Family gatherings at Christmas are intended to be wonderful occasions, but rarely are they stress-free. In particular, getting together with the in-laws on the holidays can be the cause of great anxiety, especially for young married couples. Learning how to navigate and adjust to the different traditions, values and personalities of our spouses family can be a challenge.
Every marriage, even the very happy and stable ones, must learn to cope with typical marital problems. Marriage expert Dr. John Gottman says that problems with in-laws is one of the most frequent hot button issues in marriage and we shouldn’t be surprised if it gets triggered at this time of the year.
Although every relationship is different, Dr. Gottman explains “there’s a reason why conflict with the in-laws is so common: it touches upon one of marriage’s most important tasks: Establishing and maintaining the sense of “we-ness” (see The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman).” The Bible calls this oneness, and creating, maintaining, and guarding it, is one of the most important keys to a successful marriage (Genesis 2:24; Ephesians 5:31). How do we create this sense of “we-ness” in our marriage in the hustle and bustle of the Holidays? Here are four important things to remember this Christmas.
1. Always choose to put your spouse first!
Marriage is a priority-one relationship. Which means our relationship with our spouse should take precedence over all other earthly relationships. While many couples agree in theory, some fail to be intentional in establishing this sense of priority especially when it comes to their own family. While traditionally it’s the husband who gets credit for telling mother-in-law jokes, in many cases, the real family tension is between the wife and her mother-in-law. This conflict usually surfaces early in a marriage, but in-law difficulties can erupt at many other times throughout the course of the marriage. Often it’s the holiday gatherings that become the flashpoint for reigniting this tension.
It’s understood that daughter-in-law and mother-in-law are going to differ in all sorts of ways, but differences aside, at the core of the conflict is a battle between the two for the husband’s love. The wife wants to know that she comes first in her husband’s heart, and she watches to see if her husband backs her or his mother. She is wondering, Which family is more important? Often the mother is asking the same question.
Dr. Gottman says when conflict erupts between the wife and mother-in-law, the only way out of this dilemma is for the husband to side with his wife and loving communicate to his mother that his wife comes first in his love, loyalty and respect. While this may sound harsh, remember that one of the basic tasks of a marriage is to establish a sense of “we-ness” between husband and wife. It is absolutely essential for the marriage that the husband be firm about this, even if he feels unfairly put upon and even if his mother struggles to accept the new reality.
2. Get on the same page emotionally
To be sure, conflict with the in-laws is difficult whether you are the daughter-in-law or son-in-law. But usually the other spouse feels caught in the middle. For the husband, he just wishes his wife and mother could get along better. He undoubtedly feels a deep sense of love, loyalty and respect for them both and does not want to have to choose between the two. Unfortunately, this attitude often forces him into the role of either trying to mediate between the two, or even worse, denying that any problem exists at all. When one spouse fails to validate his or her partner’s experience and tries to minimize the impact, it undermines trust in the relationship and opens the door for the offended partner to feel betrayed in the marriage.
How important it is for both partners in the marriage to validate each other’s experience especially when it comes to interaction with their in-laws. While our partner’s experience may be very different than ours, it is nonetheless their reality and therefore worthy of our validation. Validation is not based on reaching agreement over objective facts. It is the understanding that our partner is entitled to their own experience and we choose to support them even when our experience may be very different.
Validation requires some emotional “heavy lifting” from each partner. We all agree with the notion that a good marriage takes work. But what specifically does this mean? John Gottman says; “Every marriage is faced with certain emotional tasks that spouses need to accomplish together for the marriage to grow and deepen.” Gottman goes on to explain, “when there’s conflict with the in-laws, it’s because you and your spouse have different ideas about the task, it’s importance, or how it should be accomplished” (The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman). Learning to validate each other’s experience in conflict, is a key component of the task of building “we-ness.” It doesn’t resolve the conflict, but it allows both husband and wife to get on the same page emotionally, so they can work together to develop a strategy of moving toward oneness in the marriage.
3. Do not tolerate any criticism or contempt toward your spouse from your parents
Contempt and criticism not only ruin a family dinner, they destroy relationships. Every couple must guard against their intrusion, not only in the marriage, but also in the broader family circle. Criticism attacks the character of the person and contempt demeans their dignity. Many times, these destructive forces come in the form of subtle putdowns, cynicism, mockery, eye rolling or sarcastic humor. Whatever form they take, they must be addressed.
This is not to suggest that we should do anything that might demean and dishonor our parents or go against our basic values. We should never compromise what it means to be Christ-like in any situation. But both husband and wife must learn to stand with each other and not in the middle when one becomes the target of criticism or contempt.
4. Agree on a plan of action before the holidays arrive
Addressing conflict in families is never an easy task, but having a plan always helps. If there is a history of family conflict surrounding the holidays, then decide ahead of time how you are going to navigate the problem. Building and maintaining a strong sense of ‘we-ness’ through the holidays requires open communication between you and your partner. Family, and marriage therapist, Liz Higgens offers the following suggestions for communicating with your spouse about the holidays.
- Find the right time to share with your partner the things you are anxious about and ask how you both can have more constructive conversations around the issue that will bring you closer.
- Look for opportunities where you can really share what you’re thinking and feeling with your spouse. These seemingly small moments are actually huge opportunities that can make or break your connection throughout this stressful season.
- Let your partner know the non-negotiable boundaries you may have about the things you are uncomfortable talking about or doing at family gatherings. Make sure you are both on the same page and ready to support one another.
- Remember, this is your spouse’s family and they may have a different perspective of them than you. It’s normal for couples to have to adjust to each other’s feelings about their parents. Maintaining respect and open communication throughout this process, is a win-win for both of you.
- Finally, discuss ways in which you can establish your own family rituals when it comes to celebrating the holidays and insist that your in-laws respect them. Establishing your own family ritual creates shared meaning and builds a strong sense of “we-ness.