Surviving the Holidays With In-laws
You've left holiday shopping to the last minute, and you can't tolerate another rendition of Jingle Bells . It can't get any worse, right? Wrong! Your significant other announces that she wants you to spend the holidays at her family's home, but your idea of holiday cheer does not include her family. Don't let the prospect of spending the holidays away from your own turf develop into a full-blown argument. All is not lost. The holidays can still be an enjoyable, spiritual time of year.
Many people experience an enormous amount of stress, depression, or disappointment during the holidays, which makes spending holidays with in-laws particularly difficult. Mark Gorkin, L.I.C.S.W., popularly known as The Stress Doc, is the Internet's "online psychohumorist." When asked why the holidays cause so much stress for couples, Mark replies, "I realized with all this talk of pressure during the holidays, I needed to distinguish between 'Holiday Blues' and 'Holiday Stress.' Holiday blues is the feeling of loss or sadness that you have over the holidays when, for whatever reason, you can't be with those people who have been, or are, special and significant. And holiday stress...is when you have to be with some of those people!"
The following guide provides some tangible coping techniques to deal with spending the holidays with your spouse's family, whether you are out-of-town or in your own place.
If your significant other wants to spend the holidays on the opposite coast with the folks, try to negotiate some intimate time for the two of you (and the kids, if you have any). Have a trim-the-tree party for just your immediate family. You can also exchange gifts together at your home, instead of at the in-law's.
2. Create a Tradition
Have a holiday dinner together, address holiday greetings, or cut firewood and cozy up to a roaring fire. The goal is to establish a tradition that is part of your special time together. Be creative or pull some ideas from books on historic holiday traditions. The tradition does not have to be expensive or complicated, some of the most joyful events come from taking part in simple pleasures.
3. Discuss Expectations
This is an important aspect of enjoying your holidays. Dr. Susan Forbes, a clinical psychologist explains, "We may not admit it to ourselves, but everyone has a set of expectations about the holiday season. For some folks, gifts are very important. Other people value family time and catching up with old friends." She adds, "Be sure to tell your significant other what you want out of the holiday. Then, you won't end up feeling cheated or disappointed."
If the in-laws are out of state, agree to spend the holidays out of town one year, and at home the following year. "We stay at home for Thanksgiving, but we drive to Pennsylvania for Christmas to be with my family," says Karen Anderson, a human resources executive. "This gives us quality time at home, and we aren't constantly on the road. My husband and I also spend New Year's Eve at home with friends, so we have a satisfying balance during the holidays."
5. Have a Back-up Plan
If you are traveling during the holidays, create an alternate plan in case events don't go smoothly. This may mean buying airline tickets that are easily changed, without a fee or penalty. That way, you can re-evaluate your plans if a situation becomes too tense or emotionally charged at the folks' place. This is much easier to accomplish if you have discussed an alternate plan prior to your trip.
6. Go Out on a Date
If your in-laws begin to invade your space, grab your significant other and get out of the house. This maneuver can work wonders for your relationship—and your mental health. Getting out will give both of you time to vent, share thoughts and enjoy the peace of the season. A great place to find serenity is a bookstore that also contains a café. Hold hands, sit in overstuffed chairs, have a cup of cappuccino, and read a good book.
7. Be Realistic
Forget the notion of the perfect family. Every family has its own set of problems and secrets. Remember that you are spending time with your partner's family because you love her—with or without her family. Accepting your spouse unconditionally means being civil towards her family, even if they are strange, drink heavily, or are just plain disrespectful. Remember, you don't have to have a miserable time over the holidays just because you aren't at home.
8. Rewrite "The Twelve Days of Christmas"
Remember the old Christmas carol? Rewrite the "twelve days" to suit you and your partner's holiday plans. That is, plan twelve special days for the two of you. Make sure the days include time with your immediate family only—no outsiders or in-laws. Not only will you have plenty of fun deciding how to spend your days, you will also ensure that there is time for you, your partner, and any children.
9. Be Clear About Gift-giving
Many couples argue about gift buying and gift giving. It's important to be upfront about how you wish to celebrate the holiday season, including whether or not you want to exchange gifts. If you are newly married or experiencing financial difficulties, you may not be able to buy gifts for your partner's family. Keep in mind that the holidays are not about material things. Focus on what the holidays mean to you.
10. Find Some Alone Time
Finding some alone time for yourself is crucial during the holiday season. This means that you spend time doing something that is important and valuable to you. My idea of alone time is writing in my journal or taking a walk to clear my head. Watch endless TV if that makes you feel better. Go for a long drive. The key is to not feel guilty about needing this space for yourself. You'll feel rejuvenated and stress-free after you treat yourself to some time alone, which makes you a better partner.
11. Prepare for the New Year
Think about what a new year means for you. Perhaps it means searching for a new job, ditching a few bad habits or volunteering for a good cause. During this holiday season, don't let negativity overtake the joy of the moment. Simplify your life during the holidays and take time to enjoy the good stuff.
12. Share the Wealth
Finally, don't forget to share this article and the resources below with your partner. The ideas and tools offered here are bound to rub off on each of you!
Mental Health America
National Institute of Mental Health
Canadian Mental Health Association
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Survey identifies top holiday stressors, who's most stressed. Mental Health America. Available at: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/index.cfm?objectid=0F7D2087-1372-4D20-C8469F6166842DE3. Published December 2006. Accessed June 9, 2008.
Last reviewed May 2009 by
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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