The holidays can be a wonderful time of laughter and love and gatherings with family. But it can also be a time of conflict and stress and hurt feelings—especially in a marriage when you’re bringing two families together. Especially when you have difficult in-laws. So what can you do to navigate those Christmas “potholes”? We’ve got some tips for you!
One of the big issues that comes up with couples is when one spouse likes to spend holidays with his/her own family, but the other spouse would rather it just be the two of them.
What marriage hasn’t gone through this? We recommend to every married couple that they understand the importance of “leaving” and “cleaving”—that is, of separating themselves as a married couple. Holidays are an excellent opportunity to begin your own traditions as a married couple. Then, the ideal situation is to share and give attention to both sides of the family.
If your parents are wise, they’ll understand how important it is for you to establish your own family, your own traditions. Parents should do everything possible to bless their adult children in making those decisions, letting them know that as much as they’d love to be with you, they want you to have your own traditions and they want you to continue your relationship with the other in-laws.
However, not all parents will be so understanding. You’ll need to be cautious about control issues that might be coming from a set of parents. You need to be gracious and kind as you finesse this situation year by year. And if children are added to the mix, it just gets stickier. However, you can make it work if you communicate with each other, compromise as needed, and establish clear guidelines to which you both can agree.
Another common issue for couples is conflict with the in-laws. These conflicts are tough because even though it seems like they’re outside the marriage, your attitude toward your in-laws can undermine your relationship with your spouse. Your spouse feels pulled to protect and love you, and yet at the same time probably feels pulled because he or she wants you to love his or her parents. You both want to be able to have a nice time with the grandparents and the grandkids. Everyone wants to have peace and harmony in the family.
Sometimes, however, a situation is so difficult, personalities clash so strongly, or other reasons cause such friction between you and your in-laws that being together is nigh unto impossible. So what can you do if you’re facing that kind of problem?
First of all, we coach people not to try to resolve a family conflict during the holidays because it can then create all sorts of difficult memories for all the future holidays. You need to go directly to your in-laws—maybe one-on-one. Get together, try to exchange some pleasantries. Go for a walk or at least be somewhere neutral without distractions. Look at your in-law(s) and just say, “I love your daughter (or your son).” Then add, “I want to wish you a merry Christmas. There may be some things that we could talk about after Christmas, but I just really wanted you to know that I love you and want to enjoy this time with us all together.”
At this point, however, you don’t want to get into a long discussion of the issue or hurt that has happened. In this first encounter, simply affirm that you are celebrating Christmas with them, that you are thankful that you can all be together. Leave it at that. This paves the way for you to have a holiday celebration without having to ignore what they feel is “the elephant in the room.” Later however, after the holidays, you’ll need to address it.
You might first go to the in-law one on one—after you’ve done a lot of praying, of course! (In fact, ask your friends to pray about this.) Your mother- or father-in-law needs to look into your eyes, hear the tone of your voice, and see your humility. Explain why you feel hurt. Reach out. Explain that you want to make it right for the sake of your spouse and your kids. Let the focus be on you. Take responsibility.
Realize that you won’t be able to change your in-law, no matter how much you may want to or how much he or she needs it. Romans 12:18 says, “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.”
Of course, as you do all of this, ask God for wisdom. You need boundaries so you don’t allow yourself to be walked all over or torn apart in front of your kids, or whatever. You need to be clear, concise, and honest. You may not be able to solve the situation, but you might at least be able to come to a truce that will allow your spouse and kids to be able to visit the grandparents and have happy holidays together in the future.
*For more practical marriage advice, check out The Great Marriage Q&A Book. It’s available in our online bookstore!