How To Visit In-Laws Without the Minefield


Traveling from a faraway duty station to visit the in-laws is a fixture of military life. And spending time with them can be downright tense.

Each visit, we think it will be different. We hope it will be different. Wouldn’t it be nice if just this once your in-law would not make that one comment that leaves you speechless? Wouldn’t it be great if just this once she would include you instead of acting as though you’re not even in the room?

I remember only too well an infamous visit years ago when my son, daughter-in-law and granddaughters came to visit my husband and me. I was excited to see them, but oh-so-anxious as well.

The tension was so high on both sides, even before they arrived. By the time they pulled into our driveway -- well, let me just say it was like traversing a minefield. One wrong step by either of us was bound to trigger a huge explosion. And of course it did!

I wish I had handled the situation differently. You would think that as a clinical psychotherapist, I would know better, right?

Well, I actually did know better, but as is the case with most of us, I was too close to the situation to know what to do in the heat of the moment. All I knew for sure was that I never wanted to go through that again.

So I spent some time actually researching the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship for my book Reluctantly Related.

Not only did that help me create the distance I needed to see things clearly, but it also helped me build a different relationship with my daughter-in-law-- a better, easier relationship.

Whether it’s a special occasion or just a routine visit, this is a perfect time to rethink how you want to “be” with your family, particularly your in-laws. Instead of dreading the occasion, consider it an opportunity to try something new to make the visit a win-win for everyone.

The key to going from dread to delight is as simple as shifting your perspective slightly, which in turn makes it easier to shift your emotions, as well.

I’m not suggesting you do this because you’re wrong or because the tension in the relationship is your fault. Not at all.

This isn’t about blame, it’s about actively making things better between you and your in-law. And once you make a shift, then she will make a shift, too, even if it’s only a small one at first. So trust me, and give these tips a try:

Be a team player. If your mother-in-law or daughter-in-law is coming to your house, make sure you include her in the different activities that occur throughout the day. Have her help you in the kitchen, or ask for her help setting the table. Ask her questions and give her a compliment or two. Try to make her feel comfortable and welcomed. In short, treat her as you would treat a friend. If you are going to her house, ask her if she’d like some help. And whether she does or doesn’t want your assistance, stick around and talk with her. Again, ask her questions, compliment her, and let her know you’re interested in her.

Don’t take things personally. Remember, everyone is more stressed during visits; your in-law is no different. Even if she displays her usual over-the-top behavior, it doesn’t mean it’s because of you. She probably treats other people like that as well. As long as you can feel good about how you behave with her (treating her with respect and kindness no matter what), then you can feel certain it’s not about you. And that should take some of the pressure off.

Hunt for humor. Finding humor in your in-law’s actions is hands-down the best way to get through the day remaining sane. Of course, it may not necessarily be all that funny, but search hard for the humor. This helps create some emotional distance, because when you’re laughing to yourself, you won’t be taking her words or actions personally. As a bonus, you’ll get some great stories to tell your friends about your crazy in-law!

Discover some down time for yourself. Even with the hectic day, carve out some quiet time for yourself so you can regain your strength. This can come at any time during the day. Clean up by yourself, do those few dishes that can’t go in the dishwasher, go watch a movie with your kids or grandkids, or do anything else that will allow you the time to regroup and get your energy back.

Plan your exit strategy in advance. When you’re planning your visit, decide to stay in a hotel. Yes, it is more costly financially, but it saves the emotional strain you feel when staying at your in-law’s house. It gives you a chance to have your downtime and allows you to see your in-laws for short intervals, instead of 24/7.

If you backslide, don’t fret. Just re-focus and keep trying. The goal is progress, not perfection. Relationships don’t transform overnight, and small changes now can lead to larger changes later. With just a little bit of effort, this could end up being the happiest visit you’ve ever spent with your in-laws!

-- Deanna Brann, Ph.D., is the author of Reluctantly Related: Secrets to Getting Along With Your Mother-in-Law Or Daughter-in-Law.



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