An expert’s 5 tips for getting along with in-laws this holiday season

It helps to have a plan.

Christmas new year dinner group concept
–Sebra /

Do your holiday plans include time with in-laws? How about disagreeable in-laws?

It’s not uncommon to feel tension at family gatherings, said Gonzalo Bacigalupe, a professor of counseling and school psychology and director of the family therapy program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. But you can get through it with a little planning, he said.

Bacigalupe offered the following five tips for dealing with difficult in-laws this season.

Have realistic expectations

Don’t expect all family conflicts to go away simply because it’s the festive time of year, Bacigalupe said.

“During holidays, everybody expects to be happy,” he said. “Every family has its own points of conflict or tension or anxiety. The holidays create this sort of huge expectation that people think they are going to be resolved. The expectation itself sort of generates even more tension.”


Instead, Bacigalupe said, anticipate the usual and plan for it.

“Just list some things you know they’re going to say, and have answers that are not toxic,” he said. “Do not let it escalate. Keep your cool.”

That’s especially important if kids will be present so that you don’t model bad behavior, Bacigalupe said.

And remember: “Don’t try to change them,” he said. “You’re never going to change those in-laws.”

Come up with an exit strategy

When you’re putting together that plan for awkward or frustrating moments, one totally viable response is to head out, Bacigalupe said.

So ahead of time, discuss with your partner ways you can remove yourself from an uncomfortable conversation. One example, from Bacigalupe: Grab the leash and take the dog for a walk.

Plan an activity that everyone will like

Getting together for the holidays doesn’t have to mean sitting around a table and talking for hours, Bacigalupe said. That sounds exhausting, even if you all like each other!

“Identify something that you can do together that doesn’t require in-depth conversations,” Bacigalupe said. “Is there something that you all enjoy doing?”

How about playing a board game? Or maybe you can all go to the movies? If there are kids, perhaps you could take them outside to play in the snow.

Try to focus on the positive


Do you dread spending time with your spouse’s sibling? As much as you can, think about his or her positive traits, Bacigalupe said.

“Identify something you can appreciate about this person,” he said. “Maybe there’s something your partner appreciates about that sibling. You need to talk to your partner about what that is. What is it they like about their brother or sister?”

At the very least, Bacigalupe pointed out that you have someone in common whom you love: your spouse.

All of that said, you don’t need to force a relationship just because you’re connected through your spouse, he said: “You don’t have to be a friend.”

Give the gift of patience

The holidays are a busy time. People are often exhausted from traveling, shopping, cooking, and other rigors of the season. This can add more stress to an already strained situation, Bacigalupe said, and it helps to be aware of that.

“Maybe the best gift to others is not an Amazon certificate, but maybe being twice as patient,” he said. “Or sort of raising your ability to not be bothered by something you always know is going to happen.”

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