As this holiday season arrives, perhaps you long for healthy family relationships even more than the perfectly set table and crisply roasted turkey.
Extended-family relationships, especially those with our parents-in-law, often seem fraught with complications and challenges. We want things to go well; we long to honor our in-laws and celebrate the holidays with humor, joy, and intentionality … but every year that issue or that person pops up and things go downhill quickly. Is this sounding familiar? Let's talk about some practical ways to create a healthier holiday for everyone involved.
First make a plan with your spouse. Not with your mom or your siblings—with your husband or wife. Robert Wolgemuth, author of the marriage guide The Most Important Year in a Woman's Life, says, "Parents, without trying, can set you against your spouse … you and your husband need to talk through [your plan]. If you don't, questions can be raised that can turn you against each other." So make some quiet time for you and your husband to outline a plan together and then present it as a united front to both of your families.
Be empathetic. The holidays are full of expectations and hopes that have deep emotional meaning to each individual. Take a minute to imagine that someone you love is telling you that things aren't going to be as you had hoped this Thanksgiving or Christmas. Be empathetic, and give your parents or in-laws a chance to express their feelings. This can root out issues that might fester if not addressed. Wolgemuth suggests using language like "My guess is that this is a very hard thing for you to understand or deal with." This can effectively open the door to an opportunity for sharing.
Say it. Wolgemuth suggests, "More often than not, these kinds of things break down based on what is not said, not what is said." Think about that huge tirade that you save up for your spouse as soon as the car door shuts and you're pulling out of the driveway at your in-laws' home. Examine the recurring themes, and prayerfully consider what you might need to address with your in-laws. None of us like conflict, but without conflict and resolution, healthy relationships do not exist!
Deal with it early. November and December are not the times to spring plans or sit down for a "discussion" with your in-laws. Let your in-laws know about your holiday plans in the late summer or very early fall. If you have issues that need to be addressed, make a phone call or write a letter now so you can spend the holidays celebrating.
Adjust your expectations. Let's be realistic: none of us will have a "perfect" holiday. The turkey might not be done on time, a child might have a grand mal tantrum, and Uncle Toney might show up with his "special friend." If you picture a Hallmark movie going into the holidays this year, you are going to be disappointed. Instead, make room for reality and look for things at each celebration that you can laugh about and be thankful for.
Create a backup plan/code word. Hopefully neither of these will be necessary. But if things get particularly hairy, it can be helpful to have a backup plan in place. One husband I know felt frayed after about six hours of holiday celebration at his in-laws', and his wife knew he needed some "alone time," so she suggested he go get some ice. Now "getting some ice" is his way of taking 20 or 30 minutes to be alone, reset, and come back to the family restored. Marathon holiday weekends can lend themselves to stress in a contained environment, so if you need to, pick a code word that will let your spouse know you need a break. Love your family, but also take care of each other. This isn't about escapism, hiding out for hours at a time, but a chance to recharge and then reconnect.
Deliver your plans with empathy and love to the people who love and raised you and your spouse! Prayerfully consider an honest conversation or letter that could clear up some misunderstandings or standing issues that crop up every year. Decide to expect and accept what the holidays will actually be like, not what you dream they will be like, and put a little plan in place for when things get, um, too "real."
Jenny Schermerhorn is seeking to live an abundant life in motherhood, ministry, and marriage. She's a freelance writer and communications director at her church.