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8 tips for handling extended family stress during the holidays

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?

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  1. Erin Zackey

    wow! This post couldn’t have come at a better time, as we speak my hubby is on the phone with my MIL about the holidays, and it’s sounding like a tricky conversation…;) will have him read this after he’s off!
    .-= Erin Zackey´s last blog ..On the Fourteenth Day of Advent =-.

  2. Sheila@Momfessions

    *sorry kids running amuck* I passed this on to my sister and her new husband. I wish I had some tips earlier in my marriage like this!

  3. Megan at Simple Kids

    This is SO helpful, Corey! I really think point 4 is so important. Sometimes the best path is to recognize and honor the culture/background of our spouses without being so determined to change things to conform to the way we think it “should be.” I love how you guide people towards harmony while emphasizing the importance of boundaries.
    .-= Megan at Simple Kids´s last blog ..An Uncomplicated Holiday: Resisting the Rush =-.

  4. Satakieli

    Good ideas!

    And what great photos chosen for this article!
    .-= Satakieli´s last blog ..Oh, Hello Winter! pt.2 =-.

  5. Abby

    Thanks for this! If I could add one more thing, it would be this – remember that your parents (and his parents) won’t be around forever. My father-in-law had a health scare this fall; my sister’s father-in-law was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. This was the year that I learned that whether or not I enjoy the way my in-laws celebrate, it is incredibly important that our children celebrate with them while they’re able.

  6. autumnesf

    I think #2 is key. Don’t share!! I’ve seen women that get upset with their spouses and tell all to other family members and later regret it. This is bad for everyone involved. And if the marriage ends in divorce it can really make it worse for any kids involved.

    Your hurricane lamp giveaway was inspiring so I’m hosting a nativity set giveaway if you want to come over to my blog and enter. I love your posts so much that I wanted to share.
    .-= autumnesf´s last blog ..How About A Christmas Giveaway? =-.

  7. Amy Reads Good Books

    Great tips! It’s true. . .this is a tough time of year to handle all the extended family! I agree that being polite can go a long way!
    .-= Amy Reads Good Books´s last blog ..Teaser Tuesday =-.

  8. Jessie

    Great post! My father-in-law gave us some great advice before we got married — decide to spend Christmas at your own house every year. Just do it. Inform all the extended family that if they want to see you, they can come to you, or you can visit some other time. We *love* the idea, and it is a very strict rule for us. We’ve actually extended it to “We will spend Christmas Day at our own house — just us, no visitors.”

    We also try hard to put the needs of our baby ahead of extended family members’ need to say, take a million photos of her, or see her in that cute dress they bought her. If she’s tired or hungry or upset, that’s the priority.

    Other than that, we’re very flexible. 🙂

    • Sarah T

      My father’s family actually began doing this when he and his siblings got married, and the tradition has now expanded into the second generation. We have a family Xmas Day that is separate from the holiday itself. It is always the same day every year.

      On that day, the grandparents (and now great-grandparents), aunts and uncles, cousins, etc. all get together for dinner (potluck) and presents for children. (Some years the adults will do some variation on the pick-one-name-from-a-hat exchange, but only children get multiple gifts.) Because this has been a tradition for so long, often second and third cousins who happen to be in town will stop by. And on the holiday itself, everyone has the day to spend with their own nuclear family, or the other side of in-laws, or whatever they decide.

  9. Taylor at

    I really like the last tip, about actually spending time with the extended family. I know this has come a long way toward making me both feel a part of the family, and to really get to know (and like) my husband’s relatives. Now, I love visiting both sides of the family, and really do feel like they are my family too.
    .-= Taylor at´s last blog ..Removing Lime Stains – Lime Stain Removal Tips =-.

  10. Mandee Jo

    These are great guidelines for the whole year. My fiance is an out of work engineer and we are having to entertain the idea of him joining the military in order to have an income. Our families are very against it but we just tell them “WE have to decide what is right for US, whether you like it or not. And as our family we hope you can come to support OUR decision.” Our families are kind and loving and rational so this has worked well.

  11. Sarah Jane

    This is so timely. I live with my mother-in-law so we have put a lot of thought in how we live with each other. It’s easy to nag. It take more patience and energy to be respectful and understand, but the latter is so much more rewarding. All the best to you.
    .-= Sarah Jane´s last blog ..9 days =-.

  12. Olivia

    Good advice. My hubby and I just might have to use the code word idea. We tend to get swallowed up when we head to see his fam in STL. This would help me feel like he and I are a unit.
    .-= Olivia´s last blog ..Oilcloth Bag Giveaway =-.

  13. bedroom furniture

    Thanks for posting this! Holidays is the mist stressful, I think because all my relatives and his are at home and we have no time with our kids and with each other. It is just so frustrating sometimes.

  14. Emma @

    I had my extended family over just a month ago (they stayed 4 weeks with us) and it made me want to never ever ever invite them again. I know this sounds awful, but I’m just being honest about it. The full story is in this post,

    but in short, they had zero respect to any of our rules and traditions as well as to the feelings of our child. Why does it have to be so difficult?!
    .-= Emma @´s last blog ..Potty training, day 5. =-.

  15. mugs

    holiday stress is just insane!
    .-= mugs´s last blog ..Wake Up With Me =-.

  16. Emily

    Great ideas! To piggyback on the second one about establishing boundaries: whenever you have a fight or sharp disagreement with your spouse–or if your spouse does something that upsets you big time–you must NEVER run to your parents to tell them how horrible your spouse is.

    Chances are, you will eventually resolve the situation with your spouse, but your parents will never forget it, and possibly hold it against them. Which obviously makes extended family visits even more stressful.
    .-= Emily´s last blog ..Nourishing Winter Soup =-.

  17. Kristen

    This something I definitely struggle with! My in-laws even frustrate my husband sometimes. Right now it is just the two of us and we are about to spend another Christmas travelling to see family. However once we have kids Christmas is going to be an at home event. One of our biggest problems is my in-laws lack of respect for us and our time. We are working on it though!

  18. POM

    Thank you for this post! It couldn’t be more necessary! My hubby and I have taken in my father after suffering a stroke on Thanksgiving (he’s ok though) but needs 24 hour care right now…so we are 3 sardines crammed in to our 1 br duplex…hubs and I sleeping on the couch! And did I mention this is our first Christmas together as a married couple?

    Ahh the holidays…
    .-= POM´s last blog ..If You Miss this Diaper Clutch GIVEAWAY, You’ll Kick Yourself Later! =-.

  19. Jenn @ Beautiful Calling

    I think that Family is one of the biggest sources of stress for many around the holidays. While my MIL lives in Africa, my Grandmother-in-law lives with us and we’re on pretty good terms (mostly) but I see how difficult inlaws can be when I see my sister. Maybe I’ll send this on over to her.
    Thanks for sharing.
    .-= Jenn @ Beautiful Calling´s last blog ..Free $5.00 Coupon For Gymboree =-.

  20. Bomi Jolly

    Thanks for sharing this post. Great set of tips! My favorites are #2, #3, #4, #7…who am I kidding, I love them all! Really useful set of tips. Thanks for sharing!
    .-= Bomi Jolly´s last blog ..It’s Not Up to Them!(+ Holiday Update) =-.

  21. Natalie

    Wonderful tips! I wish I read this before Christmas but it will apply to all extended family visits this upcoming year.

  22. family law solicitors London

    I like the tips. Learning to be a partner is very important, setting limits about what is discussed with in laws is a really cool tip. I think ground rules like that are very important.

  23. Kathy Sena

    I agree about fish and veggies — the three day rule! When visiting my parents, who live out of state, I make sure I get exercise each day — preferably a nice walk with my husband. It’s good stress relief and it’s a chance to give everyone some breathing room. We love each other, but living under the same roof is a bit challenging now and then! We return from the walk refreshed and ready to enjoy the family once again.

  24. Kathy Sena

    Ha! Can’t believe I said “Fish and Veggies” instead of “Fish and Visitors.” Family-holiday overload, perhaps? 🙂

  25. Divorce Solicitors

    These tips are great and they do make sense, you do need to set ground rules but I think the best tip of all is to spend time with the extended family. If you spend time doing things that they enjoy you may stasrt to enjoy them might even find yourself WANTING to spend more time with the in-laws rather than less. That way you can build many family bonds. Great tips!

  26. Tammy Monaghan

    I wonder if you could give a little advise on a 2nd marriage where I have kids n have to jungle there time with there dad no have 2 adult children one with a college schedule, n one married with my 1st grandson. N juggling her parents, their father vrs our Christmas vrs a aunt n uncle n cousins gathering that always seems to be planned on the day we r having ours or a day we don’t have my kids to join. It’s a 2 hour drive for us n even my MIL don’t care less if we have our kids or not she just wants her son there! Heck they even missed our last Christmas where our 19yr old son was only here for a few days for the first time in 2yrs. N lived 3000 miles away!
    But yet my husband now of 8yrs seems to still side with them. He feels my kids n grandbaby r my family n he shouldn’t have to miss his aunt n uncles. His parents live close so we always invite them but yet I never see my aunts n uncles cousins etc. because of our holiday schedules. I as a mother law know that my DIL has family come in town each holiday so I plan around their holiday (i always find out their date first before i plan) n around my younger kids going to dads. So it’s always tricky. But I’ve tried to explain if they could do it the weekend b4 the week of Xmas we would all beable to join them but it seems intentional they schedule it like that. All there kids r up there n no grandkids etc yet so they don’t understand the splitting time n none of them have split families! I know if I had a child with my husband I think it would be different but the fact is I can’t n won’t just so they will comprimise with us in!! I knew from the beginning his mom didn’t accept but it makes it very stressful to go through this every year! I always open my door n they all can drive here n join us n for first few years we did make it, actually last one was first we missed but this one we will also. They keep saying he can just go. N I’m almost tempted to send him by himself not that they would care but maybe he would get what he is missing at home where his kids n wife are. But at the same time I guess the fear is maybe he would have the best time ever n not miss us at all while our kids miss him n I miss him!!

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