This time of year, the prospect of spending time with in-laws can (unless you’re incredibly blessed) be as daunting as the thought of a stocking full of coal. For most of us, interactions with our in-laws – be they our spouse’s parents or our siblings’ or children’s spouses and their families – are moderately complicated, and those complications ramp up at holiday times. In cases of true family dysfunction, the best course is often to steer clear. But for the majority, here are a few suggestions that can help defuse tensions and make room for encounters of comfort and joy.
1. Leave last year (or last week, or that last phone exchange) at the door.
Whatever ghosts of Christmases past or other fraught encounters haunt you, remember that This is not then. There’s already so much emotional baggage around the holidays for many families that it’s best to pack light when it comes to in-law friction. Go in with the intention to start fresh and stay positive. An open, flexible attitude is a big advantage – so turn off the old background tapes, and try not to record new ones.
2. Think of your in-laws as interesting guests, not family.
One of the biggest causes of in-law woes is stereotyping. Even Pope Francis makes jokes about monstrous mothers-in-law, and we all know no man is good enough for Daddy’s girl. It’s hard to endure, never mind enjoy, time with someone you’ve already dismissed as “that battle-axe” or “that bum.” This year, make opportunities to know your in-laws as people. Really look at and listen to them, as you would when introduced to a new acquaintance with the potential to become a friend. Don’t just feign interest in their hobbies or work or whatever consumes their lives right now; let yourself be interested. You’d be amazed at what may be behind that “in-law” mask.
3. Ask them to teach you how to do at least one thing “the way they do it.”
Tolstoy may be right that all happy families are alike, but no two families do happy times in the same way. Nobody tells you, when you or your child gets married, that from now on half of every holiday will be celebrated all wrong! (They will, however, remind you every Christmas for ever after.) Most families work out some kind of awkward compromise on key things like when to open presents (Christmas Eve? Christmas morning? before or after Mass?), what to eat for Christmas dinner (roast beef? turkey? lasagna? takeout Chinese food?), and how much to spoil the grandchildren. But because holiday traditions are deeply rooted in our families of origin, you never know when you will run into a landmine about some beloved custom or recipe you never suspected could be so important. Defuse the landmines ahead of time by asking your in-laws to instruct you in “their way” on at least one tradition. Ask your mother-in-law to teach you how to make those German cookies, or let your father-in-law direct the hanging of lights. Do this ahead of time, and do it with respect and interest. It’s a great way to restore goodwill among families!
4. Thank them for the wonderful things they contributed to your spouse, sibling, or child.
Gratitude is a powerful stress-breaker. At this time of gifts given and received, take some time to think about the ways your in-laws have contributed to your joy by raising and loving your loved ones. That, after all, is what makes these people family. Make time – informally, during the course of the celebration, or worked into a dinner toast or blessing prayer – to thank your in-laws for the way they have always supported your spouse or the way they care for your grandchildren. Compliment your brother-in-law on the way he makes your sister smile. Be as specific and personal as you can. In the process of looking for reasons to be grateful, you may find more than you imagined.
5. Hold your tongue and pray.
There’s no guarantee, of course, that any of these strategies will be warmly received, or that old frictions won’t flare up when fueled by liquid cheer and heightened emotion. If you find yourself unable to enjoy or even endure at some point, in spite of your efforts, you can still back away. Don’t take the bait of sarcasm. Don’t talk smack back. Swallow, smile, and find an excuse to absent yourself from the vicinity long enough to breathe a quick prayer for mercy on the offender. That’s not to say you should tolerate bullying or abuse, of course, but stepping out of petty wrangling sends a signal you won’t get caught up in negative patterns. Sort out real grievances later, when cooler heads prevail.
May Saints Joachim and Anne, in-laws of St. Joseph, intercede for your family this Christmas!
Read More: Hush your mouth; the mercy of shutting up