How to Deal With Difficult In-Laws, According to Etiquette Experts

Kelsey Clark
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Timur Emek/Getty Images

Rivaled only by first dates and job interviews, the holidays provide ample opportunity for stress, discomfort, and awkwardness—especially for women. What with the endless stream of holiday parties, frosty relations with your in-laws, and the unexpected run-ins with long-lost friends from high school, heading home for the holidays can be more taxing than relaxing.

Which brings me to the elephant in the room: the strong dislike you feel for your in-laws (or future in-laws). While this aversion is safely contained within the walls of your home 11 months out of the year, December presents new challenges masqueraded as joyous holiday celebrations. Whether your mother-in-law has criticised your parenting style or your father-in-law passive-aggressively competes for your significant other's attention, these relationships are nuanced, complex, and worthy of an expert opinion.

To that end, we've enlisted the help of Leslie Shore, communication expert and author of Listen to Succeed, and Sharon Schweitzer, international etiquette expert and founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. Both women have extensive experience navigating complex family dynamics in healthy and practical ways, focusing on preserving and enriching those cherished relationships between family members. Here's how they recommend embracing the holiday season with your in-laws:

Respect traditions + cultural differences

Present a united front with your S.O.

In many cases, disagreements with your in-laws are rooted in cultural or familial differences that can be rectified with a little tolerance and understanding. "It's a good idea to find out as much as you can about the culture and background of your in-laws. What's their cultural history and how much do you know about it?" explains Schweitzer, who discussed some of these issues with her husband in premarital counselling. "Stay humble and willing to learn about local and regional cultural differences previously unknown to you." She recommends encouraging your in-laws to share their stories and experiences so that you can understand them better. "Be patient with them, and remember that maintaining a warm, welcoming attitude is important," she says.

From deciding how and where to spend the holidays to breaching uncomfortable topics with your in-laws, it's vitally important that you and your partner see eye to eye. "For the really tough issues, make sure you bring your significant other into the conversation to present a united front," Shore told MyDomaine. "Bring them up to speed with the issue and [agree on] the strategy for the conversation. That way your in-laws know it's serious." What's more, your partner can help broker the situation with their parents, assuming you present your concerns rationally and empathetically.

Schweitzer calls for the same marital alliance when making holiday plans in the first place. "Communicate with your significant other about traditions, holidays, birthdays … all special occasions. Explain how you spent the holidays as a child. Which aspects did you enjoy? Which would you like to change?" she explains. From there, you can begin creating your own unique holiday traditions that include both families. Doing so is the best way to learn more about each other's family dynamics and history.

Reason with facts, not emotions

Shelving your emotions in the heat of the moment is no easy feat. But framing your transgressions with concrete facts instead of attacks draped in frustration is perhaps your greatest weapon. If time allows for it, Shore recommends writing down your talking points in advance. "Include what the behaviour is, when it happened, and how it makes you feel. Be factual," she explains. If the altercation is taking place in real time, try addressing the issue with what Shore calls a "praise sandwich." Begin with something good about the relationship, transition by calmly explaining what's bothering you without using emotional adjectives, and finish with a unifier such as I cherish this relationship too much to have this issue not get resolved. How can we resolve it together?

Forget the need to be "right"

To be frank, what's ethically right bears little importance when settling an argument with your in-laws; your self-control will win out in the end. "Settling disagreements takes the courage of not needing to win. Realise that, as adults who come to a relationship with different life experiences, you will have different perspectives," explains Shore. She instead leans on phrases like Wow, that's a really interesting perspective and I think this topic should be off-limits today. Let's celebrate each other and the good things that happened this year.

Schweitzer has a few other diffusion techniques in her arsenal—she recommends reaching for humour or redirecting the conversation to more neutral topics. "The easiest way to survive with your sanity intact is to discover the humour with in-law situations," she explains. "Using this approach provides the safe distance needed to avoid taking these things too personally." If all humour is tragically lost, smoothly transition to talk of popular books, the night's dinner, or even the weather. Reach for these tactics when politics or religion inevitably surface.

Remember the reason for the season

Above all, remember that the holiday season has little to do with personal pride. If anything, this is the one time of the year to bite your tongue, swallow your frustration, and opt for the high road in the name of peace and togetherness. Schweitzer even suggests shelving tedious conversations until the New Year. "In January, after the high-stress holiday season has passed, approach [your in-laws] with an open heart and mind," she suggests. "Explain how their behaviour has caused emotional upset, and ask whether something has offended them. Whatever the conflict may be, be willing to swallow your pride and make amends."

Start off the holiday season on the right foot with one of these chic hostess gifts, and add your in-law advice to the discussion below!

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