Your guide to surviving the in-laws this Christmas
As Meghan Markle is finding out, getting along with your new ‘family’ is not always easy. Throw Christmas into the mix, and things get even more complicated. Chrissie Russell asks how to keep relations running smoothly
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ll be aware that relationships between some of the British royals are reported to have become a bit frosty of late. Only six months after her wedding to Prince Harry, Meghan Markle is said to have fallen out with her sister-in-law Kate Middleton, with the new duchess being cast as difficult and demanding, and Kate playing the part of the cookie-cutter royal who never puts a foot out of place.
“They are very different people,” a palace courtier was quoted as saying diplomatically. Fuel was added to the fire when it emerged that Harry and Meghan are moving away from Kate and William to live at Frogmore Cottage, hundreds of miles away. And what of Camilla and Charles? How are they taking to their Californian daughter-in-law, who reportedly asked if air freshener could be sprayed around St George’s chapel to get rid of the ‘musty’ smell? With all these reports circulating in the press, it’s not surprising that attention is now focused on Christmas, and where the Windsors will spend it. According to the latest reports, they’ll all be together at Sandringham, and peace and harmony will reign, for the queen’s sake at least.
But perhaps all of this was to be expected — and perhaps, in this way, the royals are just like our own families. When it comes to sources of festive stress, more often than not, it’s our other halves’ mothers, fathers and siblings that regularly get cited in polls as the ones most likely to drive us Christmas crackers. According to one recent survey, 34pc of respondents reckoned the arguments or tensions they’d experience over the festive period would be caused by interactions with the in-laws. A second poll revealed that most consider their in-laws to be the worst gift givers. But is it inevitable to expect some level of seasonal set-tos with your in-laws? Or are there ways to keep the season merry and bright no matter what surprises extended family may bring? First off, don’t feel guilty if you’re dreading in-law interaction, because you’re not the only one.
“At this time of year, couples often bring up the issue of how to handle their respective in-laws through the Christmas period,” says Sharron Grainger, psychologist and psychotherapist at the Connolly Counselling Centre. “Some go as far as saying they’re nervous about the holiday period as they feel they are walking on eggshells or waiting for the landmine to explode!”
There are plenty of common reasons for this; having everyone in the same room can give opportunity to arguments being dragged up from the past, perhaps over grandchildren or interference in a relationship. If boundaries have been poor to begin with, this comes more clearly into focus at Christmas.
“It could be that your partner is a people pleaser and won’t stand up for themselves in order to avoid conflict, which then leads to arguments between you as a couple,” adds Sharron. “Or maybe one partner has always felt their in-laws haven’t fully accepted them. Whatever the reason, this time of year can bring out the worst in people.”
While some families might manage to dodge issues by not seeing much of each other during the year, at Christmas all bets are off. And yet foolishly we tend to hope the season will somehow work its magic and make everything perfect. An unrealistic aspiration that unfortunately makes conflict even more likely.
“We’re bombarded with images of happy families and togetherness and fireside gatherings and so any friction is heightened by the comparison worm,” explains Cork-based counselling psychologist and psychotherapist Sally O’Reilly. “Why aren’t we all singing together and hugging all the time, rosy cheek to rosy cheek? We feel something is wrong with us — or them — and resent that, blaming ourselves, our relationship or the in-laws. We expect too much of Christmas.”
So how to best manage expectations? “Firstly, your partner comes first,” advises Sharron. “In order to survive this time of year, you must have open communication between you and your partner. Set aside some time to share the things you are anxious about in order to have more constructive conversations that will bring you closer.”
That means no sneaky tricks like leaving it to the last minute before telling your other half that your folks are popping round, and being on the same page about exactly what shared time with the in-laws will involve. Explain to your partner how you feel (“which is different to saying how they ‘make you feel’,” warns Sally) and avoid any name calling or criticising.
Having two sets of parents in one room can be a source of friction, especially if you feel your partner’s parents haven’t realised he or she is all grown up now.
“If we notice our partners (or ourselves) being infantilised, then feel ok about gently bringing their attention to this in private,” says Sally. “Saying things like, ‘OMG he’s not your baby anymore’ will not land well. Try something like ‘thanks for the advice, we hadn’t thought of it that way and we’ll discuss that later in private when we’re deciding what to do,’ works better. The aim is to teach the in-law parents that you, as a couple, have got this.”
Pick your battles and be reasonable about the fact that different families will have different traditions — does it really matter what order presents are opened or what way the sprouts are cooked? “It’s really important to compromise,” says Sharron. “Look at each issue from the other’s perspective and remember nobody is perfect, not you and not your family. Knowing this to be true might help you not to take things so personally.”
A bit of expectation management and holding your tongue could well be the key to a Happy Christmas.
“We can choose to keep our mouths shut and not engage,” says Sally. “It might be difficult if the people around us are good at button pushing, but it takes two or more to have an argument. If we don’t join in on a game, the game will come to a natural end.”
Help get through the day (with your sanity intact) by planning for potential minefields, reminding yourself that your partner is not his/her family, bearing in mind that your partner might also be triggered and regressing and that the dynamics of your partner’s family have nothing to do with you.
But don’t get liberal with the sherry. “Be careful of alcohol,” warns Sally. It’s more likely to result in volatility, enabling and scapegoating.
“If you or your partner have alcohol on board, you’ll be more easily triggered and less able to respond as planned. You’ll take things more personally and you might find yourself in a shouting or sulking marathon with consequences for the following days or weeks.”
With a bit of planning and a bit of realistic understanding that no one — bar Ebenezer Scrooge — has ever had a personality makeover at Christmas, there’s no reason why the day can’t go smoothly, even enjoyably. It’s only a few hours after all. But just in case, have an exit plan up your sleeve.
“Use a code word or phrase and remember you don’t have to tolerate confrontation,” says Sharron.
Sally agrees: “If things get very difficult or abusive, why enable and allow that? Feel ok about leaving or asking them to leave. Your sanity and happiness are worth more. Also, by not accepting abuse or poor behaviour from their grandparents or uncles and aunts, you’re teaching your children to place a value on themselves and their happiness by modelling how to say, ‘no, enough. I will not put myself through this’.”