Surviving Holiday Stress with In-Laws (II)


woman and man sitting on brown wooden bench
Photo by Vera Arsic on

No matter it’s Chinese, American, or Hispanics, etc.. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the partner by marriage saying: “You made me feel like an outsider;” while the partner who is biologically related to the extended family saying: “I am stuck in the middle between my spouse/partner and my parents.”


So, how do you unstuck from this situation? The key is to make your relationship and your spousal relationship as a priority and see your partner’s feelings is yours no matter you agree with him/her.

(The Part I of Surviving the Holiday In-Law Stress is here.)

For the spouses/partners who feel as if stuck in the middle, the best advise by Dr. John Gottman is: “don’t side with the enemy.” When I first heard about this description by Dr. Gottman, I broke into the big laugh. Ok, your parents are not your enemy. The driver on the street that cut into the lane is not your enemy. However, they are your spouse/partner’s enemy when they angry your partner. So, no matter how the traditions are carried out in your family of origin, try to think it from your spouse’ perspective and don’t side with your parents.

It doesn’t mean that you don’t agree with your parents. It only says that you understand that your spouse/partner is trying to fit in with your family and he/she is having a difficult time. So, you want to try to understand and be sympathetic your partner’s feelings as much as you can no matter you agree with him/her. As you grow up from that environment, unless a specific tradition has inconvenient you, you are more likely than not agreeing with your parents. However, your spouse/partner doesn’t grow up with your parents. So, try to be understanding and accepting.

Here are some questions you can ask when your spouse/partner has negative comments about your parents.

I can see you might feel this way because I remember your family did that way…..

Can you help me understand why this bothers you? How did your family handle this situation?

If this is the way your family has always done, I can see why it would bother you when my parents did that.

By understanding and accepting your partner’s feelings and perspectives, you offer your acceptance. More importantly, by following your partner’s different experiences from his/her family of origin, you and your partner can lead into the discussion to build a new tradition and give a new meaning of the holiday tradition in your family of creation.

So, what can you do if your parents complaints about your spouse? Please don’t side with your parents by telling them how you also are upset with your spouse. By doing so, you are violating the boundary between you and your spouse. You also alienate your partner from your family of origin. You are stepping out from your couple unit to side with your parents. Even though you agree with your parents, you want to share with your parents by saying something nice about your spouse/partner.

For example:

xxxx (your partner) is really tired from the work and the kids. I am sure he/she didn’t mean that. I would appreciate that you give him/her a little bit more understanding.

His/her family handles the holiday very differently. I am sure it’s uncomfortable for him/her to come into our family and celebrate the holiday differently. I really hope you can make him/her feel like home instead of judging him/her.

I know him/her. He/she is not the way you think about him/her. If he/she is that kind of person, do you think I would marry/be with him/her? Even if you don’t like his/her behaviors, please trust me. I am raised by you!

Your parents will love you and forgive you no matter what because you are blood-related but not necessarily the case for your partner/spouse. So, do not abandon your spouse/partner and let him/her fend for him/herself. You might feel as if you stuck in the middle, but you have a tremendous power to help your spouse/partner feel welcome at your family of origin.

For the partner who has had the issues with the in-laws, here are three words to remember: love, compassion, and forgiveness.

It’s not easy to celebrate the holiday in the family with the in-law’s you are not getting along. However, as I said in my mother’s story, the issues intensified in the holiday are usually not the real issue. There is often an underlying feeling of “I don’t belong here” and some other personal feelings from your family of creation. When you make a complaint or needs your spouse/partner to support you, try the following rules.

1) Do not attack your in-laws’ personality but stating how their behaviors makes you feel using the I-statement.

     Your spouse/partner was born from your in-laws and brought up by them. Attacking your in-laws’ personality is also an attack on your spouse/partner. Your partner/spouse will defend his/her parents no matter what. Try not to say something like: “I can’t believe your father/mother/sister is so rude.” Instead, describe the behaviors and how it makes you feel. “It really bothers me when your mom/dad/sister did/said ………..”

2) Focus on your feelings

As I pointed out before, holidays are traditions and traditions means possible different behaviors/customs. Please do not criticize anyone or the customs as that’s how your spouse/partner grew up during his/her childhood. Try not to say: “I can’t believe that’s how your family did ……. That’s so stupid.” Try saying something like: “ I am baffled about __________ (custom) and how and why your family decides to incorporate that into your holiday traditions.?” Or, “I feel hurt/sad/disappointed when your mom, dad, etc. said or do something like that.

3) State your needs while providing something you can compromise.

Please don’t say: “I will never do ……” instead, try to ask for the help you needed from your spouse, such as “I can’t accept this kind of treatment, and I need your help to……”

The last thing, it is up to you, as a couple, to build your tradition. So, spend some time to nurture your relationship by doing something that belongs to the two of you, as a couple, and/or with your children.

I wish you all have a happy holiday season and turn any stressful situation as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship.

Extended Reading:

Navigate Holidays with Your In-Laws



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