Navigating Your In-Laws: Preparing Your Relationship for the Holiday Season

children communication holidays in-laws united front

But did you text your mother back?” Sarah asks her husband in earnest. Despite trying to present her question in a calm manner, I can hear the anxiety in her tone. The tension between my clients sitting on my couch is palpable.

Sarah and Dan are like many other couples that have walked into my therapy room having one common repeating disagreement that keeps threatening to widen the gorge between their connection. Sarah’s in-laws.

This time, they’re preparing for their annual extended holiday stay at Dan’s family cottage and Sarah wants to ensure that their needs are shared ahead of time. Sarah already made plans to make the holidays special and doesn’t want Dan’s mother stepping in. Dan, resistant to hearing his mother’s guilt-trip and dismissing remarks, is digging in his heels to contact his mother.

The stories of both my individual therapy and couples therapy clients vary but many have a common theme: They once had a seemingly positive relationship with the parents to the person they were dating, but then as things became more serious, a wedding and a child later, tensions rose and conflict occurred. This conflict often stems from miscommunication of expectations between both parties, and frequently, in heterosexual relationships, the husband does not set firm boundaries with their parents. For others, the relationship has always been distant and now that there are grandchildren, there’s a new expectation from the in-laws to be included in family activities. Some experience the frequent toxicity from in-laws, get-togethers marked with passive aggressiveness and guilt trip tactics.

The winter holidays present with similar challenges as with other holidays throughout the year: extended time with family. While some choose to create distance when there is family conflict, acknowledging that there is little desire to vacation together due to difficult dynamics, others remain wanting to be connected with extended family, a chance to have those bonding moments and shared experiences.

But the common question shows up: How do we spend this extended amount of time with the in-laws and not feel like we’re going to have another blow up? Here are some things to consider before taking your next trip:

Behavior is Predictable

Humans tend to be predictable, and so are your family members. We know that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. This is powerful information, as it can allow us to prepare how events might unfold in the future. This preparation will enable you to feel more ready to address the inevitable hard moments.

With this information, take some time to reflect on how previous visits, conversations about certain topics, and reactions to requests have unfolded. Is communication met with openness and understanding? Or are there dismissals and deflections. Get curious about how things have unfolded in previous events, both good and bad. This will be a clue to how you decide to show up, knowing that things don’t typically change that much.

Identify Your Values and Non-negotiables

This is particularly true when you have children and your parenting style is different from your in-laws. We are seeing more changes in the way parents today are teaching their children about boundaries and body autonomy, food, and regulating their big feelings. We can expect comments from the older generation that sound like, “That’s now how we did it and you turned out fine.”

Identify your most important values - the non-negotiable things you are holding for yourself and/or your children prior to visiting family. This might be your sleep arrangement, food comments at the dinner table, or when grandma asks for a hug and your little one doesn’t want it. Ensure that you and your partner both agree to the importance of this value and how you want to address it should it become an issue.

Get on the Same Team

Getting curious about past behavior and identifying your values leads you to this key piece while spending time with in-laws: be on the same team. Many couples don’t prepare themselves for family visits and move on autopilot from one event to the next. This can create conflict, as expectations between partners are not being clearly shared and identified. When your father in-law insists for a hug from your child and they say no, how do you want to address it? When your mother in-law asks to put baby to bed and remarks that you shouldn’t be bed sharing anymore, who is going to respond? When you’re with extended family, make a plan for how you two will reassure each other.

One couple I worked with found a way to wink at each other from across the room when one of these difficult moments occurred. For them, this signaled to each other that they were in his together and it was a way of providing reassurance, that yes, I see that this is uncomfortable for you and I got you.

Boundaries and more boundaries

We often think of boundaries as what is acceptable for other people to do. Yet, boundaries are about what we need and don’t need. They are about communicating them with respect and empathy for the other person, and about clarifying what it is we want to happen. For some, boundaries are best communicated in the moment, as the other person might not be self-reflective. These can either be through statements like “I know you love being grandma and we’re so glad to be here. We don’t ask our children to finish their plates.” or “I’m not going to talk about our sleep choices.”

What is more important about communication of boundaries is the action and follow through. The action might be changing the topic, leaving the room, or deciding to leave all together depending on the severity of the boundary violation. Working with one client, we agreed that politics was not a conversation she wanted to engage in, but she doubted that her partner’s family would be able to understand her wish to not talk about it. Instead of stating the boundary to two people who didn’t get it, she would quietly excuse herself to the bathroom and splash cold water on her face. Sometimes self-boundaries are needed, which are an act of what you do to protect yourself.

Agree on Communication

A common theme for families is around who is communicating what. I recommend that the adult child to the parents be in charge of communicating plans, wishes, and boundaries. In other words, let your partner communicate with their family. What’s the cost of always being the communicator of boundaries with your in-laws? It often leads to scapegoating or labeling you as the “bad guy.” To protect each other, communication needs to be presented from a united front. This means that when Dan tells his mother not to plan anything, he says “we don’t want you to” instead of saying “This is what Sarah wants.” When we blame our partners for the wishes and needs of our family, it makes them out to be the bad one. Instead, practice being a team and using “we” and “our” for communication.

Discharging Your Frustrations

When it comes to feeling frustrated, your go-to strategy might be to vent to your partner about what is happening. They are typically supportive, including when you’re expressing your frustrations about your own family. Yet when it comes to their family, they might feel different. Your partner might actually be on the same team with you and agree with you (e.g., “I know. I don’t know why my mother would say something like that.”) but what you’re met with instead is a defensive response or an angry tone. Naturally, adult children protect and defend their parents when they feel their character is under attack, even if they agree that they don’t like their parents’ behavior. One client described her husband like a light switch. “It was like he was no longer my team mate while his parents visited.”

Your feelings and experiences matter. During these visits, you’ll want to find a different outlet. Text your friends. Go for a walk. Write out your frustrations. Make a plan to check in with your partner after the visit when there is more space and time. Be curious about how they felt the visit went, instead of telling them how it went for you. Prioritizing the “we” of your relationship might mean that you take this hard experience to your next therapy appointment.

Carving out Your Own Time

Whether you are visiting your own family, your in-laws, or both, all people need their own space and time. A common mistake couples make is putting aside the actions and choices to do things as their own family unit, and instead they end up sitting around with their in-laws for an entire visit.

We all need space for ourselves - to breathe, to regulate our nervous systems, and to look after our needs. Whether you plan for your alone time or for couple time, ensure that over the visit you have space for just you as a family. Go for a snowy walk alone. Take a longer shower. Visit a local site or coffee shop. This space can act as a reset - for your mind and your nervous system - and can help you let go of frustrating experiences to ensure the rest of the visit goes smoothly.

Navigating adult relationships with your in-laws can be difficult. It’s important to remember that there was a family dynamic between your partner and their parents before you entered the family. For Sarah and Dan, Sarah is working on letting go of her frustrations over every comment that is a guilt trip, while Dan is asserting his needs to his mother (instead of pushing them away in hopes to avoid a disagreement). Now, as you and your partner make agreements as to what you each take from your families and implement in your own family, getting on the same page before difficult events can help prevent hard conversations down the road.