Coping With the In-Laws at Christmas

Every family has that difficult member of the group, sometimes more than one! Slightly alcoholic Uncle Jim, needy Auty Betty who can't stop talking, chain-smoking cousin Rob, the mother in law who has to critique everything, or creepy Grandpa George. They certainly don't fit the romantic picture of Christmas illustrated on glittery Christmas cards. What can we do to cope with them?

Firstly, as the couple hosting Christmas, you must sit down together and make an explicit commitment to be loyal to each other. If you don't work as a team, organising something as fraught as Christmas will not be successful. You may not find chain-smoking Rob as annoying as your spouse but, they didn't grow-up with him, they don't have the tolerance that you developed as a child so, accept that your spouse is entitled to their perspective and be on their side.

Next, decide how best to manage your difficult in-law. Would you say that they're low, medium or high stress?

For low-stress in-laws use a tag-team approach. Make sure no-one gets stuck with chatty Aunty Betty by agreeing that everyone in the family takes a turn with her, the kids too. Don't bail on your spouse and leave them stranded, jump in and distract Aunty Betty with a mince pie and give your spouse a chance to dart away and tend to the fire or something! Another good idea is to give the in-law a job...the-collector-of-the-discarded-wrapping-paper, for example. Most people's awkward behaviour is to cope with stress and people with a job feel included and less stressed - less awkward. 

For medium stress in-laws, you're going to have to work a little harder. If it's your mum who's the annoying mother-in-law who always upsets your wife, it's your job to put a boundary around this behaviour. It's definitely harder at Christmastime to call mum and say, "We're looking forward to having you over at Christmas but not looking forward to your comments about Alison's cooking". But, that's the price you pay for ignoring the problem for so long. Yes, you'll probably get some blow-back for bringing it up but, if you're consistent, the message will get through. You also need to be prepared to enforce this boundary on the day. If mum just can't resist making her little comments, you need to step in and protect your spouse - "I told you that those comments weren't welcome." Most people rely on getting away with their bad behaviour, assuming others will be too embarrassed to call it. Call it. 

For high-stress in-laws, I suggest a containment approach. Limit your exposure to high-stress people by containing them to certain times or certain places. You can offer to visit them so they're contained to their own place and not coming into yours.  Or, contain Christmas to a public place - many people now choose to have their Christmas Day at a hotel or restaurant where the social pressure helps to contain the bad behaviour of most people. You can also contain the in-laws by time by inviting them for Christmas Eve or Boxing Day Lunch instead of the big day.

You have no obligation to spoil your family's day so that badly behaved people get to express their malice. In fact, it is often tolerance of bad behaviour that has allowed it to flourish to a larger and larger extent - be the one who stands-up for what's right instead of giving in to what's easy.

Specific Issues and Solutions Might Include...

  1. Creepy Grandpa George who pays too much attention to the girls in the family is not allowed to demand kisses and hugs. Gone are the days when low-grade sexual pressure was okay in families. Tell the children they don't have to hug anyone they don't want to and tell George the same. 
  2. Alcoholic Uncle Jim is struggling with an addiction and is going to find it hard to spend 7 hours at your place without drinking too much. You can invite him for dinner on Christmas Eve instead or let him know that you love him but, you'll be sending him home in a taxi after 5 drinks, whatever time of day that is, not after 15.
  3. Your grown-up daughter with the dodgy boyfriend is going through a phase - remember that you're going to have 50 or 60 Christmas Days together so, if one or two get spoiled, the family will be fine. She already knows that you don't like her boyfriend and secretly, she understands why. He also feels uncomfortable at your place so, he won't mind if he's somewhere else instead. Let her know that they are welcome if they can contribute to the happiness of the day - if they get sulky and refuse to come over, focus on the future Christmas Days when she's grown-up a bit more. If they arrive late, stay on schedule and don't delay the gifts or the meal just for them. 

All these scenarios are challenging, especially during Christmas. They challenge our aspiration to have the perfect day when we've been told that harmony is in keeping with the time of the year. But, harmony is a result of earlier relationship-building efforts, not ignoring problems. This is why the first step, spousal loyalty, is the most important - a good team can face anything.

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