Authored by Tiffany McLain for Psyched in San Francisco Magazine. Tiffany has a psychotherapy practice in San Francisco where she specializes in working with young professionals who straddle multiple identities, be this professionally, ethnically or economically.
You needn't look far to find examples of loving couples who become completely unraveled over the mere mention of spending time with the in-laws. Though the ding-dong of the in-law's doorbell may sound like a relationship death knell, there are ways to survive (and even have fun...?) when visiting your partner's family this holiday season.
Yes, the holidays are a time of love and togetherness, but for many of us, they can also be a time of stress and frustration as we attempt to navigate our family's unique brand of crazy. You've had years to lament over, pick apart and find ways to relieve the tensions that occur when you return to the nest (thanks, therapy!)... then you get a partner and it starts all over again.
Take Jay and Ky. Ky was thrilled when Jay asked if she wanted to come to his folks' house for their first Christmas together. In her mind, this was an invitation into the family fold, a sign that he was ready to take the relationship to the next level. How right she was, though not in the way that Ky had hoped.
Upon arriving at Jay's childhood home, Ky was barely acknowledged as Jay's mother swooped in to give her son a hug, barked orders to his father to grab the luggage and shuffled her youngest born into a small nook so the two of them could "catch up." Ky stood in the foyer for what felt like ten minutes before Jay realized there wasn't much room in the nook for three and remembered to make formal introductions.
Throughout the trip, Ky felt neglected by Jay, shoved aside by his mother and ignored by his father. This was only made worse by the parade of strange kin that made their way in and out of the home over the next few days. There was the brother who berated his wife and children, the cousins who seemed a little too comfortable with each other and the great aunt who dominated the television set, turning it to its highest volume whenever Ky attempted conversation.
When Ky attempted to talk to Jay about the things she observed, he looked at her with confusion, declaring that his mother loved her, his brother was a wonderful husband and his great aunt was the most empathic person he knew. That conversation didn't end well.
Ky was experiencing a host of feelings - from disappointment to shame - and she was looking to Jay for validation. Jay, on the other hand, was unwittingly caught in a family struggle that had been generations in the making, leaving him with little emotional capacity to reflect. Thus, Ky and Jay's own little unit (with its own set of defenses to be sure) was suddenly intruded upon by a much stronger set of forces - that of Jay's family.
It can be a surprise to see your partner in his family environment. The person you have experienced as thoughtful, kind and mature, may suddenly devolve into a spoiled brat, a submissive pansy or a clueless prick. The man you turned to for support is suddenly gone, replaced by someone who has left you alone in a strange house. Full of weirdos.
Fortunately for you, there are things you can do before finding yourself in a similar situation. Here are five things you can do to survive this holiday season with the in-laws, without destroying your relationship.
Breathe: It sounds corny, but it works. At least once every hour, check in with yourself. Are your shoulders tense? Is your jaw clenched? Take a moment to shake it out, breathe in deeply, and wiggle your toes in the 1970's green shag carpet.
Trust Yourself: Yes, your sister-in-law did just pinch granddad's ass though no one seemed to notice. It can be disturbing to watch these types of interactions unfold while everyone else seems oblivious. Just know that, yeah, weird shit is happening. That's family!
Cut Your Dude Some Slack: Your partner has entered into a vortex of crazy that existed long before you came into the picture. Though this may feel threatening, remember: he chose you. So, cut him some slack! He clearly picked your lovely self in order to find new, possibly better ways of relating, but that won't happen overnight. In the meantime, be supportive and kind while he's in this vulnerable space - even if he can't see it.
Phone-A-Friend: It's hard to be the sole witness in a household of nuttiness, so be prepared to call a friend. And I don't mean calling a friend to engage in a bitch-fest about how messed up your dude's family is. Rather, call someone who can validate what you're going through while also maintaining empathy for your partner's struggle. If you want your relationship to survive the family, it is best to find a friend who believes in the relationship.
Get a Shrink: If you fear that you can't cope, despite following the above steps, it's time to get a therapist. If you find yourself shaken to the core after in-law visits, then it ceases being about his family and starts being about you. It's time to do some self-examination to find out what is keeping you from showing up with integrity in times of stress.
It may feel like it's on you to do the brunt of the work when visiting your partner's family, and it is! You'll be super thankful when the tables are turned. Rest assured, you, too, are likely to become a raging storm of mental unease when you bring your love home to meet your family.
If you are able to set aside your frustration in order to support your partner in his family vortex, he'll be prepared to do the same for you. This holiday season, commit to being flexible, grounded and prepared. You'll be surprised at how fun partying with the in-laws may actually be!