The Trouble with In-laws…(Holiday Edition!)

There is no escaping the fact that this is the time of year when many are subjected to the scrutiny of others on how we host, cook, plan, decorate, etc. The biggest offender of this scrutiny is quite possibly our in-laws.

According to a study in her book, What Do You Want From Me?, psychologist Dr. Terri Apter found that nearly two-thirds of women report long term unhappiness and stress due to conflict with their mothers-in-law. Of all in-law relationships, the one between wives and mothers-in-law has been rated as the most difficult for Americans (Serewicz, 2006), though it’s also not uncommon for a husband to experience stress from his in-laws (Bryant, Conger, & Meehan, 2001). Taken together, it is no surprise that in many situations, the presence of in-laws exacerbates the stress of the holiday season.

To be fair, there are some really fantastic relationships between people and their spouses’ parents. Whether or not you believe you are able to attain this type of relationship depends equally on all parties involved. However, considering that this is not typically an overnight fix, I will present a few pieces of research to keep in mind during the holidays:

The Scenario: Your in-laws are laying on the guilt pretty thick for your decision on how you are spending the holidays (i.e., they tell you that you spend too much time with the other half of the family, you and your spouse want to spend the holidays alone this year, you don’t want to do a lot of traveling with the kids) and you feel that you or your spouse is getting “worked on” by an in-law.

What the Research Says: First and foremost, your allegiance should be to your spouse. The early years of marriage are spent trying to distinguish the union with your partner from the unions you both had with your respective parents (Bryant, Conger, & Meehan, 2001). One faulty crack in that bond and you’re bound to crumble at some point. By setting the precedent early on in the marriage and presenting a united front, you will protect yourself from this type of manipulation. However, it’s never too late to start! If there is no way of compromising with your in-laws on the issue of where to spend the holidays, try to remember: “happy spouse = happy house” and go from there.

The Scenario: Your in-laws are staying at your house for the holidays, and you find them trying to parent your children, or they feel that your methods of parenting are an invitation for their opinion on what you should be doing.

What the Research Says: Think about the last time you needed advice on parenting; who did you ask? Research has shown that most women tend to ask their own mothers for advice on parenting, while their husbands show little preference for their own mothers when seeking parenting advice (Marx, Miller & Huffmon, 2011). Not surprisingly, a woman’s mother-in-law will likely begin finding opportunities to give her opinion, whether you ask for it or not (after all, you married their son, so they must have done something right!) Next time you are noticing some tension or waiting for a remark about your parenting methods from your mother-in-law, try to beat her to the punch by going out of your way to ask for her advice or even just an opinion. The mere act of including your in-laws in your plans will make them feel like they have an active role in your family. During the holidays, take it one step further by asking for recipes, decorating tips or finding another way to make them feel important and included.

The Scenario: Your in-laws want you to abide by all of their traditions, leaving no room for your own.

What the Research Says: The area of traditions can be especially sensitive when it comes to the holidays. Whether you’re trying to mesh two religions into one household or even just your parent’s annual pancake breakfast with your in-law’s yearly trip to Black Friday sales, it can be tough to please everyone. Traditions can be a very sacred thing to some people. Part of the responsibility you have as a couple comes with incorporating each other’s lives and family rituals into your own. Be flexible to this idea, especially if it is important to your spouse. Empathize with your in-laws and think about how you would feel if your future son or daughter-in-law wanted to reject your yearly trip to Disneyland or important religious ceremonies. If it is really something you don’t buy in to, think about including their traditions in a special way or at least let your children (and/or spouse) go with them to keep the peace. Additionally, you could start a new tradition where everyone is included.

The Scenario: You find yourself in the middle of an argument about whether or not the kids should take an extra day off of vacation to spend time with an in-law (or really, any argument with an in-law).

What the Research Says: According to Apter’s book, the occurrence of this conflict is typically with a woman and her mother-in-law. She contends that conflict between a woman and her mother-in-law is derived from a feeling that one is trying to undermine the other. The way a husband interacts during this type of conflict is especially important. Indeed, research has demonstrated the importance of a husband’s intervention in this dynamic and the effect it can have on the quality of the marriage (Wu et al., 2010). Support from a spouse is one of the key factors that affect well-being in the marriage (Cutrona, Russell, & Gardner, 2005). In other words, it’s critical that the husband shows support for his wife during this situation by defending her and, again, exhibiting a united front with his wife.

The most important thing to remember during the holidays is that as a couple, you have a unique power to make decisions, including the decision to be happy. These decisions will influence the success of your holiday season as well as the success of your in-laws’. While ensuring that you and your spouse are a solid unit, try to find compromise when you can, and don’t forget to put yourself in their shoes. You can pick your spouse, but you can’t pick your in-laws. And considering how research has shown that even after decades of marriage, in-laws play a huge role in how couples view their marriage success (Bryant, Conger & Meehan, 2001), it’s important to remember this advice year round.

Further Reading:

Apter, T. (2009). What do you want from me? Learning to get along with in-laws. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Bryant, conger, Meehan Bryant, C., Conger, R., & Meehan, J. (2001). The Influence of In-Laws on Change in Marital Success Journal of Marriage and Family, 63 (3), 614-626 DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2001.00614.x

Cutrona, C. E., Russell, D. W. & Gardner, K. A. (2005). The relationship enhancement model of social support. In Revenson, T. A., Kayser, K. & Bodenmann, G. (Eds.), Couples coping with stress: Emerging perspectives on dyadic coping (73-95). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Marx, miller, Hoffman Marx, J., Miller, L., & Huffmon, S. (2011). Excluding Mothers-in-Law: A Research Note on the Preference for Matrilineal Advice Journal of Family Issues, 32 (9), 1205-1222 DOI: 10.1177/0192513X11402176

Serewicz, M. C. M. (2006). The difficulties of In-law Relationships. In Kirkpatrick, D. C., Duck, S. & Foley, M. K. (Eds.), Relating difficulty: The process of constructing and managing difficult interaction. pp. 101-118. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Wu et. al, 2010 Wu, T., Yeh, K., Cross, S., Larson, L., Wang, Y., & Tsai, Y. (2010). Conflict With Mothers-in-Law and Taiwanese Women’s Marital Satisfaction: The Moderating Role of Husband Support The Counseling Psychologist, 38 (4), 497-522 DOI: 10.1177/0011000009353071

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