With the holidays around the corner, you may be bracing yourself for upcoming events that often come with uncomfortable or contentious family dynamics. Here are some tips you can use to prepare for more enjoyable gatherings with in-laws, extended family members, or anyone difficult to be with:
1. Get honest about your expectations: Do you wish you were best friends with your husband’s siblings? Do you resent that your mother-in-law treats you differently than her own children? Do you believe the family “loser” needs to be fixed? Most of the time, family tensions grow in the gap between what we believe a relationship “should” look like and what it actually is. Even though it would be ideal for everyone in merged families to connect deeply and positively with each other, different families generally have different ways of doing things, different values, different tastes, and even different meaningful traditions. One of the most powerful things you can do to ease relationship tensions is to accept what is and let go of trying to make your relationships live up to your ideals or standards. It’s very normal to have a great relationship with our spouse and to have more superficial relationships with most of his / her extended family. Once you let go of comparing or judging the relationships, you may find yourself feeling less stressed about them.
2. Get clear about your wants and needs: Once you accept that people don’t often change, you can predict how others are likely to behave based on your prior experiences with them, and you can clearly identify which of their behaviors you are willing to overlook and which ones you need to protect yourself from. For example, maybe a relative’s political ranting bothered you because you expected everyone to agree, but when you accept that you all have different opinions, you can be content to allow the discussion to flow. Or maybe the difference in political opinions is so triggering for you that you need to request no political discussions around the dinner table and excuse yourself when those discussions resume later in the evening. Only when you are clear on what you want and need can you begin to make changes that support you.
3. Get aligned with your spouse: Have a discussion with your spouse well in advance about holiday events that concern you and make a few specific and reasonable requests. For example, you and your spouse might plan to take separate cars to dinner and have an agreed-upon excuse to leave early if the discussion gets too politically contentious for you. It’s essential to not be judgmental about your spouse’s family when having these discussions. You need to own that you are the one who gets triggered or drained or has a hard time with certain behaviors and commit to being on your best behavior and handling situations firmly, yet kindly and gracefully.
You may be wondering why you have to “own” someone else’s bad behavior. You don’t. But your reactions do belong to you and are something you can control. When you react to the behaviors of others, you are creating villain stories about them. Telling yourself that someone isn’t respectful, caring, smart, or responsible dehumanizes them and may, in your mind, justify your bad behavior toward them. But these are your stories, and while you may believe them, you are probably very wrong about what’s behind other people’s behaviors. This doesn’t mean you have to tolerate any behavior that doesn’t feel right to you, but it does mean that when you are triggered, your behavior looks just as villainous to others. You may be angry at the mother-in-law who fawns over her children and dismisses their spouses while she is bewildered at your sulky and curt responses to her questions. You may be enraged at the sister who takes advantage of mom and dad by living in their home and not pulling her own weight while also being completely unaware of the dismissive tone in your voice when you speak with her.
The most effective way to handle difficult people is to work from within – start with you – set boundaries from an emotionally neutral place. When you are triggered and reactive, you show up as the bad guy, regardless of how justified you feel. Here are some steps you can take to plan ahead and improve your experience – maybe even begin to enjoy events you usually find stressful:
- Write a list of everything you expect might happen that could trigger you.
- Separate the behaviors themselves from your stories about what the behaviors mean. Your stories may or may not be true, but it is often your story that keeps you in an emotionally negative place, and therefore unable to handle the situation effectively enough to get your needs met.
- Think about how these behaviors harm you – what is the specific impact?
- Ask yourself what changes could be made to protect you from the negative impact of the behaviors. If you notice that these changes involve other people changing who they are, try again with the rule that you cannot expect people to change. This means protecting yourself may involve not engaging in certain conversations or leaving events early. Or it could simply mean changing your story about what the behaviors mean so they no longer harm you.
Here are a few examples:
Susan hated spending time with her in-laws because she felt so left out and uncared for. While the grandparents would fawn over her children and enthusiastically catch up with her husband, they barely seemed to acknowledge Susan’s presence. This made her feel disconnected and alone, especially since she is estranged from her own family. After years of trying to “make” her mother-in-law like her more, she decided to let go and accept that this relationship might never grow. She realized that she needed more love and close connection in her life and had been clinging to the expectation that “family” is where she should get that. So, she made a concerted effort to develop some close friendships outside of her husband’s family and even planned a special holiday event with a few close girlfriends that felt like family to her. These efforts helped her feel important and loved, and during her next visit with her mother-in-law, she didn’t expect close connections. Instead, she focused on appreciating how loving her mother-in-law was to her children and brought a book to read so she could really indulge in some time to herself while her children were otherwise occupied.
Jeff had a hard time spending time with his wife’s family because he saw her siblings as dramatic and irresponsible. He was constantly amazed at the trouble they found themselves in just from not planning ahead, and he was sick of having to rescue people with car problems, legal issues, or financial crises. Whenever he was at a family gathering and heard the indignant ranting of one sibling or another about how unfair some problem was, he wanted to interject with exactly how they could have avoided the problem if they had just been more prepared and responsible. In fact, he had jumped in a few times with these comments, only to be labeled an arrogant jerk. In a discussion with his wife about these issues, he realized that part of his frustration was an unspoken expectation that his role was to help fix the problems and a belief that whatever chaos her family generated in their own lives would ultimately land on his doorstep. They talked through worst-case scenarios and clarified that they did not need to bail family members out of self-imposed trouble, getting clear on when they would be okay helping and where they would draw the lines. She requested that he agree to allow them to mess up their lives, and in exchange, she promised that she would not ask him to help them clean up their messes. This was a huge weight off his shoulders. At the next family event, he found himself much more relaxed and separate from the drama, even enjoying himself.
Diana loved having fun and always felt constrained when she was with her in-laws. Not only did they not drink alcohol, but they ate at a formal dining table and often acted shocked when she tried to make jokes to lighten the conversation. Worse, her husband seemed embarrassed of her when she didn’t understand the issues being discussed, and she needed a completely separate wardrobe to look more “proper” for the outings they participated in. Spending a whole week each year with them felt like sheer torture to her, and she desperately wanted to “be herself” during the holidays. After talking through these issues with her husband, they agreed that having grown up in a completely different environment, it was natural for her to struggle to fit into his parents’ world. Acknowledging the issue helped them start brainstorming solutions together and encouraged her husband to bring his parents into the conversation. Talking through it brought them closer, and as Diana began to feel less judged, curiosity began to take over, and she found that she could have fun experiencing the different culture from time to time.
If you dread extended family events, know you are not alone. It’s normal to have challenges in your relationships with extended family, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many jokes about in-laws. If you would like to discuss what you are dealing with in more depth, or work through a plan to handle your unique situation, don’t hesitate to reach out!