01/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Rule #1 For Dealing With Nasty People (Particularly In-Laws)

Let me begin this week with thanking one of my readers. 'J' sent out an S.O.S. regarding the coming arrival of in-laws, and it wasn't pretty. The truth is that I got on quite a roll, writing her response, only to find that the HuffPost has a 250 word limit on comments. I'd written 1203! Do you think the subject hit a chord? Hence, I promised her that I'd devote this column to the subject in the hope that we might begin her renovation project.

The truth is that after 40+ years of doing this work, I've heard literally over several hundred thousand stories, here and abroad, of those who suffer the distress of dreaded in-laws during holiday visits. There is something about the set-up that is fraught with landmines for many.

So, kudos to 'J' who acknowledged that the distress is always so horrific, that she is tempted to feign sickness, just to get out of the darn thing. She wonders whether there is another alternative. There most definitely is another way.


Here's a way of reframing your situation that may, like Rolaids, spell 'relief.' Let's begin with looking at your situation with nasty people coming over as a chance to come clean with yourself. Which, begins with showing yourself compassion. After all, my dear, this is your home. My home is my sanctuary. To protect it, my husband and I have a few ground rules. Do you? Ours includes things like: anyone who enters agrees to demonstrate kindness and courtesy to all others here, including themselves! No dissing anyone, allowed. Period. I've asked two family members to step outside, when they were disrespectful to one another. Another is: clean up your own mess. This one covers spilled milk, and bad feelings caused by treading on others' toes. I can tell you that this pretty much covers all situations.

Rule #1: Kindness and Courtesy. Arrange an appointment, away from home, with your husband a week before the arrival of the nasty guests. Tell your husband your intention is to kindle the flame to an even deeper and sweeter relationship between the two of you. At all costs, do NOT say to him the four most dreaded words to a man's ear, "We've got to talk." They have the effect of sending any red-blooded male to the hills, like screaming meemies. No single four words can send a shiver up a man's spine like these. They issue the message 'You've done something really wrong, and you are not measuring up.' Give this message and you both are lost at sea, so far from harbor that nasty in-laws may look like a cakewalk.

Once at your appointment (an appointment signals that you are serious, but not deadly), be up front. Let your guy know that your intention is to create solution as a team on something that has distressed you. Let him know that you are confident you can work together. Tell him that what you need is for you to share your perspective, and you would like him to simply listen, not defend.

Then, zoom in: "I appreciate that what I'm going to say might be uncomfortable temporarily. Hear me out. You are in a very tight situation. Your parents have raised you and you love them, and they love you. It is clear to me that I may not be the partner they'd hoped for you, based on how they behave towards me when they are in our home. It is O.K. with me that I am 'not their cup of tea.' That is O.K. What is not O.K. is the distress that is caused when we are all together, so I am ending our old way of handling the tension.

"I do not expect you to speak for me with them. I am handling that myself. I am writing them a letter to this effect. What I am proposing is the following: 1. They spend special, memory-making time with you each day on their visit, so you all get what you need. I will make arrangements to spend time in some activity that enriches my well-being while you are all with one another. 2. Throughout the visit, we keep the focus on what we do appreciate about the moment and one another. I would love to know what is meaningful to your folks, building a relationship on what is healing and healthy. It is important, also, that they discover what is important to me.

"In this way, we come together as a more harmonious family over time. I'm telling you this because my intention is to make things better together, for all concerned."

As a 'shrink,' however, I need to give you the informed consent preamble. Before things get better, they often get worse. Prepare yourself, J., for the road ahead.

Godspeed! If you'd like, next week, we'll take on Rule #2. Let me know how it goes.