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Spending Christmas with in-laws

Over the years of our marriage, we’ve often spend a period of our Christmas holidays with our in-laws from either side. This year is no different. We’ve spent this whole week in Durban with Phindi’s mother, and are proceeding from here to two other destinations for Christmas and New Years as planned. We’re taking Phindi’s sisters and their husbands with for the duration. Thank God, we have awesome relationships with our in-laws.

However, we thought of Christmas holidays earlier in our marriage when we had to spend time with in-laws before we developed our own family traditions. The nerves, anxiety and walk on egg-shells trying to master the delicate balancing act of being our real selves with being sensitive to grown people you’ve just met. You feel you often have to hold back your honest opinions about politics, religion, culture and other sensitive subjects – even when you’re challenged to give your views.

Things can get even worse when you’ve heard that one or more of your spouse’s in-laws never quite approved of you, and you feel like you always have to prove yourself to them. Even if you get along well with your in-laws, you still may find it’s difficult to spend long periods of time with them.

It’s always important to remember that every marriage is a cross-cultural experience regardless of whether you’re from different or the same cultures. You’re coming from different families, and the family you – as a couple – create is a brand new culture that has never existed before.

Going into Christmas, we offer the following ideas on how to manage in-laws, and possibly have an enjoyable holiday.

Your loyalty is firstly to your spouse

What if you agree with your parents and disagree with spouse? What if you feel conflicted between wanting to please your extended family and wanting to please your spouse? What if you know your sibling is right, and your spouse is wrong?

Your spouse is the one you need to please above everyone else, including family. They may be unhappy with you, but you don’t live with them. It is your duty to support and protect your spouse, and to manage your own family in a way that consistently conveys this fact as a matter of principle. You both must present a united front on both sides of in-laws, making it clear from the beginning that your spouse comes first. Your extended family must never find it easy to gossip about, or speak ill of, your spouse in your presence without you protecting your spouse.

Manage your expectations

Remember that you’re engaging with people who have their own feelings, thoughts, and behaviours completely separate from you. Acknowledge that your spouse’s family traditions are generational traditions that began years before you. If you bring a mind-set of curiosity to the family gatherings this year, you may learn things about your spouse and their family – and yourself – that you never knew before.

Nobody is perfect, so don’t pressure yourself to be, and don’t expect to receive that from your in-laws. Knowing this can help you not take things so personally.

Don’t try to make everyone happy
People-pleasing your way through the holidays will lead to you feeling drained, anxious, and resentful. It is understandable to want to walk into holiday get-togethers on your best behaviour, but you don’t need to filter your actions to the point of putting everyone else’s needs and wants before your own.

It’s vital that you focus on being yourself without being disrespectful. Allowing your in-laws to get to know you the way your spouse does is the first part to developing authentic relationships with them. So, don’t say “yes” when you mean no.

Remind yourself why you’re doing it

The effort to accommodate your spouse’s family is one of the greatest gifts you can offer in marriage. You are used to putting up with your own family and you have accustomed to their quirks and imperfections. But now you have to do it all over again. The closest thing to a “magic bullet” for motivating yourself to put the effort into in-law relations is to remember that you are doing it because you’ve not only decided to love your spouse, but you also seek to be permanent in each other’s lives. Furthermore, by staying in good terms with your in-laws, you are honouring and promoting your relationship in one of the best ways possible.

Take no offence

When an in-law makes an offensive or insensitive statement, always remember why you’re doing it. This will allow you to be the bigger person, and to simply brush it off your shoulder. Do it for your own sake, that of your spouse and that of your marriage. Part of brushing it off you, may mean telling your spouse about it, not so much that they can go talk to the offensive in-law, but just so they can protect you in future. You’ll be amazed at how attracted your spouse will be to you, if you handle their relatives with dignity, respect and maturity.

Always remember that your in-laws form a very crucial part of your spouse’s life. This should make them a crucial part of your life as well. It’s not easy balancing your needs with the needs of others, especially the needs of an entirely new family. But the creation of harmony and mutual respect is not only possible, but is very necessary and worth every conscious effort as well.

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