How to Handle In-Law Conflict During the Holidays

By November 1, 2017February 23rd, 2018Communication, Conflict, In-laws & Family

If you’re engaged or newly married, you might be wondering why holiday in-law conflict is such a big deal…and you might even be thinking of ways to try to avoid is completely. Unfortunately, no matter who your parents are, how much they love you, or how much they support you as a couple, your families are different. Those differences are going to create some inevitable conflict once you’re married…especially when it comes to holiday gatherings.

Every family functions by its own unspoken rules; we like to say each family has its own “code,” whether they realize it or not. They share a certain philosophy of how life should be and how things should be done, and they tend to assume that everybody lives that way. This also applies to holidays and traditions—and there’s almost nothing quite as uncomfortable as trying to navigate the holiday season when you have two families’ expectations pulling you in different directions.

The good news is, there are constructive ways to deal with tension that might arise with your or your spouse’s parents during the holiday season. And the most important things are to handle yourself well, and to approach each situation with care and love for both your spouse and their parents.

For the next two weeks, we’ll discuss how to handle some common scenarios that cause in-law conflict during the holidays, and share some ways to approach each situation in a healthy way.

If your spouse grew up in a challenging family

If you grew up in an affectionate, connected family while your spouse did not, it can be difficult or painful for your spouse to visit your family, especially during holidays or special occasions. It’s understandable that this is probably frustrating for you, but it’s important to be empathic to your spouse’s position.

It’s important to realize your spouse might not have realized how bad their home life was growing up. Spending time with your family might be incredibly painful for them, and while that’s difficult to level with, you’ll have to accept that this is where your spouse is right now.

What’s more, it’s painful for you to have to spend time with your spouse’s family. Who wants to spend holidays with a family that doesn’t get along? That’s stressful, and it’s neither relaxing or enjoyable. It’s a drain on your energy, and you might feel cheated.

The best thing you can do in this scenario is invest in your spouse’s parents. Show interest in them without expecting them to reciprocate. Try to draw them out by connecting with them. Honor your spouse by honoring their family.

If you grew up in a challenging family

If you married someone who has a relatively peaceful family, joining their gatherings raises uncomfortable emotions and internal conflicts that you’d rather not deal with. It forces you to focus on the things you don’t have, and you might begin to feeling jealous toward your spouse.

If you grew up in a home where connection was built around sarcasm, criticism, and conflict, you have to allow yourself to adjust to a healthier environment where you’re communicating in more constructive ways. And it can be hard to get used to family gatherings that aren’t drama-filled.

In this situation, be honest with your spouse. Tell them that sometimes, it’s hard for you to connect with their family because of where you came from. You could say something like, “You guys relate to each other so well; I didn’t have that pattern in my life to guide me before. It’s going to take some time for me to feel comfortable.”

When you visit your spouse’s family, you might have to moderate your time. Maybe you have to take short breaks to be alone, or maybe the two of you can agree to spend limited amounts of time together at gatherings. Let your spouse know that you want to feel comfortable, but that it’s going to take some time; then, discuss ways that you can work together to help you feel more comfortable.

Look for Part 2 next week!

Next week, we’ll cover a few more common scenarios married couples face as they navigate the holidays with their in-laws.

Do you have difficulties with your in-laws during the holidays? How do you and your spouse handle that tension? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.


  • Timothy says:

    My in-laws are great (immediate family). I came from a family where everyone got along including extended family for the most part. My wife’s on-the-other-hand have a lot of trouble with disagreements. I was shocked by how much tension was there on Christmas the first few times, and I could tell no-one wanted to be there.

    My advice is to make some common ground. You can sometimes really gain some ground with someone by asking them questions about themselves. Invest some time getting to know their interests because you might find some in common.

  • Timothy says:

    Just to clarify:

    “My wife’s EXTENDED FAMILY on-the-other-hand have a lot of trouble with disagreements.”

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