Q: The craziest Christmas I’ve had with my mother-in-law. We had my husband’s parents and brothers with us for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and they not only commented on how I raise my kids and how my tree was “too stylish but not too festive”. Looks like he makes his own stuffing, pudding and gravy, though I made it clear that I don’t need anything.
And before you say she’s trying to help, she’s just brought enough for herself and her husband because he “can only eat food with good ingredients”. My husband thinks the whole thing is hilarious, as does his brother, and in a way, I agree. I benefit a lot from telling my friends about him, but it’s getting to the level where I can’t be in the same room as him. How can I get my husband to stop treating my parents as the way I spend the holidays and the decision to stand up for me?
Allison replies: When the Christmas experience feels like a grind, it can leave a memorable impression—and not in a good way. Mother-in-law jokes on our screens on TV tend to be stereotypical because they’re so common because of the relativity factor, however, they do nothing to change the underlying issues, and as the quick laughs fade in, don’t hurt. It seems This is often at the cost of a good relationship between two women, her son and your husband and children.
There is a lot of psychology involved in this complex relationship. There is a sense of power struggle, a sense of judgement, identity and role hopelessness and irrelevance that can step over the mark.
For all those reasons it can easily become a break-up relationship and a common experience between mother-in-law and mother-in-law, which when you think from both the sides, you can appreciate why this is so.
Even though this all makes sense, what’s more important is that you can create boundaries that maintain or at least manage expectations so that there are no major cracks in this tricky triangle.
Humor can really help Sting, and I’m glad you can chat with your friends to get the help you need. When things are as ridiculous as just bringing yourself enough stuffing, pudding and gravy, have a laugh and then give yourself the space to think about how the experience turned out for you.
You can laugh but it still hurts, and it can only feel personal when someone comments on something like your tree because it’s specific to your personal tastes.
I know some people might say not to notice it, but it’s a continuation of pointed comments over the years that can escalate and get worse, which ultimately damages the relationship. Comments on how you cook, decorate and are a parent are about as personal as it gets.
When something is angry, it gets under your skin. It usually takes time and is built on a plethora of comments, stress and unsaid words. The frustration of ‘keeping up’ and swallowing what you really want to say is exhausting. Often offset by past grievances and with Christmas as another catalyst, as you well know, it’s the perfect storm to kick it all off.
Leaving aside the parts you can laugh at, it’s unsolicited advice on your parenting and how you spend your important days like Christmas, Easter, and holidays that require a new response plan.
It’s a difficult dynamic for you, your husband, and your mother-in-law. There are opposing forces, difficulties of position and role. When you’re home alone, you’ll do things your own way and feel like a boundary is being crossed when you’re being told how he’s always done it. Unsolicited advice sounds like it comes from a place of superiority, and it can be hard not to take it as criticism.
One response that is useful in creating a healthy boundary (which will be pushed several times) is, ‘Thanks, that’s an interesting approach’.
Backing away from this, it can be helpful to look at his intentions, no matter how furious he may be. It could be his desire to help, even when he doesn’t feel like it. Try to look at it from his point of view and then kindly say thank you and move on.
The next step is a big conversation with your husband. Tell how you feel and why. Keep it non-personal about your mother but be clear that you have reached your limit. Tell your husband that you’d like to decide together first about how to spend your vacation time.
Ask her what her concerns are and see how it pans out for her. Planning and working on yourself first is a huge step in any relationship and not something everyone does.
Family traditions can leave people on unconscious autopilot of ‘but that’s what we always do’. However, look at this conversation as an opportunity to create your own new traditions, not as another argument.
Be direct and calmly explain your need to stand up for you, even if everyone else seems to be ranting about what’s going on. You are asking her to show your respect, love and appreciation to her mother, which clearly adds to the message of what is and what is not acceptable.
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