Don't Allow Difficult In-laws to Steal Your Joy

Tracy Stengel

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The holiday season is weeks away and already some of my friends are stressing themselves out. They aren’t worried about finding everyone the perfect gift, gaining extra weight, or financial concerns — instead, they dread spending time with their in-laws.

Connie is a personal trainer and embraces a healthy lifestyle. She hasn’t eaten meat in over a decade. “It’s no secret I’m vegetarian, but my mother-in-law makes a big deal out of it. She says it’s unnatural and tries to push the turkey and ham on me. Every holiday meal centers on a conversation about what I choose to put in my body. It’s not like I pick at her food. I always make sure to fill my plate with salad, fruit, and vegetables and I compliment her on her cooking. She’ll just shake her head and point out that I’m missing out on the main entrée.” Connie rolled her eyes. “It’s everything I can do to bite my tongue and force a smile throughout the meal.”

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Connie isn’t thrilled with her father-in-law either. “He makes me feel like a slacker because I didn’t go to college. He’ll make comments about how it isn’t right that I run around the gym in a leotard all day with a bunch of men flexing their muscles. A leotard? Really? And is he implying that I am being unfaithful to his son?”

Since Connie and her husband don’t have any children, she deftly avoids them most of the year. Her husband visits his parents regularly by himself. “But I can’t dodge them during the holidays. That would be rude, and I don’t want to hurt my husband’s feelings. He has no idea how much I dislike them,” Connie said, sadly. “Just saying that makes me feel guilty.”

My friend Sarah loves her husband’s parents and his brother and his wife. “They are lovely, kind people. My mother-in-law and father-in-law are great. I couldn’t have gotten luckier. But my sister-in-law is a miserable person who wants everyone else miserable too. I tense up just being in the same room with her.”

Sarah’s four-year-old son has a lisp and is seeing a speech therapist. “My sister-in-law thinks his lisp means he isn’t smart. She told me I better teach him a trade since he’ll never make it into college. Who says stuff like that? And my husband is a carpenter, so that remark was doubly hurtful and just plain ignorant.”

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Unfortunately, many people have issues with their in-laws and it can knock the sparkle off the holiday season. Billie Tyler, licensed marriage and family therapist, stresses the importance of spouses maintaining a united front no matter what.

Couples must lean into each other and decide together what their stance is about the role the in-laws play in their relationship. Even if things do not change much with the in-laws the couple will feel better, and they can navigate the challenges more easily because there is security in knowing they have each other’s back.

Tyler advises couples set boundaries and not waver. If you don’t want your children eating candy before their meal, don’t turn a blind eye when Grandpa is slipping them chocolate covered cherries. Be firm, yet friendly.

It may be tempting to ignore the problem, but Tyler says that’s not the answer. The problem rarely goes away and must be confronted. She promotes empathy, understanding, and non-confrontational discourse in order to find a way to keep the peace.

If you have difficult in-laws, I’d love to hear your advice and tips in the comments!

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Tracy explores the world with a positive eye, an open heart, and a sprinkling of humor. Without laughter, she would be lost.

Onsted, MI
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