When two families come together, it can be difficult to keep your independence yet healthily interact with your in-laws because you both have traditions you hold most dear. It can be especially difficult when in-laws don't recognize you as a member of the family, or they resent you for taking away their son or daughter. This can make navigating the holidays especially difficult. But it doesn't have to be this way. Even in the most difficult in-law situations, there's still hope for reconciliation, or at the very least, treating them with a modicum of respect.
If you're hosting your in-laws, there are ways to honor your traditions yet honor your in-laws at the same time. Melding two families together is not easy. Both you and your in-laws may have a set way of doing things for the holidays. If you're going to your in-law’s house, it won't be easy to be recognized as a treasured family member, especially if they regard your spouse's opinions as superior to yours.
If you are dreading your in-laws this holiday season, here are six ways you can thrive (and not merely survive):
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1. Set Clear Boundaries
The most important thing you can do as a person is to set firm boundaries regarding what you will (and will not) tolerate from your in-laws. If your in-laws like to express their opinions, you must extend grace and allow them to do so. But you do not have to tolerate sarcastic comments or belittling remarks simply because they are your relatives. If they do not value your presence in their son or daughter's life, sit down with them and talk about the nature of your relationship. Let them know you love them, but you expect to be treated as a valued person. If, after talking with them, they cannot agree to your terms, re-evaluate your plan and see if going to see them for the holidays is a wise move at this point. If you are unhappy with your relationship, seeing them for the holidays to appease them will not help. The problems will only follow you in the new year and beyond.
2. Honor Them (and Yourself)
One of the Ten Commandments states to honor your father and mother. This is an important rule for children and even young adults to adhere to. Your in-laws should be treated with honor simply because they are human beings. However, any dysfunctional behavior (between themselves or their treatment of you) should be stopped. For example, if your spouse's parents still treat their son or daughter as if they were a child, parents need to learn how to treat their child like an adult. Sometimes they don't realize what they're doing. This is simply a cycle that they perpetuated and can’t stop. Sometimes his parents need a gentle yet truthful person to point out these behaviors or help them shift their perspective. Sometimes a heart-to-heart conversation in truth and love will be sufficient.
3. Talk to Your Spouse
You should never be put in a position to assert your value or worth. That is your spouse's job. In your marriage vows, you vowed to love, honor, and cherish one another. This is especially important when it comes to your spouse's parents. It is irrelevant whether they are older than you or not. It is most important that they treat you with respect. Ask your spouse to speak to them about you on your behalf. Ask your spouse to set a boundary regarding your communication and interactions with one another.
Not only is this important for your spouse, but it is also an important example for your children. Children live what they learn. If they see you loving each other and putting each other first, they will grow up to do the same. When you got married, you left your father and mother to unite as one. Your new family should take precedence over your relatives. You should not tolerate abuse, and neither should your spouse. If your spouse is not willing to defend you on your behalf, then there's an issue in the marriage that needs to be resolved. Speak about it candidly and try to resolve it. Seek professional help if necessary.
4. Get to Know Them
In this technological world, we have lost the fine art of communication. Sometimes parents just want to be heard, and they want their stories to be told so their emotional needs are known and seen. Take time while you're with them to ask them a bit more about their story. Ask them how they got married, what it was like to have their first child, their relationship with their in-laws, etc. It will help ease the tension when you demonstrate that you value them as a cherished part of your spouse's life, and ease their awkwardness of not being able to parent their child anymore. You may learn a thing or two that you didn't know before, gain more insight into your spouse, and foster intimacy and deeper communication.
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5. Ask for Help
Former generations want to know they are still needed. When you married your spouse, they gained a family member, but they lost the authority they once had in their child's life. This can create great loss in their lives that has not been dealt with properly and can wreak havoc in your relationship. Ask them for help with caring for your child, carving the turkey, or making a dish. Take a moment and ask them what traditions they want to still honor during the holidays. Do your best to make a time-honored family dish or ask them to bring that dish with them when they arrive at your home (or make it the centerpiece of your meal). Make them feel as though they are needed and the things that they value are important to you too.
6. Take It to the Lord
Out of all the ways you can handle you're in-laws this holiday, the most important thing you can do to help process your feelings is to take them to the Lord. The Holy Spirit knows more about the situation than you do. Ask him to reveal any underlying issues or emotions you may need to know about and deal with accordingly. Ask the Holy Spirit to increase within you the fruits of the Spirit, and ask the Lord regularly to help you resolve any underlying anger or resentment you may have toward them. When you keep yourself as healthy as possible, it makes dealing with difficult situations that much easier. Ask the Lord to help you see your in-laws with his eyes rather than your own. We often see a very small part of a much larger picture. Ask the Lord to help you display love to your in-laws, even if they don't deserve it. Ask the Lord to help you extend grace when necessary. Finally, ask him to help you discern when enough is enough. One wrong comment may not be worth sitting down and having a conversation, but if the entire exchange is wrought with conflict and strife, it may be time to sit down and have a hard conversation with your in-laws.
Having in-laws that are tough to get along with can make an already stressful holiday even more difficult. But learning to love yourself, asking your spouse to honor your relationship, and setting firm boundaries will help diffuse a difficult situation. By following the guidelines above, you and your spouse will not only change as people, but you will also honor your relationship in a new way. In the end, it will develop Christ-like character God desires for your life.
Originally published Monday, 14 November 2022.