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Three Tips for Surviving A Family Christmas – And Keeping Your Sanity!

If you’re already breaking out in a sweat at the thought of navigating another family Christmas with the in-laws, these top tips from Dr. Deanna Brann, Clinical Psychotherapist and author of Reluctantly Related Revisited: Breaking Free of the Mother-in-Law/Daughter-in-Law Conflict, could be just what you need to survive…

We’re now in the midst of the holiday season, and if you’re like most people, your anxiety and tension are already in high gear. While most of us do indeed love our families, spending time with them can still be stressful. It’s even more stressful when your wife and mother do not have the best of relationships. The tension that fills the air due to the anticipation of them spending time together can be downright excruciating. And let’s be honest, whether you want to be or not, there is no getting around the fact that you are smack-dab in the middle of it all. 

You hope it will be different. Wouldn’t it be nice if just this once your mother would not make that one comment that leaves your wife fuming or in tears? Wouldn’t it be great if just this once your wife would be willing to spend some holiday time with your family without an argument – for your sake?

It’s funny how we can sometimes convince ourselves that things will be different this year; that this time it’ll be how we imagined it should be, how we have always hoped it will be. And then we pull into the driveway, walk through the door, and reality smacks us right in the face. Norman Rockwell we are not!

How you deal with the dynamic between your mother and your wife during the holidays will not only affect your marriage in that moment, it will also affect your marriage well beyond the holidays. And yes, it will affect your relationship with your mother as well. Although your marriage is your priority, your relationship with your mother is still important none-the-less. The last thing you want is to do something that puts a wedge between you and your wife, but you also don’t want to hurt your mother. She is your mum after all. So let the balancing act begin!

The holiday season is actually a perfect time (you’ll never have a time that is more stress-laden) to rethink how to help create a more relaxed and calming environment with your family so that everyone can walk away feeling good, or at least feeling OK. Instead of dreading the occasion, consider it a perfect opportunity to try something new to make the holiday a win-win for everyone. 

Give these three tips a try and watch your family gathering go from miserable to memorable:

1. Don’t leave your wife to fend for herself

Be with her; help her manoeuvre through the different family members so that if something comes up you’re there to help her through any stressful situation. You can do this in a casual way so that it doesn’t seem artificial or as though you’re hovering. She will feel both supported and loved by you, and your mother will appreciate not being put in a position where the tension between the two of them has the potential to build. 

2. Plan your exit strategy in advance

If you’re the ones visiting your parent’s house, you and your wife should agree in advance how long you want to stay – and then be sure to leave at the predetermined time. If you decide you might want to stay longer than your wife, then take two cars, or let your wife take the car and you get a ride back with another family member. Regardless if your wife leaves alone or the two of you leave together, let the family know as soon as you arrive that your wife (or the two of you) will need to leave at such-and-such a time because of whatever excuse you and your wife agree upon. What if you live out of town? You can still use an exit strategy as long as you and your spouse decide to stay in a hotel or with friends, and not your parents. That way, your wife will always have a safe haven to retreat to, and your mother will be less likely to take it personally when your wife or the two of you leave earlier than everyone else.

3. Create a plan for those inappropriate behavioural moments

If your mother is a person who is not good with boundaries, you and your wife will have a pretty good idea what you can expect from her. After all, you’ve been dealing with this behaviour from your mum long before the holidays, right? You may not know exactly what she will say or do, but you do know she will do or say something. Knowing this gives the two of you a chance to decide in advance how your wife (or you) will handle those moments. Whether the two of you decide to deal with them using humour, deflection, or making sure your mother knows – in advance – what the consequences will be for any inappropriate actions, your wife will not only feel more comfortable knowing how to handle things, but she will also feel that you “get” her concerns about your mother. This will go a long way to strengthening the bond between the two of you. Your mother, on the other hand, will sense a shift in her relationship with your wife, without the need for a big dramatic scene. 

Although holidays often challenge us beyond what we imagined possible, they can also be a time where you can strengthen your relationship with your spouse. These tips will help you show her that spending time with your family does not have to be WWIII, but instead can be a pleasant, uneventful (or should I say drama-free) experience. Have a happy Christmas! 

Dr. Deanna Brann Ph.D. has more than 30 years of experience in the mental health field as a clinical psychotherapist specializing in communication skills, family and interpersonal relationships, and conflict resolution. After running her own private practice for more than 12 years, she spent time later in her career providing business consultation to other private practice professionals in the health care and legal fields. As both a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, her own personal experiences led her to research the subject. Reluctantly Related: Secrets to Getting Along with Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law is her first book on the topic of mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships, with Reluctantly Related Revisited: Breaking Free of the Mother-in-Law/Daughter-in-Law Conflict her second book. Brann holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology, a Master of Science degree in Clinical Psychology and a Ph.D. in Psychobiological Anthropology.

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