Congratulations. If you are reading this article you've officially made it to the other side of the winter holidays. Give yourself a round of applause with the one functional hand you have left -- you actually can clap with one hand, it just doesn't sound as loud as you want and it looks a little funny, sort of like waving "bye-bye" to a 2-year-old.
Here you are, staring January square in the eye with nothing but the vast landscape of brief and cold days sprawling out in front of you. You can use this time to be productive, get some work done or chisel away at those New Year's resolutions, but let's face it: Those are boring, so instead let's do a little holiday post-gaming together.
During the last week many of my patients talked to me about the holidays -- good trips, bad trips, acid trips, gifts proffered and received, mayhem, etc. One of the topics that came up over and over again in my office was in-laws. Specifically, the challenges of spending time with in-laws over the holidays.
So, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, "What's the deal with in-laws?" Why do they cause us so much stress? -- I mean, not me of course, my in-laws, who happen to read all of my articles are awesome and exempt from all of the obnoxious statements that come next -- perhaps I should re-phrase that -- Why do your in-laws cause you so much stress?
The answer to this question is simple: Your in-laws are aliens.
I sort of mean that as a figure of speech and sort of not. Allow me to explain: The beauty of marriage is that it binds together two kindred souls in a holy union. The problem is that even if these kindred souls come from the same country, culture, neighborhood and street, they are still from different worlds.
Every family is a culture unto itself and all cultures develop rules of propriety, hierarchy and membership. For example, while some families insist on eating a formal breakfast that begins only when all members are awake, clean, and wearing monocles, others permit and perhaps even encourage thunderous belching of the national anthem while eating Cool Ranch Doritos in the family room -- we don't need to name names, you know who you are. There are families that are dominated by a single parent or grandparent and others that have a more egalitarian dynamic. Some parents might consider anyone who stops in on Christmas Eve to be a part of the family, and others require you to earn your place at the table by slaying a boar or porcupine, or performing some other feat of gallantry.
You and your partner come from different worlds, but the fact is that you found each other and if you are compatible with your wife, you should be able to slide comfortably into an easy relationship with her family, right?
As we grow up, we all consciously or unconsciously affirm or reject the choices of our family of origin. This means that both you and your husband are either indoctrinated into the ways of your family culture or are rebelling against it.
You might know what choices you are affirming or rejecting in your own family, but you might not be so sure about your partner. As a result, you don't really know how to deal with your in-laws. For example, when your father-in-law pounds his fist on the table and demands that we invade Canada, you don't know whether you should take him seriously or not. Do you tell him that he's right and affirm that if we launch a surprise attack on Toronto now we will have all the maple leaves and Canadian bacon we will ever need, or just do you call him a crackpot?
You are not bad or daft because you can't figure it out. How can you possibly know all of the unspoken rules of the house? You haven't been living with these people since birth. Do you really have the time or interest in becoming an expert in the ways of your husband's family?
So, what do you do? Basically, I suggest an imaginary sociological approach to the problem. If you pretend that you are a sociologist trying to learn about an alien culture you will probably have less grief when you visit your in-laws and you actually might be able to enjoy yourself a bit.
Here are a few suggestions that I have found to be successful with patients:
1. It's not about you: Going to your in-laws' may be difficult for you, but it is certainly harder for your wife. It's her show, not yours. You are just a supporting character, so make it about her. Talk to your wife before you go and ask her what she thinks will stress her out about visiting with her family. Then ask (don't offer anything specific, because you'll be wrong), ask what you can do to help her reduce her stress while you are there.
2. No clowning: Let's say you are Irish, or Italian, or Jewish, or Black, or Presbyterian, or Armenian (you get the idea), but your partner is not. You can make all of the Irish, Italian, Jewish, Black, Presbyterian, or Armenian jokes you want, but your partner just can't. Sorry. It's the deal. Growing up in a certain culture, subculture or ethnic group entitles you to certain privileges. One of those privileges is clowning your culture of origin. Is it fair that you can't do it? No, but then again neither is getting a Season 3 of Curb Your Enthusiasm for Christmas when you clearly asked for Season 4 of The Wire -- I mean come on people, how hard is that to remember?
3. Wait your turn: When you play by the "It's not about you," rule when visiting your in-laws, you get to ask for it back when it's time to see your family. If you take on the role of supportive spouse around his people, he'd (better) do the same for you when your show comes on the air. This reciprocity helps strengthen your relationship, which is great around the holidays, or any time.
So there's the holiday post-game. I hope this advice helps you to explore strange new family worlds, seek out new life and civilizations in your partner's childhood home, and to boldly, but quietly, have a peaceful visit with your alien in-laws next time.
For more by Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., click here.
For more on emotional intelligence, click here.