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Life Kit: How to navigate holidays with the in-laws

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

For a lot of people, dealing with in-laws is the most stressful part of the holidays. In fact, a 2022 survey found that American men and women report more conflict with their mothers-in-law than they do with their actual mothers. But it is possible, if not always easy, to have a strong relationship with your partner's family. Life Kit's Andee Tagle has tips for working through some common in-law conundrums this season.

ANDEE TAGLE, BYLINE: The forced intimacy of in-law relationships is a breeding ground for potential discomfort and misunderstanding, says New York-based marriage and family therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare.

MORAYA SEEGER DEGEARE: There's a sense of safety that often, I think, people don't have with their in-laws because a lot of that stress is built early on in that relationship.

TAGLE: And when everyone comes to the proverbial family dinner table with different expectations and communication styles, potential heartache or hurt feelings are never too far away, especially during the holiday season, when couples and families often have to decide how to split time between different households and family functions. So how do you get it right? Seeger DeGeare says start by redefining your definition of fairness.

SEEGER DEGEARE: Fairness is definitely not, like, equal time. I think a lot of couples think that - that we always divide the holidays perfectly, and we'll trade off like this. I would go into, like, when do we really enjoy spending time with family?

TAGLE: Is it really that important that you're together on December 25, or is it just the whole family being together and spending the day in pajamas that feels special? Does your gathering have to be at Mom's house five hours away when the rest of the family is a lot closer to where you live? Think about what feels good and what actually makes sense for you and your partner, because letting guilt or obligation make decisions for you won't make anyone closer.

SEEGER DEGEARE: And then be really clear with family. This is the choice that we made for this year. This is what we're going to try out. And, hey, if it doesn't work - like, if this doesn't feel good, next year, we can try something different.

TAGLE: Remember, change is hard for everyone. So whenever possible, lead with kindness and be intentional instead of reactive.

SEEGER DEGEARE: Go slow, pick your battles, and think about what's actually important in the experience for you.

TAGLE: And the same advice goes for that other time-honored in-law tradition - getting unsolicited opinions about your choices. One novel idea - you could actually be open to their advice.

SEEGER DEGEARE: Maybe we do want to consider adjusting or shifting our parenting lives. Like, you know, I never thought of this. OK, I'm going to try it out.

TAGLE: You can choose to compromise. It doesn't have to be all or nothing.

SEEGER DEGEARE: Tell your mother-in-law that, OK, I love that idea. I'm also going to bring this dessert.

TAGLE: Or you can just keep your response super simple.

SEEGER DEGEARE: People can give you advice, and you can just say thank you.

TAGLE: Do what you need to do for you, but consider how much it actually costs you to just keep the peace. For example, absolutely hate that lamp they bought you last year? Why not just put it out when mom visits? Then maybe you could suggest homemade or experience-based gifts moving forward. No matter your move, try to be flexible and make the most of whatever family time you have.

SEEGER DEGEARE: Oftentimes, people don't really see their in-laws enough that they don't have that casual connection of rebuilding it. And so then you have six months goes by, and they're still at that same point of that awkward dinner.

TAGLE: The more time and exposure you get, be it through friendly follow-up texts or thank-you cards or coffee time, the easier it might be to truly bond and be comfortable with one another. And that's the goal, isn't it? Building and growing together.

SEEGER DEGEARE: And to really think of this in this positive way can be very helpful. Like, yes, this family didn't do it this way before. But as you make space for all the new people in the family, that is why traditions adjust and change and can be really lovely.

TAGLE: For NPR's Life Kit, I'm Andee Tagle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWING SHIFT'S "ROCKIN' AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.