Surviving the Holidays at Your In-Laws (or Any Relatives)

If you know your triggers, make a plan for surviving the holidays at your in-laws.

Marketers love cozy scenes of extended families gathered to celebrate holidays. They hope to exploit people’s natural desire to be surrounded by loved ones, safe and happy. If they’re hoping to make you feel warm and squishy inside, they don’t want you to think about surviving the holidays at your in-laws. Businesses rely on people looking forward to family gatherings so they will spend money on travel and gifts.

To be honest, most holiday family gatherings have heartwarming moments, but tension or friction between family members and in-laws is hardly rare.

Your feelings toward an upcoming holiday visit to your in-laws or other irritating relatives might range from hopeful tolerance to dread.

Perhaps there’s been conflict in the past, or you fear that you’ll lose your cool if provoked one more time. What you need is a game plan to help you manage your feelings and navigate the situation without causing any family drama.

Overnight or Multi-Night Stays With Your Relatives

This guide to surviving the holidays at your in-laws focuses on overnight or multi-day visits at the home of an in-law or relative. Even under good circumstances, family members can get on each other’s nerves, especially if packed into a home and sharing rooms.

Identify Your Triggers

Knowing what to expect helps you prepare to avoid family drama.

“He who knows his enemy and himself well will not be defeated easily.” Sun Tzu, ancient Chinese general

from the Art of War

If you’re anticipating friction, conflict, or annoyance with your host or one or more people in attendance, it’s good to define what will bother you. In this way, you prepare yourself to recognize oncoming danger early and take countermeasures to soothe yourself or at least manage conflict.

Common triggers when staying overnight with relatives are:

  • Religious/cultural clashes
  • Dismissal of people’s dietary needs
  • Criticism of parenting
  • Criticism of lifestyle choices, i.e. career path, no marriage or kids
  • Parents or Parents-in-law treating you, your partner, or children badly
  • Political topics
  • Discomfort with surroundings, i.e. uncomfortable bed, dirty home

Dealing With Religious or Other Cultural Clashes

If it’s your first time visiting the home of an in-law who has a different religion or culture, you have an opportunity to make a good impression. You could approach this as a learning experience so that you can understand your partner and in-laws better.

Adopt a mindset of curiosity. Showing interest can go a long way with people. They might have some anxiety about you as well, so proceed gently.

Keep an open mind because you might learn something new and even find that you enjoy participating in their traditions.

However, if you and your partner expect your hosts to be problematic or even offensive, you may need to pick your battles. Don’t go in there ready to rumble. Try to be willing to have a nice time.

It will help tremendously if your partner is on your side and does not slide into obeying the parents or other family leaders. Adults can easily slip back into child mode of following their parents’ orders.

For this reason, you should talk to your partner about sticking up for you if need be, or at least not contributing to any criticisms or comments that come your way.

Accept that some people might say offensive things, even if they mean well. They might be trying to recognize your differences but end up making you feel uncomfortable.

In extreme situations, your hosts might be condescending or outright rude. This is especially possible when people are raised by religious extremists who feel that they must bring their adult children back into religious practice.

You may hear comments about being a sinner or going to Hell.

When you’re on the receiving end of hostile comments like this, you could say:

“I’m not worried about that.”
“My soul is fine.”

I’ve found that indifference to their hellfire speeches disarms them somewhat.

In their minds, you should be terrified, and your shoulder shrug will give them pause. They have difficulty understanding that someone can have an alternative view. It’s important that you not argue your position. Just calmly act unconcerned, like they said UFOs are about to attack the house.

They will probably mumble something about “praying for you,” which is religious people’s way of insulting you for your poor judgment.

This is fine. Move on from the conversation.

If your hosts become hostile, shame them with statements like:

“Do you think it’s good manners to attack your guests?”
“Are you telling me to leave?”

They might back pedal for the sake of not throwing guests out of the house on a holiday.

Ideally, you will disengage from these religious conversations as quickly as possible. You can try to change the subject or excuse yourself to the bathroom.

Dismissal of Dietary Needs

A common source of strain at holiday gatherings is when the people providing food refuse to acknowledge that a guest has a food allergy or other dietary preferences.

If you or your child has a special dietary need, bring food. Do not rely on the host to provide what you need. As a courtesy, bring some to share so that you can cast yourself as someone who contributed.

If you’re confronted with admonishments that it’s rude not to eat what a host has provided, you could say:

“That food will make me sick. I can’t imagine that you want to make me sick.”

Criticism of Parenting

Grandparents can be very opinionated about how they want their grandchildren raised. Typically, clashes occur when they want parents to use harsh discipline or impose religious beliefs that you have already rejected.

Although uncomfortable, you should assert your right to make decisions for your kids.

Statements that may help diffuse the situation are:

“Please respect my parenting decisions.”
“You got to raise your kids, and now I get to raise mine.”
“It’s important that children have consistency, and they are used to our standards.”

Unless the grandparents or other relatives are promoting abuse or religion, consider the possibility that they might have good ideas.

Parents can be too permissive, which is also damaging to children. If your kids are rude and destructive, you absolutely should make them behave properly when they are guests in someone’s home.

Criticism of Lifestyle Choices, i.e. Career Path, No Marriage or Kids

“When are you going to have kids?”

People have bombarded couples visiting their in-laws with this question for a long time, but especially since modern birth control has allowed people to have relationships without opening a baby factory.

This question can make people very uncomfortable. If it annoys you deeply, tell yourself that this relative probably can’t think of anything else to talk to you about.

There is also the fact that people generally want grandchildren. They long for the pleasure of holding a baby descended from them without having to do all the day-to-day work.

If polite responses, like “We are thinking about it” or “We have some important goals to meet before having kids” don’t work, return the ball to their court. People usually love to talk about themselves, and it could deflect them from badgering you about procreation.

You could ask your in-laws questions like:

“How did you know when it was time to have kids?”
“What did you like best about having kids?”

They might start to talk about when they were young and raising kids. This could make them remember what a big step it is.

If you know you want a child-free life, you’ll have to decide if you want to say that clearly or just put people off with excuses.

If you tell them you don’t ever want kids, then prepare for the inevitable lectures about how you’ll regret it. Let them say what they want and then offer a bland response like, “I guess I’ll find out.”

Your overall goal will be to avoid outright conflict and change the subject. Your impulse to defend your position will probably upset people who want you to breed.

They aren’t going to respect your choices, so is it worth it to argue about it over a holiday dinner?

Another lifestyle issue that can make you a target of criticism during a holiday gathering is your relatives’ dislike for your job or lack of job. Many people get the question, “When are you going to stop fooling around and get a real job?”

By real job, they usually mean some pointless, soul-sucking 8-to-5 job with benefits. Your life waiting tables or traveling while doing digital freelance work will never seem appropriate to them.

As long as you’re paying your own bills, you can let them know that you’re currently happy with your choices.

Parents or Parents-in-Law Treating You, Your Partner, or Children Badly

In this type of situation, you will have to defend your boundaries. You need to stick up for yourself and those you care about.

Some people’s relatives are just awful people. They lack redeeming characteristics and devote themselves to putting other people down.

When pushing back on unfair criticism and rude treatment, it’s good to be specific. Cite exactly what the person said or did and explain how it hurt your feelings. If they dismiss your feelings, or tell you that what you’re saying is wrong or didn’t happen, refuse to let them interpret reality and your feelings.

Stay in command with statements like:

“You don’t get to decide what my feelings are.”
“Are you going to apologize?”
“I know what you think of me now.”

The key to success with sticking up for yourself is to avoid getting tripped up and making emotional reactions.

The truth is on your side, so act like it. Don’t be afraid to list examples of bad behavior to drive home the point that you refuse to operate in their alternate reality where they get to verbally or emotionally abuse their supposed “loved ones.”

If this sounds too hard for you, you can think about keeping your mouth shut and just let them be bastards to you and yours. You will get to leave eventually, and the doormat approach could be worth it for the sake of keeping the peace.

There is also the nuclear option of not going to their house anymore. If people treat you badly, do you really want to celebrate the holidays with them? What are you getting out of this?

Political Topics

The standard advice is that you shouldn’t discuss politics at holiday dinners, but, if you expect the topic to come up, you better prepare to be in charge of your emotions and manage other people’s emotions.

To be fair, some people love to talk about politics and current events. Reasonable people can have interesting conversations if they want to talk about policies and problem solving. Under such circumstances, even people with different views can exchange ideas.

The trouble is that people aren’t as reasonable as they used to be. Political views have become central to some people’s identities. They filter every through the lens of their political opinions.

These are the type of people prone to bringing up political topics. If you and your relatives are not well-acquainted, you may notice that the person is testing to see if you share similar views.

This happens when they drop in a political opinion or “joke” when it seems out of place. They are hoping that you’ll respond and that you can bond over shared beliefs. Regardless of political affiliation, their talking points will exactly mirror what is distributed on their preferred media outlets.

The best course in this case is to discourage the direction of the conversation. Avoid commenting back on the political subject or showing interest in it, whether positive or negative. If you’re hoping to avoid political arguments during the holidays, then you need to deflect and deflate these topics as much as possible.

If you’re really worried about it, come up with a list of possibly “safe” subjects before arriving. Draw from your mental list when making conversation.

In-laws or other relatives may also try to speak politically when they KNOW that you disagree in the hopes of baiting you into an argument.

This type of person is hoping to triumph over you by teaching you the error of your simpleton ways. They want to mimic the butthurt rantings they see and hear from talking heads in the media.

Don’t take the bait unless you want to have an argument.

If keeping the peace is your priority, plan on responding with bland statements, like:

“I see that you have strong feelings about that.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Do you think that policy will be effective?”
“Is this something affecting your life?”

Responses framed in this way invite people to continue sharing their thoughts and feelings. They are basically follow-up questions like you are interviewing them. They let people keep the focus on themselves, which might satisfy them. It also makes you non combative and seemingly curious.

Sometimes your relative may become frustrated that you’re not taking the bait. Then you could face a direct question asking YOU what you BELIEVE.

Since you were asked, you should reply honestly. If your relative becomes hostile about your answer, ask:

“Would you like to know why I think this?”

The person might not care to hear your reasoning, but at least the question provides an opportunity to have an authentic conversation.

As your political conversation continues, keep in mind that it could deteriorate at any point. Gently steer the conversation to a new subject.

Discomfort With Surroundings, i.e. Uncomfortable Bed, Dirty Home

Dreading having to stay at a home where you will be desperately uncomfortable inhibits your enjoyment of the holidays. Even if you find your in-laws pleasant and agreeable, you may still feel tortured as their house guest.

Coping With an Overloaded House

Some families think packing the house with people like they’re taking in refugees is a good time. They pride themselves on providing hospitality. They may be extroverts who thrive on the chaos and noise and don’t notice or care that you’re suffering in the background.

But the results can be poor sleep, scant privacy, and resentment for having to use your precious vacation time for this jail-like experience.

Here are some coping strategies for staying at an overcrowded house for the holidays.

Get some earplugs and a sleeping mask. These items can block noise and light and help you get better sleep. This could alleviate your grumpiness and open the door to possibly enjoying yourself.

You may also consider bringing your own air mattress. This is a good idea if their hide-a-bed causes you pain or your relatives think that two grown adults will fit into a child’s twin bed.

If you can afford it, rent a hotel or motel room at your destination. Then you can have a safe space to retreat to where you can sleep, shower, and relax free of annoyances.

My parents started doing this when my kids were little. After a couple visits of being with the babies and toddlers, my dad decided that he wanted his own hotel room. I couldn’t blame him. Even though I gave my parents their own bedroom, my home was noisy, and I didn’t have cable TV.

My husband was mildly offended by the idea because his family is firmly in the camp of making people suffer with inadequate lodgings and sleep deprivation.

I explained to him that it was honestly annoying for my parents to endure our noisy, messy young family life. The hotel gave them privacy and relaxation space.

As a bonus, the hotel had a pool, and I could take the little kids swimming.

If you get yourself a hotel or motel for your holiday family trip, you could take the young relatives for a swim. They will likely think you are brilliant and fun. Go ahead and score those points with the next generation.

However, your adult hosts will probably think you’re a demon for declining their full hospitality. You’ll have to decide if you’re willing to be viewed as a bad guy. In my mind, it’s a small price to pay for a decent night’s sleep and an introvert’s safe space.

When you explain why you’re getting a hotel, frame your responses with your desire to help.

“I feel bad making so much extra work for you when I stay.”
“You guys do so much, I don’t want to add to your workload.”

Dealing With a Dirty or Messy House

Another issue that confronts some people is that their in-laws house is a disaster. It may be unclean in the bathroom and kitchen. There could be too many cats and dogs and insufficient attention paid to changing cat boxes or making sure dogs relieve themselves outside. You may be legitimately frightened to consume food made in unhygienic homes. You could run the risk of food poisoning or exposure to mold.

Some people are also hoarders, which can make a home distressing to enter let alone spend a couple days in. Hoarder houses can also be disgusting, but sometimes they are just messy and full of tripping hazards.

At a minimum, you should bring food to avoid food cooked in a dirty kitchen. Some restaurants offer take-out holiday meals that are easy to heat up.

You may also find a local restaurant or hotel that serves a holiday buffet. There’s a strong market for families that like to go out for their holiday meal. They don’t have to cook or clean to enjoy a special meal together.

If the environment at your in-laws is truly dire, you may have to decline the invitation altogether. Invite them to celebrate at your house, or suggest that everyone get together at a different location.

Although it could hurt people’s feelings, this may be desirable compared to subjecting yourself and maybe your kids to unsanitary conditions.

When a hoarder house is not truly unsanitary, you could consider just putting up with the situation for a few days.

If You Are Disliked, Do a Good Deed

The choices you make to protect your sanity or health when visiting in-laws for the holidays may put you on the naughty list. Maybe you were already deemed unworthy for whatever reason.

You may improve your standing by performing good deeds.

A nice example in fiction comes from Downton Abbey. Edith’s beau, Michael, is terribly unliked by her father, Lord Grantham, until he busts a cheating poker player who Lord Grantham owes money. Michael recovers the debt so that Grantham does not have to pay, and Michael instantly becomes very much appreciated.

If an in-law mentions something that needs doing, you should offer to do it. Raking leaves, putting up decorations, or picking up groceries could score you some points.

You could also show up with presents for your hosts because that should generate some goodwill.

Surviving the Holidays at Your In-Laws

You have every right to establish some boundaries about how you are treated as a house guest. Receiving hospitality is not permission to be abused no matter how much some people may see it otherwise.

One caveat is if your partner or kids have an inheritance to consider. In that case, everyone may have to adopt a more tolerant attitude. Contrary to popular belief, some people really do earn their inheritance.

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