Dr Kat says: “Holidays are a really interesting time because they can bring up a lot of emotion in us. Your body will give you the first warning signs that someone’s getting on your nerves, for example, some tension in your shoulders or a knot in your stomach, so pay attention to those cues, and be prepared with an exit strategy if you think you’re about to say something you might regret!”
So, the holiday season is upon us, and while in theory that means a chance to shake off the stresses of the year, relax, and spend some uninterrupted quality time with your loved ones, in reality what it actually means is a race to meet your end of year work deadlines as you try not to blow your entire life savings on gifts for 20 people. And on top of all that, you don’t have to be Romeo and Juliet for the idea of spending quality time with each other’s families to be… uninviting - especially when your father-in-law goes on his yearly rant about local government, and your mother-in-law has one too many glasses of wine and starts making wildly inappropriate jokes… Whether you’re from different backgrounds or cultures, different countries, or if you’re two rival families from Verona at war for generations, there’s a special tension that exists between partners and their in-laws.
Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, something else - or even if you don’t celebrate anything - every family has their own unique culture, traditions, expectations, and unwritten rules that they’ve developed over hundreds of thousands of hours spent together and over multiple generations, so it’s no surprise that it can be really hard to get used to a different family’s dynamic, and it’s even harder when there are people in that family that you don’t particularly get on with. (And, let’s be honest, this also applies just as much to your own family, too…) So here’s how you can get through the holiday season unscathed, with all your relationships intact. Buckle up.
When it comes to the holidays, it’s really common to forget about our partner’s needs, and just focus on making sure everyone else has a good time - especially if you’re the one hosting. Do the kids have enough presents? Is there enough food on the table? Shall I just pretend to enjoy this incredibly boring conversation with my drunk uncle while I play a movie in my head? But, actually, the best thing you can do for your relationship over the holidays is to put your partner’s needs above everyone else’s. This means not ranting about your partner’s family to them, or forcing them to take sides on an issue, because either of these can put pressure on them, and cause cracks in your relationship. You both need to be on the same team which means being really clear about your needs and expectations, while also respecting each other’s differences. Families are incredibly complex, and your partner will know theirs much more deeply than you do, so try to stay honest, open, and respectful as you communicate with your partner about their family. If you do have an issue you need to voice, it’s your responsibility to bring it up in a gentle, objective, non-judgmental way, taking responsibility for your own feelings, and asking for what you need. This might look something like: ‘I’ve noticed that when we spend the holidays with your family, it’s rare for anyone to ask me a question or include me in the conversation. This makes me feel excluded, and unwelcome. I’d love it if this year you could help include me in more things.’ And if it’s your family causing your partner stress (by having to listen to your grandma’s… ‘old fashioned’ views, for example…) it’s your responsibility to have their back, and respect them enough to stand up for them, even if it means setting some new boundaries with your family.
Everybody’s different, and nobody’s perfect, including you! Remember that even people who you radically disagree with, or who annoy you more than a screaming baby on a long-haul flight, have their reasons for being the way they are, and believing the things they believe. This doesn’t mean you have to condone every mad idea that your partner’s conspiracy-theorist uncle drunkenly proclaims as fact across the dinner table, but you do have to respect his right to believe the things he wants to believe. See if there’s something new you can learn this year about your partner’s family that you didn’t know before, and connect with them in new ways by seeking out the things you do have in common, despite your differences.
Another tip is to take some of the pressure off yourself from being the ‘perfect’ guest or host. In the same way that you’ll approach your partner’s family with more curiosity than judgment, if you want the same from them, you have to start by letting them get to know the real you, so don’t be afraid to voice your honest opinions in a kind and respectful way, and allow them the opportunity to know you properly. You might be surprised at what a difference this can make in terms of how people relate to you. Give your in-laws the chance to let them see the version of you that your partner fell in love with; this will help you develop a genuine relationship with them that isn’t just surface level or mediated through your partner, which might help to alleviate some of the tension.
You can think about this a bit like a street fight: if you can sense a confrontation brewing and feel that familiar tension in your shoulders or jaw as your body responds to the stress, remove yourself from the situation; and if you can’t remove yourself from the situation, make sure you’ve been practicing your conversational self-defense. Removing yourself from the situation could look like having a code word or phrase with your partner that lets them know you need to take a break, or finding an excuse to take yourself on a quick walk around the block; even just going to the toilet for a few minutes and taking some deep breaths. And conversational self-defense really just means having one or two boundary-setting phrases that stop any distressing conversations in their tracks. For example: ‘I’m not comfortable talking about that right now’, or ‘I’d prefer not to discuss that over the holidays; we can talk about it another time if you’d like’, or even just ‘I’m not getting involved in this conversation.’ These are good, firm, polite boundaries that are very difficult to cross.
So, there you have it:
If you can implement any of these tips, you’ll be well on your way to taking some of the pressure off from spending time with the in-laws and strengthening your relationship with your partner and their family (and, hopefully, not bundling any of your in-laws in gift-wrap and burying them in the garden).