How do you learn to embrace the season when your relationship with your in-laws is less than perfect?

What do you do when you’re not going to your home for the holidays? In many relationships, how to split the holidays is an inevitable discussion. You spend Thanksgiving with your family one year and your partner’s the next, right?

That could mean every other year is spent dreaming of your grandmother’s mashed potatoes or missing out on the drunken post-turkey karaoke with the wild cousins. While it’s no surprise that missing the holidays with family––and skipping out on the traditions we’ve spent decades building––is always going to be hard, it can be made harder when the relationship with the in-laws is less than perfect?

So, how do you navigate the holidays when you’re not exactly thrilled to see your partner’s family? We have 5 ways to navigate the season and create a plan for managing these tricky relationships during a sentimental time of year.

     1. Discuss Expectations With Your Partner Beforehand

As with almost everything in life, communication is key. Don’t go into the holiday season, particularly if it’s your first together or first as a married couple, without discussing what the holidays mean to each of you. Talk about your expectations regarding tradition and time with family, and create a plan around how that will play out this year and in years going forward. And, as you discuss expectations, keep one word in mind: compromise.

You don’t have to love spending time with your partner’s family, but, if you set expectations ahead of time, you’ll feel less like you’re in a situation that is beyond your control. You’ll have the ability to schedule the time you’re spending with family and in-laws, know-how that time will be spent, and what it will entail. 

     2. Offer Kindness and a Helping Hand Whenever Possible

You’ve probably heard the phrase before: kill them with kindness. There’s no better time to put this into practice than during the holiday season. You can’t make everyone play nice, but at least you can put in your best effort.

While you may be met with a, “no, no, I’ve got it under control!”, you can still offer a helping hand. Whether it’s cooking, setting the table, or doing the dishes, be there with an offer to step in and help. Plus, whether or not they show it, your partner’s parents and grandparents may simply appreciate the company, so pour them a glass of wine and join them in the kitchen with chit chat––even the coldest relatives may warm up when you put in the effort to show you care.

Another way to butter up the in-laws: compliments. While you don’t have to drown them in compliments that aren’t genuine (no, you don’t have to tell them you loved their pumpkin pie if you’d rather not see it again next year), you can offer heartfelt words about the son or daughter that they’ve raised. Remind them that they did an amazing job bringing up the person who you fell in love with. 

     3. Respect Their Traditions…and Resist the Urge to Compare

Traditions are traditions for a reason––they give us a sentimental sense of time, place, and identity. Which is why we can be reluctant to embrace something new. 

We look at the way our partner’s family chooses to come together for a holiday dinner and, particularly if there are already uneasy feelings around the relationship, we’re quick to assign judgment. We think, “Ugh, why can’t they do this like my family does?”

Or perhaps your partner’s family places an emphasis around religious services at the holidays, but that is not something you grew up with. You become resentful for feeling dragged along to participate in an event that doesn’t resonate with you. 

But, this is when it’s important to take a step back and respect the traditions that made your partner who they are today. You don’t have to merrily embrace every silly, festive aspect of the season, but you can honor the traditions they’ve built over the years.

And, remember, this is not a competition. It’s not about outdoing or replacing the way your family chooses to celebrate the holidays, so there’s no need to add a, “Well, in my family, we do it this way” to every moment. It’s about respecting that there are multiple ways to honor family and togetherness. You may not love every tradition, but you can recognize that it is important to them.

Additionally, this is you and your partner’s chance to come together to make your own traditions as a family––traditions where a future child’s spouse could someday be in the exact place you are now.

     4. You Can’t Control Others, but You Can Control Your Reaction to Them

While you can’t control a rogue sibling’s behavior or a divisive uncle’s comments, you can control your reaction to them. Take a deep breath, remind yourself that this is only for a few days or hours, and take a second to think before you respond. 

Is this a battle worth picking or should you take the high road and simply turn away? No matter how much you may disagree with a member of your partner’s family (or even your own!), often the best route to take during the holidays is the one that involves removing yourself from the conversation and avoiding drama.

At the end of the day, don’t forget that you and your partner are a team and you have to face the holidays as a unit. Once you are in a committed relationship, your priority should be your partner. That means standing by their side should issues with your family arise––and they should do the same for you.

     5. Build in Time to Get Away

In this case, “get away” could mean planning an afternoon solo trip to a coffee shop or the movies if you’re in town for an extended stay––or building in an exit plan if you’re only with family for the day. You can even agree upon a secret phrase or code word ahead of time that indicates to your partner, “Okay, it’s time to head out now” or “You need to rescue me from this conversation ASAP!”

Whether it’s with yours or your partners, time with family can be draining. It takes energy to be consistently on with others all the time and it’s okay to need time for yourself. Create boundaries and give yourself time to escape, relax, and reconnect with yourself.

     A Final Reminder

Lastly, keep in mind that we often tolerate behavior in our own loved ones that we wouldn’t in others’ families. Before you criticize your partner’s parents or nag them about their siblings, reflect on the fact that they may not see the negatives that you do––and, as long as the behavior isn’t hurtful or toxic, it can be okay to let them live in blissful naivete.