In the privacy of my office patients frequently kvetch about their in-laws. With the holidays in full swing and families gathering, these problems take center stage.  Usually the conflagrations that occur are predictable, yet we tend to head into holiday celebrations doing the same old things while expecting different results.


Jackie came to see me last week, glum, angry and disappointed.  She, Ed and the kids had just spent Thanksgiving with Ed’s family.  Although Ed’s Dad is an alcoholic and his Mom is quite self-absorbed, Jackie was excited about the upcoming celebration, somehow believing that this year’s festivities would be different.


Not surprisingly things turned out as they always did.  Jackie had words with her father-in-law when, after a number of scotches, he began disparaging Ed and his lackluster career.   Meanwhile the kids were disappointed that Grandma was too busy watching her game shows to spend time with them.


What Jackie didn’t understand was that she was the problem; she kept expecting Ed’s family to change and that wasn’t going to happen. She wasn’t at all happy when I pointed this out to her because, after all, she was “right”. When I told her that right was irrelevant in this case, I thought she was going to storm out of my office.


As we talked, however, Jackie began to calm down.  In fact she almost seemed relieved when I suggested there were some things she could change; her own expectations and behavior.  With this fact in mind I shared with her the following tips:


  • Accept your in-laws for who they are.  Why would you expect them to change for you?  In fact, according to eastern religion and philosophy, resistance leads to persistence. In other words the more you fight things the more they remain the same.  By accepting this reality – as difficult as that might seem – you may find yourself relieved to realize that changing these folks isn’t your responsibility; that who they are actually has nothing to do with you.

  • Remember that “blood is thicker than water”.  In my experience if something needs to be said to the in-laws it will be far better received coming from your partner than from you.  You can certainly help him or her think it through, but if you utter the words yourself you’ll likely damage your relationship with the in-laws and not have changed anything for the better.

  • Prepare for the worst while hoping for the best:  Although it may be counter-intuitive, you’ll be far better off if you anticipate that the worst of your in-laws behavior will come to the fore.  Even prepare your kids for this, not by implying that your in-laws are “bad”, but rather by reminding them that people are different, and that the holidays can bring stress as well as joy.  Remind them of the “rules” at Grandma’s house so that they don’t set themselves up for unnecessary criticism.  By using this approach, positive moments will be a welcome – if unanticipated – joy.

  • Aim for quality not quantity.  Every time you get together with family for the holidays you are making memories for you and your kids.  Better to gracefully exit, or end things on a positive note, than to stay until the bitter end – and I mean bitter!

  • When in Rome do as the Romans. When on someone else’s turf allow for, and accept, their right to observe their usual holiday traditions, and teach your kids to do the same. Isn’t this what you would want if the tables were turned?  Who knows, you may even find yourself enjoying their rituals!


One definition of insanity is “doing the same thing while expecting different results”.  Next year, why not set yourself up for holiday happiness with the in-laws by changing the things you can, accepting the things you can’t, and adjusting your behavior accordingly?

Trouble with Your In Laws?

by Maud Purcell

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