Starbucks’ seasonal cups are causing controversy, ugly sweaters have invaded Instagram, and Love Actually is playing on practically every channel – the holidays are here, and for many couples, that means the countdown to quality time with the in-laws has begun.
The blending of families is fraught with opportunity for disaster. Perhaps you’ll be walking into a solemn celebration with classical Christmas hymns on the radio, a trip to church to confess your sins, and a dinner so dreary you’d stick your tongue to a frozen pole just for some excitement.
Or perhaps you’ll be swept up in a three-day weekend packed with caroling, crackers, egg nog, advent calendars, mistletoe, mince pies, feel-good movie marathons, pets in costumes, cookies for Santa, a festive PJs dress code, and a gingerbread house decorating competition so fierce it nearly sent someone to the hospital once.
Whatever the season has in store, you know one thing for certain: you want to be invited back. Follow these tips to survive Christmas with the in-laws and leave with your sanity (mostly) intact.
Check Your Reality At The Door
It’s their world and you’re just living in it. Each family has their own traditions, quirks, perspectives, and dramas, and you have little-to-no hope of ever changing them. The wiser route is to accept that, the second you set foot on your in-laws’ welcome mat, you’ve stepped into another universe that’s governed by different rules than your own. The sooner you learn to adapt, the more painless the experience will be. You may find that you actually like the way your partner’s family does things, and if not, you can take comfort in knowing you’ve made a heroic effort to keep the peace.
Mind Your Manners
Your relatives may sling insults like endearments and consider wind-breaking one-upmanship to be the height of after dinner activity. But when you’re surrounded by an unfamiliar family, particularly if you’re meeting them for the first time, it pays to remember your manners. Bring a gift for your hosts. Offer to help clear the table or dry the dishes. Don’t spend the celebration glued to your phone. Avoid arguing with anyone. Give a wide berth to controversial topics of conversation. Thank them for their hospitality, ideally once in person and again by card.
Go With A Game Plan
Before entering the lion’s den, talk to your partner about how to keep the big cats purring. They’re your best guide to understanding the unique dynamics at play in their family. Agree in advance on how long you intend to stay and create an airtight exit strategy. Ask for a brief on anything you should know about the family ahead of time, including customs, eccentricities, subjects to steer clear of, and any common interests you may have. Discuss any boundaries or concerns you have, and in the event that s—t goes sideways, have a plan for how you’ll handle it.
Be A Team Player
Awkward small talk wrecking your buzz? Escape the idle chitchat by making yourself useful. Offer to help your hosts with prep or clean up, or any other odd jobs they can conjure up. Not only does it keep your mind focused on something other then your anxiety, it’s an obvious way to score brownie points when you need them most.
Keep Them Talking
Being the outsider can feel like being the subject of an MI6 investigation. All that’s missing is the polygraph and the gritty room with the single piercing lightbulb (we hope). Put a stop to the interrogation by flipping the script and getting them talking instead. Arm yourself with a battery of polite questions – about work, childhood, hobbies, how they met their spouse, etc – designed to keep the conversation going and keep the spotlight off you. People love talking about themselves, and if you had a thorough briefing session with your partner beforehand, you’ll know exactly which subjects are likely to keep them yammering.
Respect Their Rules
Being a good houseguest means abiding by the rules – however arbitrary – your hosts set forth. If you’re given the futon in the study while your partner is cosied up in their childhood bedroom, don’t complain about the separate sleeping situation. If the family isn’t popping bottles like it’s a P. Diddy party, don’t down twelve martinis with your hors d’oeuvres. A day or two of restraint won’t kill you.
Choose Your Battles
In the immortal words of Maroon 5, “It’s not always rainbows and butterflies, It’s compromise that moves us along.” Despite your best efforts, conflict may rear its ugly head over the dinner table or a misguided gift. Take a deep breath before wading in and decide if it’s really worth it. Though it can be difficult to bite your tongue – particularly if you’ve been hitting the hot toddies hard – it’s often better to let things go and roll with the punches. A holiday is temporary. Resentments might be forever.
Take Time Off
Don’t dismiss “self-care” as a buzzword used only by trendy wellness bloggers. During the stressful holiday season, taking time for yourself is more important than ever. It’s okay to admit that you’ll need some space if you’re going to make it through the celebrations without blowing a gasket. Talk to your partner about how to squeeze it in without raising suspicions. Some ideas to get you started: grab a coffee before the rest of the household is awake, go for a jog in the afternoon, read before bed, offer to run to the store for extra supplies, say you have to step out to call your granny.
Relatives have a habit of getting – how do we put this politely? – a tad overexcited when the holidays come around. The second you walk in the door there’s a Santa hat on your head, a hot chocolate in your hand, and Aunt Francine is foisting a slice of stale fruitcake in your direction. Maybe they’re threatening you with a family game night, or a tour of the old photo albums, or an ugly sweater theme. Give in to whatever lame, embarrassing thing makes the holidays merry and bright for their family. Do it with enthusiasm if you can muster it, and if not, then at least with equanimity.
Focus On The Big Picture
If your family Christmas goes up in flames (hopefully not literally), it pays to have a big-picture perspective. It’s just a day or two, and you can make it through a day or two of almost anything. Before long you’ll be back on that welcome mat putting the whole nightmare behind you. Most importantly, you’ll have your partner by your side. You chose them and their family is part of the package, but it’s not the most important part.
Now stumble out of the house together like grateful survivors at the end of a horror movie, and for the love of Kris Kringle, visit your family for Christmas next year.