Steps you can take to bring harmony back to your family gatherings.
It’s early November and Miranda feels her tension levels rising with each passing day. The Holidays are approaching, and she dreads this time of year because she knows she’ll eventually have to see her Mother-in-law. Miranda doesn’t exactly know why her relationship with her Mother-in-law is strained, but whenever she sees them, she seems to make it abundantly clear that Miranda is not part of their family. For example, even though she’s been married to her husband Sean for eleven years, whenever there’s a family photo taken, her Mother-in-law asks her to step out of the picture so she can have one with “just the family.” Then there was that Christmas that Miranda’s Mother-in-law went on and on about the beautiful Christmas card she received from Sean’s ex-girlfriend and how she was “so disappointed” when Sean broke up with “that beautiful girl.”
Miranda’s Mother-in-Law is never overtly hostile to Miranda. In fact, if you only had an hour to sit in on one of these holiday dinners, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell there’s a problem at all. Miranda’s Mother-in-law is very sly when she takes her digs. When she says something mean to Miranda, she waits until there is no one else in earshot so later in the event she is confronted about her behavior, she can conveniently claim Miranda is “too sensitive,” or she “misunderstood.”
Eleven years of this behavior has led Miranda to dread the Holidays. Come November, she feels her shoulders tense up and starts to have difficulty sleeping. She’s tired of her Mother-in-Law's passive-aggressive digs. She’s tired of feeling like she’s an outsider to a family she’s been a member of for over a decade, but what can she do?
Family problems can be difficult to manage at any time, but during the Holidays, the stress that surrounds them seems to be worse. All around us we’re bombarded by images of happy families and there seems to be a societal pressure for everyone to live up to these images. Sometimes though, that’s just not possible to do.
Do you know that the busiest time of year at my counseling office starts in early November and ends just after New Year's Eve? It’s true and the main issue people seek counseling with me for this time of year is what I refer to as Holiday In-law Management. So, if you're experiencing similar problems to Miranda's, rest assured, you're not alone.
Here are some tips to help you survive the Holidays with your In-Laws…
1.) Talk to your husband. Let him know how you feel. No one is a mind reader so it’s unrealistic for you to think he should “just know.” Be clear and specific about what your issues are and what you would like your husband to do about them.
2.) Minimize contact. If your husband chooses not to confront the situation, or has been ineffective in doing so, come up with a plan to minimize contact with your In-laws. A recommendation I give to many of my clients is to divide the time they spend with their respective families. One year spend Thanksgiving with your In-laws, and the following year spend it with your family of origin. When you announce your new schedule of Holidays to your respective families, they may grumble some due to the fact they're getting less time with you. However, if you point out that both families are getting equal time with you, it should help minimize hurt feelings. Remember it takes time to adjust to new patterns, and with time, your families will get used to the new Holiday schedule and accept it as normal. The other thing you and your husband may want to consider in addition to alternating Holidays, is celebrating one Holiday a year in your own home to establish your own traditions. Establishing your own family traditions helps you bond as a couple, so I encourage you to give it a try.
3.) Don’t take it personally. I know this is easier said than done, especially when those who are “supposed” to care for us treat us poorly, but if you can muster the ability to gain some perspective and view the situation with limited emotion, it will help make you much more effective in handling it. When others treat you wrong for no apparent reason, typically they are the ones who have an issue. Your Mother-in-law may feel threatened and/or insecure around you. Perhaps she had strained relations with her own In-laws and believes on some level this is just the way things are "supposed to be." Also realize that in most cases when Mothers have problems with a Daughter-in-law that this type of Mother would most likely have difficulty with any woman her son married despite her claims of adoration for your husband's exes. I can just about promise you that if any one of the exes your Mother-in-law claims to have loved married your husband, she would most likely have the same difficulties you are having.
4.) Don’t react. Emotional bullies and other people who seem to strive to make you feel uncomfortable do it because they can tell by your reaction that they are successful in making you feel off balance. When you give a reaction to their attempts, they see it as they “got you.” In short, your reaction reinforces their behavior.
5.) Choose to “opt out.” If you and your partner have tried your best to remedy your In-law situation and they continue to be unbearable, consider the option to “opt out.” There will always be some people who will find their own agendas more important than familial harmony. However, just because you're married, you’re under no obligation to be emotionally abused by toxic people. If your partner chooses to see with his parents, let him. They are after all, his parents. Take the time he wants to spend with his family and do something to nurture yourself—or better yet, spend the day with people who treat you right.
Christina Steinorth, MA, MFT is a private practice Psychotherapist and the Author of Cue Cards for Life: Thoughtful Tips for Better Relationships. You can order her book here: http://www.amazon.com/Cue-Cards-Life-Reminders-Relationships/dp/0897936167