Visiting Your In-Laws: Emergency Tips for Military Families

Photo by Sgt. Kelly Collett/Army National Guard
Photo by Sgt. Kelly Collett/Army National Guard

For military families traveling to visit far-flung relations, winter holidays can be emotional. As Johnny Carson noted, "People travel thousands of miles to be with people they only see once a year -- and then discover that once a year is way too often."

If you haven't left on your trip yet, you probably think that is a little harsh.

If you are huddled in the bathroom with your phone because you are hiding from your relatives (including your service member and your own kids), then you know just what Johnny was talking about.

Living far away from your family and your service member's family is one of the most common factors in military life. Traveling to visit them is another. And if you listen to our SpouseBuzz readers, discovering that none of those people understands how hard it is to get leave, how expensive it is to travel, and/or how truly unpleasant even the nicest 15-month-old (or 15-year-old) can be on a nine-hour car trip is the most common thing of all.

Here are a few tips from military families to help you get through a holiday visit with your in-laws:

Accept that in-laws will drive you crazy.

The relationship you have with your in-laws could be your most complicated relationship ever. This is universal. Sure, you may have a neighbor on base who claims she loves her mother-in-law more than her own mother. It may, indeed, seem mutual. Beware. Those two are only one XXXL regifted-ugly-sweater-with-a-fringe away from total apocalypse. Don't let yourself indulge in the idea that everyone has it easier than you.

Plan a shorter visit.

Some families have a tradition in which a visit isn't a visit unless you stay for two whole weeks. Be glad you aren't part of one of these families. You could go with Benjamin Franklin's famous three-day rule ("Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days") or you could pay attention to your own family's rhythm and figure out what the ideal length of a visit might be.

Play anthropologist.

A lot of what drives us crazy about our in-laws is the stuff they do that we can't control -- criticism, self-centeredness, insane eating, drinking or drugs. That's why therapists recognize that detachment is one of the keys to good in-law relationships. Psychologist Leonard Felder, author of When Difficult Relatives Happen To Good People, recommends that you take a step back and pretend you do not know these people. Observe how they work without taking any of it personally. Know that this is a ninja-level skill in relationships.

Plan some activities outside the house.

Black Friday shopping may have been invented as an excuse to leave some mother-in-law's house. Ditto movies in a theater. Football games in a stadium. Nature trails. Exercise. Museums. Battlefields. Sometimes, families need activity and distraction when they are together too much. Don't worry about whether it will be fun. Think of it as healthy escape.

Recognize you can't really read her mind.

Military spouses will swear to you that they can read their mother-in-law's minds. The mothers-in-law will swear these people are idiots. (Proof that daughters-in-law CAN read minds!!!) Know that one of the things that cognitive behavioral therapists warn about is that "mind reading" error. You can't really read people's minds. Resolve that for this visit only you are going to hear only what is actually said, not what you think was said.

Call a friend.

Reaching outside the immediate family group can bring some solace. This is the moment that getting texts from a supportive friend or catching up on Facebook or calling your mom could be really helpful, especially if they remind you of all your good intentions for this visit.

The dishes are your refuge.

People used to complain that the women had to do all the work while the men sat in the living room and watched football. What they may have failed to recognize is that having something to do -- even if it is only wiping counters and emptying the dishwasher -- can make you feel better.

Hotels save lives.

Military families are already on the kind of budget that does not allow for a whole lot of hotel rooms. Some families report that staying at a nearby hotel is worth the money in terms of family peace. Others report that they would love to stay in a hotel, but that the amount of hurt feelings that result would be even more miserable. Pick your poison.

Remind yourself that this is only temporary.

Going home to visit your family really can be the foundation of many good memories. When you are jiggling a baby who won't sleep outside his own bed or someone is asking when you are leaving the military and moving home or hitting you up for a loan, remind yourself that this really is temporary. Make a list in your head of the moments you wouldn't have missed. Take a deep breath. And know that military spouses all over the world really do know how you feel.

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