As newlyweds, Carol and Alan looked forward to celebrating their first Christmas together. In their new apartment, the Georgia couple decorated their tree with ornaments from their childhood years, along with new ones that boasted "Our First Christmas."
Carol and Alan were about to discover, however, that celebrating together was more complicated than they had imagined. Alan's birthday was close to Christmas, so Carol's mother-in-law thought she'd cook a big meal at her house. Carol told her mother-in-law they had already made plans for that night, and she seemed to understand. But when they hung up the phone, Mom called her son and pitched her idea to him.
When Carol found out that her mother-in-law had gone behind her back, Carol confronted her. The conversation ended in tears — for both of them.
Carol was also frustrated with her husband. While he showed concern for her that first Christmas, he wasn't straightforward with his mom. Carol wanted her husband to speak up for her — for them.
"Alan didn't rally for me that Christmas, and it wasn't necessary after the talk I had with his mom, but it was a learning experience for both of us," Carol says. "I think a lot of new husbands make this same mistake. They take the side of 'not taking sides.' In their minds, neutrality is easiest."
In the end, Carol's mother-in-law agreed to give up a bit of control. The next Christmas, Carol suggested they have Christmas Eve at her mother-in-law's house.
As you and your spouse juggle family expectations, it can be difficult to experience a Christmas of real peace and good cheer. Talk ahead of time with your spouse, discussing solutions and compromises before the in-laws arrive.
Remember you married into a family
When a couple marries, relational priorities change. When we were single, our allegiance was with our parents, but once we marry, our priority becomes our spouse. The switch in priorities is a hard adjustment, particularly for close-knit families. Neutrality is not an option.
Your in-laws aren't just your spouse's parents. They're family. Treat them with honor. Initiate calls, remember birthdays, ask them about their life. Don't just leave relationship maintenance up to your spouse. These parents want a relationship with you, as well. And they long for you to initiate one.
When I married, my mother gave me a piece of advice about honoring in-laws.
"Susan," she said, "when John's mother comes to visit, give her time alone with him. Have him take her to lunch. Most mothers of sons rarely get time alone with their sons after they marry."
I would never have considered this if my mom had not suggested it, and I did this every time my mother-in-law came to visit. Often she said to me, "Why don't you come to lunch, too?" But I replied, "No, this is a special time for you with John."
To circumvent a potentially awkward encounter with relatives, have a plan in place before visitors arrive.
Sarah and Tim of Virginia had already experienced a few less-than-happy Christmases with in-laws. One year, her mother-in-law gave her some "parenting advice," which Sarah took as criticism. On another occasion, Sarah felt Tim sided with his parents in a discussion, which left her feeling put down and unappreciated. With these past disappointments in mind, Tim and Sarah decided to be more proactive. A few weeks before his parents arrived, they had an honest talk. Tim and Sarah agreed not to blame or criticize each other.
They took turns answering three questions:
- What am I most fearful of?
- What can we do to alleviate this issue?
- How can we work as a team while they are here?
Sarah was fearful she'd get stuck with entertaining his parents while he was at work. So Tim took time off to take his folks out to lunch. Sarah determined to count the blessings of the day and to laugh at things that did not go well. Both of them made a promise to take a few minutes to discuss how things had gone, to make any needed adjustments for the next day, to verbalize what was good and to pray together. Their goal was to make positive changes.
Take the time to ask
Jane, from North Carolina, was hosting the family gathering. Weary from the pressure of planning, Jane wondered how she was going to make it through all the season's special events. How would their time together be this year?
As she frantically fixed dinner one night, Jane's mother-in-law began to unload and reload the dishwasher. She didn't do it the way Jane usually did it, and she'd put things away in the wrong place. Exasperated, Jane blurted out in a sharp tone, "Don't touch my dishes — ever again." Stung, her mother-in-law left the kitchen and decided that in the future when she came to visit, she would stay elsewhere rather than with her son's family.
Jane realized she'd let the holiday stress stand in the way of everyone having a nice time together. She recognized that, in the future, not everything would go as planned. She needed to lower her expectations!
If you find that you don't want help in the kitchen, politely suggest for grandparents to take a grandchild on an outing or to help entertain the kids with a board game. However, understand that grandparents may not be used to the chaos that children can create. Give them permission and space to rest or get away for a bit.
Most likely, your parents and in-laws truly want to please you. But they may not know how, and you cannot expect them to guess. You might begin by saying, "We are looking forward to time with you. While you are here, we'd love it if you would_____________." Be specific and be grateful. You may also consider planning a few outings or projects for the whole family to participate in, such as volunteering at a soup kitchen, caroling in the neighborhood or delivering baskets of Christmas goodies.
Set aside painful issues
The holidays always follow Election Day. And while it's tempting to share your enthusiasm for politics and social issues, Christmas isn't the best time to offer your perspective on potentially divisive topics. Although some families can navigate touchy topics with finesse, focus instead on celebrating Christ's birth. Family gatherings are a time to celebrate what is good.
In addition, Christmas holidays are not the best time to have "the difficult talk" with your in-laws about observations you've made. Likewise, don't use the occasion to confront your own parents about their level of involvement or their parenting style. Recognize that no parent sets out to "ruin" his or her child. Your parents (or in-laws) may have done the best they could — given the family they themselves came from. It helps to go back a generation and recall what their parents were like.
Christmas is not the time to deal with past wounds. Take positive steps in the relationship so you can more constructively discuss the difficult topics at another time.
The stereotypical portrayal of a harmonious family roasting chestnuts by the fireside is a rarity. There are no perfect families. We are all broken, and each one of us needs to experience the unconditional love of Christ. Each one of us is going to disappoint someone in our family this season. And someone is going to disappoint us. Healing begins when we ask for forgiveness and when we grant it. Bitterness grows when we don't. We need to be quick to forgive each other for those annoyances and offenses. Resist the temptation to keep a list of wrongs.
As Christmas approaches, pray for your time together and determine to be a "grace granter." After all, Christmas is all about grace through Christ Jesus.
Susan Alexander Yates speaks nationally and internationally and is the author of 13 books, including And Then I Had Kids and Raising Kids With Character That Lasts.
Find discussion starters that will help you and your spouse prepare to host the in-laws.