The holidays are quickly approaching, which means that in addition to such tasks as baby-proofing the Thanksgiving table (who knew carving knives were sharp?) you and your wife have to prepare for something far more treacherous: the in-laws. Even if you have the kindest, most understanding parents, eventually one will roll his or her eyes or suggest something that strikes a nerve. So how do you keep the peace with each other’s parents, and make sure your spouse is still speaking to you by New Year’s?
Dr. Dion Metzger is a relationships expert and board certified psychiatrist, and she’s worked with many couples who deal with intrusive in-laws. Whether your mom’s passive-aggressive “suggestions” about raising the kids, or just your father-in-law who has strong opinions on stuffing, here’s how she believes you can get through the holiday scrum unharmed.
Remember: Your Partner Comes Before Your Parents
If neither of you can seem to wrest yourselves from your parents’ control, it may be you. “It could be reflective of [your] childhood, if [you] had a very authoritative relationship with the parent where whatever mom/dad says goes,” says Metzger. “Sometimes it’s culturally related, sometimes it’s just parenting styles.” In extreme cases, a partner might even discuss big decisions with their parents before talking to their spouse, which, intentionally or not, sends the message that they don’t value their partner’s opinion. Don’t let Jim and Pam fool you — not telling your wife you’re buying your parent’s house only works out on TV.
Present A United Front Against Grandparenting
Metzger says one of the most common conflicts she sees is grandparents criticizing how their grandchild is being raised. But the good news is, since that’s actually an attack on both of you, it should be easier for you to stand up to it. “I almost always see the spouses unite [on this],” says Metzger. “To say ‘You know what mom and dad? This is how we’re doing it.’” Then, just to rub it in, let your kids swim in a kiddie pool full of mac ‘n cheese.
Know When To Compromise
Another big issue Metzger sees: Celebrating different cultures and traditions, particularly around the holidays. “Rather than just shunning what the parents are saying, try to find a way to compromise,” she advises. Not to be a Dickens, but if you’re not going to participate in your wife’s family Christmas Eve caroling tradition, so at last make the scheduling work for the Turducken dinner.
Be Wise When Choosing Sides
If it’s your parents causing the “in-laws from hell” scenario, then that’s a tough spot for you to be in. Just know that whichever side you take in an in-laws fight, you’re going to end up making someone unhappy. Which mean, take your wife’s side, because you see her more than once a year.
Metzger says “feelings of resentment can build” in situations where a partner chooses their parent over their spouse, “and when those feelings start building, you get into a danger zone where it puts a strain on the marriage. Not only with how you communicate, but sometimes even children may notice.” In the long run, your kids will thank you for freezing out grandma.
And, if you do end up taking your parents’ side, try to do it in a way that doesn’t discount your wife’s feelings. “I’ve seen with husbands — if their wife has an issue often the reflex is to minimize it,” says Metzger. “But eventually if you’re going to keep brushing it under the rug, it’s going to come out in other ways in terms of anger and resentment.” If she’s raised an issue (spoiler alert) it’s because she’s upset about it. And you know that being compassionate was part of the gig when you signed up.
If your wife’s family is driving you nuts, and she either doesn’t notice their bad behavior or just isn’t bothered by it, you have the right to bring it up and ask for change. Metzger’s overall advice is to talk about any issues right away so they don’t fester. Keep the conversation solution-oriented. Bad idea: Shouting about how hard her family sucks. Good idea: “Talk from an angle of trying to improve things and seeing what you can do better in your relationship in terms of communication.”
You can still hit all of your bullet points of what’s bothering you, but do it in a way that explains how you’re feeling, and what you’d like to see both of you do to work on making it better. Like, say, “I would like to see you ask your mom to stop inviting your ex-boyfriend to family events” or “I would like us to agree that grandpa is cut off from the baby after 3 glasses of eggnog.” Once you have that conversation, be patient while they’re trying to change. Remember: They’ve had this relationship with their parents a lot longer than they’ve had one with you.