December 10, 2021

Want to Know How to Handle Holidays and The In-Laws?

When a couple in a new relationship tells me that they never argue, I will often ask them to tell me their holiday plans.  “ How will you spend the holidays?” is a question that will often lead to a clash of traditions and expectations.  Often the discussion becomes about what the in-laws expect, too, as if the topic wasn’t difficult enough already. When two people marry, it is joining two cultures in many ways – actually creating a new culture that has never existed before. It is a daunting task to create new traditions while still honoring your in-laws and their feelings about the old ones.  It is possible, however, to make holidays both enjoyable and memorable.

  • First, communicate with your partner.
    • Each of you should share how you feel about the holidays. Tell each other what you have enjoyed and what you have not. Communicate what traditions are most important to you and why. Note:  It is crucial to keep communication open throughout the holiday experiences.
    • Be kind and non-judgmental about your partner’s traditions. Be open to learning more about them and the possibility of participating in some of them.
    • Be clear about your boundaries, particularly about things that make you feel uncomfortable. Your partner can’t help you establish and maintain boundaries if they don’t know what they are.


  • Consider your in-laws’ holiday wishes. What is most important to each of your parents? For example, is the family attending the Christmas Eve service together what your mother loves the most, or is it having Christmas dinner together on Christmas Day? Be open to what the in-laws might want and ask what they would like most, but don’t be controlled by them.


  • What holiday traditions do you want to establish or continue? Be balanced and be as fair as possible. Decide together and then communicate your decisions in a loving way to your in-laws.


  • Be flexible with your plans. For example, you could invite everyone to come to your house one year. Another year you might want to plan a holiday getaway.

Once you have set your plans for holiday traditions and observances, here are some things to consider in creating enjoyable and memorable experiences.

  • Let go of expectations! No one is perfect, no family is perfect, and no experience is perfect. Expecting a “Hallmark movie” holiday with your family is unrealistic and sets you up for disappointment and hurt feelings.   Relieve the pressure for yourself and others by relaxing expectations.


  • Don’t try to please everyone. It is not your job to make everyone happy. If you do take that responsibility on yourself, you will most likely become anxious, drained, and even resentful. Instead, be yourself and let your in-laws get to know and love the real you, the you that your partner fell in love with.


  • Don’t try to resolve family issues. Holiday family gatherings are not the time to settle family issues or conflicts.  One of the boundaries that you may need to establish is that you will not discuss or participate in discussions about the subject (s). Instead, you may need to say something like, “Let’s enjoy today and talk about that next week when we can better focus on it.”


  • Have an exit plan. Unfortunately, you or your spouse or both of you may come from a highly dysfunctional, unhealthy, or even abusive family. You do not have to endure harmful and destructive behavior now that you are an adult. Choose a code word that either of you can use when you need to leave the situation.  It’s okay to use the code word and go!


  • Do your best to engage and participate. If you just stand back and observe in the family gathering, you may be perceived as aloof or worse. Offer to help.  For example, come up with a fun activity and offer to get the supplies and lead it – like a cookie decorating contest. Get out of your comfort zone and do your best to nurture the relationship with your partner’s parents – your in-laws!


Remember that it may be easier for you to adjust to new traditions or ways of celebrating the holidays than it is for your in-laws.  Do your best to make the holidays enjoyable and memorable, but don’t take full responsibility onto yourself. Communicate first with your spouse as described above, and make sure you two are on the same page.  Try to balance new traditions with the old and focus on time spent together, which is more important than extravagant gifts or the perfectly cooked meal!


Need help with communication, resolving conflict, drawing boundaries, or any other life and relationship tools?  Let us help!

About the author 

Cliff Poe

Cliff Poe is Founder and Lead Coach for Recon Coaching. He and his wife, Jeani, are Master Coaches and their passion is to help individuals and couples form healthy, lasting and satisfying relationships. Cliff has a M.Div. in pastoral counseling and ministry. He enjoys writing and coaching as well as his family which includes 2 adult kids and their spouses, 6 grandchildren and a fur family composed of a Golden Retriever and a Mackerel Tabby.

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