THE BLOG
11/21/2012 02:07 am ET | Updated Jan 20, 2013

In-Law Holiday Survival Tips: How to Make the Day Memorable, Not Miserable

The holidays are approaching, and you know what that means -- family time! And I'm not just talking about time spent with your husband and your kids, but often hours (and hours) spent with your mother-in-law or daughter-in-law. Now, some of you may actually prefer to spend the holidays with your in-laws rather than your own family, but for many of you -- and probably for most of you -- holidays with in-laws can be the stuff nightmares are made of.

It's funny how we can sometimes convince ourselves that things will be different this year, that this time it'll be how we imagine it should be, how we have always hoped it will be. And then we pull into the driveway, walk through the door, and reality smacks us right in the face. Norman Rockwell we are not!

I still shudder at the thought of a now-infamous Thanksgiving my husband and I spent with my son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughters. Although I was really looking forward to seeing them, I was also more than a bit uneasy. And my daughter-in-law was apprehensive, too. All that stress and tension on both sides ended up causing a huge explosion. My daughter-in-law and I have since dubbed that particular holiday "The Thanksgiving From Hell." And believe me, that is an understatement!

I wish at the time I had handled the situation differently. You would think that since I'm a clinical psychotherapist, I would have known better, right? Well, in theory I did; but like most of us, I was just too close to the situation to be able to think rationally when the fur began to fly. So when it was all over, I decided to spend some time actually researching the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship. The process helped me create the distance I needed to see things clearly, and what I learned helped me put the pieces together to create a different relationship -- a better, easier relationship -- with my daughter-in-law. Today, I'm happy to say, we get along just fine.

So with holiday harmony in mind, give these seven tips a try and watch your family gathering go from miserable to memorable:

1. Have realistic expectations: Remember, you're going to be spending the day with your mother-in-law or your daughter-in-law. It's OK to hope for the best, but be realistic. Don't let inflated expectations ambush you. Never assume people are going to be on their best behavior and act differently just because it's a holiday. Families are families. They are going to act how they always act -- maybe worse.

2. Don't take things personally: Despite the Hallmark fantasy many of us have about the holidays, these are typically stressful times for everyone. And that type of tension can cause everyone's bad behavior to be exaggerated. This means your in-law's indiscretions are more about her than they are about you, so mounting a defense isn't really all that necessary. Keeping this in mind can help you keep the peace.

3. Be a team player: If your in-law is coming to your house, make sure you include her in the different things that are happening throughout the day. Invite her to bring something for the meal, ask for her help setting the table, compliment her on what she's wearing, or even ask her for her opinion on some finer point of the feast you're creating. Try to make her feel comfortable and welcomed, and treat her as you would a friend who is attending your family gathering. On the other hand, if you are going to her house for the holiday, ask her if she'd like some help. And whether she does or doesn't need your assistance, stay around and talk with her. Again, ask her questions, compliment her, and let her know you're interested in her.

4. Hunt for humor: The easiest way to get through the day with your sanity intact is to find humor in what your in-law says or does. Now, I realize that these gaffes may not necessarily inspire true guffaws--far from it!--but search hard for the humor anyway. This approach helps you create enough emotional distance that you won't take her words and actions so personally. And besides, you'll end up with some great stories to tell your friends about your wacky in-law.

5. Remember, it's just one day: Anyone can make it through one day of just about anything. Knowing that there is an end to the evening -- and that in a manner of hours, you'll be seeing their taillights at the end of your driveway (or you'll be buckling your seatbelt)--can make all the difference. And if you've traveled from afar and are spending the night, you will still get to close the guestroom door soon enough.

6. Plan your exit strategy in advance: If you're the ones visiting your in-laws' house, you and your spouse should agree in advance how long you want to stay -- and then be sure to leave at the predetermined time. If one or the other of you really wants to stay longer, then take two cars and let the family know as soon as you arrive that you (or he) will need to leave at such-and-such a time because of whatever excuse you and your husband agree on. And again, if you're visiting from out of town, consider getting a hotel room or staying with friends or other family rather than bedding down amidst the bedlam.

7. Find some down time for yourself: Even though the holiday will most likely be hectic, find some quiet time for yourself so you can re-energize. This "catch your breath" time can come at any point during the day. Clean up by yourself, do those few dishes that can't go in the dishwasher, go watch a movie with your kids or grandkids, or do anything else that will allow you time to recharge.

Keep these seven suggestions in mind this year, and you're bound to have a happier holiday. Don't worry if you slip up a time or two, just get right back on track. After all, the goal is progress, not perfection, and even small changes will provide you with a solid start.