Thanks to reader Anonymous who wrote the following note on the message board of my “Six Strategies to Calm Yourself Down” post:
How do you “get out of the situation” if you have to be around in-laws that talk about the same stuff (sometimes negative) whenever you go around them. I’d rather stay home and send the kids with my spouse! However, I know this isn’t the Christian way of doing things (you must be around some of every type of personality in order to get along with or at least witness to people). PLEASE HELP!! Sometimes I think they purposefully let things “roll off the tongue” to provoke me into saying something or try to make me feel bad. I always try to stay as positive as I can me in my mind while I’m around them but it does get next to me sometimes.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have in-law issues. Maybe the chick who has never met her in-laws. Scratch that. I know someone in that category, and she still has issues.
I try to follow these pieces of advice when my positive cap keeps falling off at a family picnic.
1. Set some boundaries.
Preferably from the day you said, “I do,” but anytime after is okay too. Boundaries prevent some of the natural irritation that results from two people didn’t exactly choose each other as friends or relatives, but spend a big chunk of time together.
For example, Eric’s family isn’t Christian, and we celebrate many of our holidays together. I needed to reserve Christmas Eve as our “holy” night—where we go to Mass, and have our “Happy Birthday Jesus!” party–and Easter morning as our sacred time (before we unwrap the chocolate bunnies and find the eggs filled with jelly beans) with the room to my unapologetic Catholic self. This makes me a much more pleasant daughter-in-law and sister-in-law when we have the family over for Christmas day dinner, or Easter dinner. I got my religion out of the way first (much like working out before you binge).
The same goes for prayers before meals. If we have a family dinner at our house, we’ll stay away from pork (one family member is Muslim), but I’m sticking with the traditional blessing (which starts with the Sign of the Cross). Eric’s family may silently send light to Goddess Iris or whoever, but the kids are only going to hear about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph for now, or until they opt to send light to Goddess Iris in college (at which time I will have come up with more coping strategies).
2. Repeat: “I love my husband.”
This last past year I have felt a bit like a military wife because Eric basically held two jobs: one as an architect, and one as caretaker of an elder. Life is getting a bit more manageable now, but there were many weekends last year when I got no break from the kids. When Eric was home, he was totally exhausted, overwhelmed, and grumpy. I began to get angry at the situation, and resentful.
My friend Vickie helped me work through it. Unlike my pleasant mom-in-law, hers was a vicious, angry, vengeful woman who would insult her at every chance, a grimalkin whose mission was to drive a wedge between she and her husband, Mike, in order to insure that the couple would divorce. If anyone had a reason to be resentful, it was Vickie. But she wasn’t.
She stayed focused on Mike. “I repeated to myself over and over again ‘I love Mike. I am doing this for Mike. I must respect her because she is Mike’s mom. I’m not going to call her a witch or something that rhymes with witch because she gave birth to Mike, and I love Mike,’” she told me. (It’s good to hang out with friends as positive as this, I’ve found. She truly inspires me.)
3. Talk to the hand, or your girlfriends.
This woman I met the other day at the pool said to me, “My husband gets so angry with me when I tell him his mom is a selfish, pathetic, judgmental, and calloused lunatic.”
“Huh,” I thought to myself, “I wonder why.”
“Blood is thicker than water,” the saying goes, and it’s worth remembering that when you are about to say something less-than-kind out loud.
I always try to think about it the other way around. I know my mom has her quirks (sorry, Mom!), and it can be really funny when my sister points out one of these quirks in a witty way (sorry, Mom!). But it’s not all that comical when someone else (besides my sisters) tries the same act. That’s like a Catholic telling a Jewish joke, or a Jew telling a Catholic joke. You need to be Jewish to tell a Jewish joke without coming across as offense and a Catholic before you describe what the nuns did in confession (while slapping your knee and laughing out loud).
Everyone needs to vent, though, so I suggest you do it with your girlfriends because 1) chances are good that they will have an anecdote that makes your own situation like Candy Land (for example, the story I just read in “The Mr. and Mrs. Happy Handbook” about the mother of the groom who tried to poison the bride), and 2) they won’t get peeved if you call your mom-in-law a “selfish, pathetic, judgmental, and calloused lunatic.”
4. Concentrate on the project.
When I compiled “I Like Being Married,” with Mike Leach (my writing mentor), we interviewed hundreds of couples about what kept them together.
This one older man, who had been married to his wife for over 40 years, told me, “You don’t have to be in love. You just have to be compatible.”
I didn’t include his quote in the book because I didn’t find it particularly romantic or inspiring. But it’s a great practical piece I’ve remembered ever since I sat down with a pen and paper in front of him.
His insight applies to all aspects of marriage, including relationships with in-laws. In that regard, marriage is very much like a working relationship, and the more diplomatic in tone, usually the better. You don’t have to be in love with your co-workers to succeed at accomplishing a task. You just have to concentrate the project, which is keeping everyone out of therapy.