Psychotherapist Jean-Claude Chalmet has practical advice on spending time with the extended family
Families, no matter how warm and loving, are rarely straightforward. And our relationships with our in-laws are traditionally among the trickiest — for the very good reason that these people aren’t related to us by blood, only circumstance.
Most of us, when we squabble with siblings, parents or children, do so reasonably secure in the knowledge that they love us. With our in-laws — not so much. Our dearly held traditions, values and opinions may clash, particularly on Christmas Day, requiring us to summon every ounce of seasonal goodwill if we want to preserve the festive peace
And the majority do. Few of us want this occasion to feel fraught rather than fabulous, so it can help to soften our rules and adjust our behaviour, just for the day. Don’t feel obliged to take offence at every provocation, use generous lashings of humour to defuse tetchy moments, and know when to pipe down or trot outside for a breather.
I’m not suggesting that you martyr yourself while others misbehave, but this is the day to be tolerant, to remember that someone you love loves this person — or loves a person who loves this person. Being a gracious guest or host, even when you’re bristling inside, is an act of kindness and generosity to them (no matter how little you care for your in-laws). Any outrage can be addressed at a later date.
Imagine if everyone reined in their egos and put their best self forwards, we would all have a truly wonderful time. That said, if this isn’t the case, here are my strategies for coping with any in-law-related festive hiccups.
My mother-in-law is relentlessly critical — even about the children
A friend’s mother-in-law once said to her: “It’s strange — each individual part of you is quite nice, but somehow altogether it doesn’t work.” She laughed it off. Laughter is a much better response than anger. It’s what this ridiculous behaviour deserves. It neutralises people. You can also ignore comments, or just look at them.
Of course it can wound, especially when an in-law criticises our children because it taps into our insecurities as parents. I tell clients to see the reality: don’t buy into her delusional petty spite. Be loyal to yourself. A criticism is surely worth considering only if it comes from someone you respect.
Often, the real reason people are unkind is to feel better about themselves. Critical comments reflect her insecurities. Why be offended? Consciously decide not to take the bait.
My sister-in-law is cold, touchy and difficult
If she is frosty, you can only feel compassion. We’re only judgmental to feel better about ourselves. She’s compared herself with you and found herself wanting. Her fear is that you make her look bad. Don’t ignore her — this requires effort. It’s easier to be indifferent. Don’t feel that you have to ask her a single question. “Ah, OK,” is your response to anything she says.
If that feels too chilly, you could strive instead for a Christmas truce. It’s possible to be assertive without being abrasive. Bad behaviour is most effectively nipped in the bud when you’re direct. Say, “Listen, I know all this can be slightly overwhelming, but let’s try to make the best of it.” Give her a genuine smile, and say, “I love your top/ the wine you brought/ the scented candle you got for my mum — it was so thoughtful.” If you’re comfortable with it, be relentlessly nice, ask many questions — love-bomb her into submission. You’re putting on a social front, rather than allowing her a glimpse of your soul (risky). It forces her into civility.
My in-laws are so extravagant with gifts, it makes me uncomfortable
Either they want you to like them (and fear you might not), or want you to see them as superior. The rule is, never embarrass your guests — or your host. If they do it because they can, that’s marvellous, and thank you — and you give, from your heart, whatever it is you can and want to give. A well-chosen book, album or film is a joy.
When people show off by displaying their spending power, the receiver can often feel inferior. Ignore your internal critic — so mortifying, I’m so embarrassed — because it is the show-off’s judgment that is out of whack, not yours. If a gift is thoughtful and given in good spirit, the price isn’t relevant. We each give according to our means and there should be zero shame in any variance. As for the recipient, it’s an indictment of personality, values —and, frankly, intelligence — if they feel anything but gratitude.
My father-in-law loves to share his offensive opinions
A hard-boiled attention-getter is not going to change, so you have to change your reaction. Of course, you could punish him for his ignorance and furiously argue every point. Or, you might choose not to fan the flames. Smile blankly, and turn to chat to the person beside you. It’s more expedient, and how you wish to spend your Christmas (and how others wish to spend theirs). Locking antlers on politics or Brexit won’t enhance festivities. It feels so personal, but for your own sanity, unshackle yourself from the need to have everyone agree with you.
If, fantastically, your father-in-law persists, cry, “Next!” Or, buy a bunch of party-blowers, stick them on the table, and when you tire of his take on the world, either blow one yourself, or pass one to every small child: “Go and blow it in grandpa’s ear!” But if he’s really getting to you, save yourself — step outside to make a festive call to a friend.
My brother-in-law is very, very bossy
An uptight guest spreads stress like a contagion. And they dominate on the day. “It’s like an oven in here. This tastes bland, it needs salt. That looks overdone, you should have taken it out. Can the kids pipe down. No thanks, where’s the good stuff I brought?”
Aggravating as this is, it helps to understand that people are like this because the inside of their head is chaos. They’re overwhelmed by their thoughts, and exert control over everyone and everything as a way of trying to restore order. Humour is your only weapon. You can’t reason with a control freak, and if you try kindness they overrule you. Instead, when they say, “Do it this way”, simply chirrup, “Computer says no” and hand them a bowl of chestnuts to peel. Being assertive is a kindness to ourselves — and Christmas is all about kindness, after all.
I feel judged by our young, teetotal son-in-law
If you feel your son-in-law’s disapproval as you pour yourself a fourth gin, it may well be that you know you could go easier on the booze (and not just on Christmas Day) and you’re projecting that you’re being judged.
Drinking can enhance the festivities, or do quite the opposite. I wouldn’t focus on him. What matters is how you feel — do you want to look back on the day and beam, cringe, or not remember it at all? Be yourself — just know that being sloshed, while fun for you, might be less fun for everyone else. Being drunk is a bit like dying; you don’t feel it, but your loved ones suffer.
They are religious, we’re not
The only reasonable stance from hosts who are religious is, “We’re going to church, whoever wants to come is very welcome, and for those who don’t, there’s eggnog in the kitchen — enjoy.” If you’d genuinely like to join them, go. But respect works both ways. You offer to baste the turkey while they’re out, and ask if it was a nice service on their return. But if you want to show willing without compromising your beliefs, isn’t midnight Mass a wonderful tradition that doesn’t demand devotion, only goodwill?
My sister-in-law wants to bring her dog. I feel guilty about saying no
If you adore dogs and your sister-in-law, have amenable house pets, no child is allergic or fearful, the dog won’t snuffle out the chocolate and poison itself, chase your cat, slobber on your new trousers, or get mud on the sofa, then what could be more delightful? Otherwise, no. It’s an imposition. Fine to ask, but the host can veto.
But perhaps your sister-in-law doesn’t have a dog. Perhaps she has an allergy and she demands that your precious Chairman Miaow be shut in a room for the day. This is tantamount to requesting that your youngest child be shut in a room for a day. As the host, you kindly provide the antihistamine pill. But a thoughtful guest will travel with allergy tablets.
My in-laws are separated and he wants to bring a companion
If your father-in-law asks to bring a guest, it means they’re attached. You’d only say no if your mother-in-law was also going to be present, and it would upset her. In that case, ask your mother-in-law — it should be her decision. If guests, such as your separated parents, are prone to sparring, employ diversionary tactics including walks, putting on a film and assigning people to various jobs in different rooms. But perhaps your in-law is a widower, and your spouse feels it will be too distressing to see his father’s new love seated in his mother’s chair. It’s not outrageous for him to say: “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel ready, because of Mum. But I’d love you both to come for Sunday lunch in January.” Christmas is about compassion — it’s unfair to inflict a situation on someone that will cause them to struggle.
My romantic Christmas is now being spent with my new partner’s parents
The other 364 days can be romantic. If you’re staying over, exchange gifts in your private quarters, before joining the in-laws, or retire early for some “us time”. If you’re visiting for the day, make Christmas Eve your special day. Maintain a generous attitude. You can still hold hands, sit next to each other and kiss beneath the mistletoe (bring some). If there’s a slump in proceedings, claim a need for fresh air, and go for a walk together.
Parents can struggle to let go of their adult children and accept that they have new loyalties. Be kind enough to understand this fear of loss. If their child has always spent Christmas with them, it may feel hurtful and astonishing that he might wish to spend it as a couple, even just once. It takes time to acclimatise to a situation. Out of love and respect, conform to expectation this year but — preferably after Christmas — state your intentions for next year. Clear communication is key.
As told to Anna Maxted