. “Think ahead about what the conflicts might be and what you can do to make sure she’s not put in an uncomfortable situation.”