As the holidays are upon us, many of us will be spending time with extended family. Whether you’re traveling to visit parents or they’re coming to stay with you, time spent with family can be filled with blessings — and also lots of stress.
My father-in-law aptly stated it this way: one of the best things about the holidays is seeing the headlights of family members coming up the driveway to visit. The second best thing about the holidays is seeing their taillights as they drive away.
Handling extended family and in-laws can be tricky for most every couple.
Not everyone has the blessing of a good extended family or in-laws. Many spouses still may feel like they must compete against their in-laws for the time and attention of their spouse.
Like it or not, extended family and in-laws are part of your life, so having a good relationship with them is vital. After all, you married into their system. And they can help instill values in your children.
So how do you navigate the extended family and in-law waters this holiday season?
With a mix of tact, straightforwardness, and healthy selfishness.
Whether the relationship with your extended family or in-laws is great or could use some improving, here are some tips that may help.
1. Your spouse comes first.
The Bible even talks about this one — a child will leave their mother and father and cleave to their spouse. When you get married, it’s time to grow up and leave your parents. This doesn’t mean you emotionally kick them to the curb or cut all ties, but you do need to establish your own family. By putting your spouse first, you are choosing the adult role of being a husband or wife over the role of being a child in your parent’s family.
2. Set boundaries.
There are many things that happen in marriage that are none of your parent’s business. If you run to mom or dad any time you have a fight with your spouse, how are you going to learn to handle life with your spouse on your own? Avoid sharing the household secrets with your parents. Discuss with your spouse what topics and areas of your life are off limits to others.
Photo by Carolien Dekeersmaeker
3. Establish ground rules.
Much like the previous point, setting clear ground rules for handling extended family will improve your marriage:
- When do you and your spouse have exclusive time for each other?
- When do you spend time with your extended family?
- When do you involve your parents/in-laws in decision-making?
- Where should you discuss your marital conflicts: in private or in front of your in-laws?
4. Recognize the culture.
Our culture and upbringing plays a major role in how we do marriage. Recognize the cultural aspects of your spouse’s upbringing. One client I’ve worked with handled it this way: in her upbringing, the women did all the cooking and cleaning up at mealtimes. So when they shared a meal with her parents, he stayed out of the way. However, when her parents weren’t around, he stepped up and helped out or took care of it himself.
5. Don’t criticize your spouse’s relationship with their family or parents.
Nothing can raise a spouse’s defenses faster than criticism. Seek to understand more about their relationship rather than criticize, as that can lead to bitterness and resentment.
6. Be polite.
This doesn’t mean you have to change your personality to please your extended family or in-laws, but respect rules and traditions that are important to the older generation. Being polite and respectful with in-laws will go a long way in improving the relationship — not only with your in-laws, but your spouse as well.
Photo by Kevin King
7. Develop code words.
My wife and I have pretty good relationships with each other’s parents and family. Even so, there are still times when they drive us a bit crazy. We’ve developed some code words that we use to lighten the mood between us whenever family is getting too annoying. Have fun with this one, but remember to remain respectful. Derogatory code words will only cause more problems.
8. Spend time with your extended family.
Develop a better relationship with your family members by doing things together. Find out what they enjoy and join them. This could be shopping, playing golf, cards, whatever. You may find you have more in common than you thought.
So works for you when it comes to your relationship with extended family and in-laws?