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Surviving the Holidays – When Your In-laws Are As Crazy As Your Parents

This is a repost of something I wrote in October 2013.  I dusted it off again for this year.

Tis the season of hurt feelings, tra-la, la, la, la…

I love the holiday season in which I cram too many of my favorite things into a 5 weeks.  Thanksgiving always sneaks up on me and I’m just ready to sleep by New Year’s Eve.  Luckily I live on the west coast so we can watch the ball drop at 9 PM and go to bed.

I also approach the holiday season with a bit of nervousness knowing feelings will be hurt and good intentions won’t be enough. I’ve tried to make the most of the holidays by trying to be everywhere and that only drove my family crazy.  We’ve tried the other extreme of trying to “check out” but were left with a nagging guilt about not being with people we cared for.

We have it pretty easy because both our parents aren’t divorced but it’s still complicated because we have to travel to see family.  I feel a bit guilty venting about my holidays because so many of my friends have it way more complicated because of divorce, remarriage, distance, kids being married and a bunch of other things.

For those that hate math…SKIP THE NEXT PARAGRAPH.  Trust me, don’t read it.  Just continue after the blah, blah, blah.

Permutations – thats the concept I learned in high school math in which you try to calculate all the possible combinations.  So for a person that has parents that are both remarried
you would need to eat four thanksgiving meals which just isn’t possible.  So you end up trying to create equality with options you create 4 options.  If I did the math correctly you now have 24 choices.  For those that suddenly are energized by math, the formula is to the right and if you promise to come back, I’ve included a link to Kahn Academy with a video that explains how to calculate the permutations for your family.

Some still try every possible combination using creativity. Thanksgiving brunch at his moms, early lunch at her dad’s house followed by dinner at his dad’s house followed a shopping and late thanksgiving at her mom’s house. Stop watches are running to make sure each person get equal grandchild time but no one leaves satisfied.

I know I’m exaggerating a bit but balancing the holidays can be a challenge, even for the sanest of families. Like it or not, it’s something that can cause irritation or even wounds. It gets even harder when you have kids because grandparents choose to compete with other grandparents.  Sure they like to see us but we are there mostly to deliver the kids.

Now add unreasonable expectations, dysfunction, unresolved conflict, badly officiated football games and over-eating…

(I’ve just re-read my post and it sounds like I hate the holidays…I don’t…but I do know they are complicated and complicated things require some planning.)

Holidays are a time to create your own family traditions.  It’s easy to focus on pleasing other people and continuing your parents traditions but it also is about figuring out what you and your wife want to saddle your kids with in terms of traditions and guilt.  This process can be really energizing or can add to the family conflict.

What can you do to make it easier?

This is a boundary challenge. It focuses on what we can control, what we don’t have control over and also those relationships and things we need to protect ourselves from. It requires us to accept our limitations. For many it also requires us to protect our family from family negativity.

Boundaries are a concept that John Townsend and Henry Cloud have been writing and speaking about since 1992.  Boundaries are something that need to be established, thoughtfully created by a couple and further developed by a family. People without boundaries can be walked all over and tend to get into a victim mentality. Setting boundaries helps protect your family but also can be really helpful for other people. They know where you stand and can interact with you without wondering whether they are overstepping. For these reasons it is really important for couples to sit down together and establish those boundaries and then as a unified couple, share those boundaries with the extended family.

The process of setting boundaries isn’t easy but neither is trying to keep everyone happy.

Communication is is one of the most important areas to focus on in navigating the holidays.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Communicate well ahead of time. Talk before your parents and her parents are sending you plane tickets or setting your plans.
  • Communicate your goals for the holiday. Talk about what sort of experiences you want your kids to have, what you want them to remember about the holidays when they are adults.
  • Be unified as a couple. Communicate your plans as a unit and be careful not to throw your spouse under the bus just because you are scared of offending your parents. She doesn’t say things like, “I really do want to come for Thanksgiving but Tim and his mom are so co-dependent that they can’t be apart for the holidays.” He can’t say things like, “Susan turns into a little kid when she is at home and would fall apart if she wasn’t home for Christmas”
  • Ask your extended family what their preferences are. Simply say, “We really are looking forward to family time over the holidays but realize we can’t be everywhere at the same time. If everything would be ideal, how would you like to see us spend the holiday? Do you have any suggestions for how we can balance all our different needs during the holidays?
  • Be honest about your limitations whether they are financial, the amount of time your kids can handle in the car or the amount of food you can eat.
  • Build in buffer – Plan for down time, have some cushion in your budget, make sure to over-estimate your travel times.  Buffer keeps things from getting frantic and will lead to less arguments and regrets.

Here are some ways other couples have structured their holidays.

  • Alternate and Rotate – Spend Thanksgiving with one set, Christmas with another and New year at home. Rotate positions each year. Due to complication from divorce some families rotate who comes over for Christmas morning, another set of parents for Christmas dinner. It can be tricky but a rotation at least demonstrates trying and fairness.
  • Invite everyone to your house. Yes, this may be crazy but at least you don’t have to travel.
  • Find neutral ground – invite families to a beach house, go skiing, take a cruise. Do something in which everyone is invited but no one owns the space.

Don’t just let the holidays happen to you, make a plan, communicate well, remain flexible and most of all, don’t let the holidays mayhem rob your family of closeness and time to appreciate one another.


Focus on the Family: Holidays and the In-laws

TwoOfUs.org – Balancing Blended Families During the Holidays