How to survive the in-laws

Getting on with your partner's family can often be the biggest challenge and especially at Christmas - here are some pointers on how to overcome problems

A recent survey found that over 60% of wives felt that friction between them and their mother-in-law had caused them long-term stress. Although we can choose our friends we can't choose our family and many of us struggle to get along with everyone.

So, if you're having problems with your in-laws read our expert tips on the flashpoints you might face and how to defuse any potential conflict.

The most common complaint from daughters-in-law is that the mother-in-law criticises the way she has bought up the children, the state of the housework and the décor in the house. In fact, nothing they do is right.

How to defuse the situation Remember that there are a couple of reasons for this. Often the mother feels pushed out and vulnerable in her relationship with her son because now he has new priorities. Sometimes this sort of criticism is a result of cultural or generational differences, you may hear, 'In my day we did it like this...'

Gladeana McMahon, counsellor and life coach and author of Confidence Works: Learn to be Your Own Life Coach (Overcoming common problems), says: 'Don't take what they say personally, otherwise you'll end up feeling bad about yourself and frustrated. Critical people want recognition and instead of going about it in the normal way they try to get attention through their criticism. See them as needy people. Keep a friendly outward manner and listen to what they say in a non-defensive way (remember, it's not about you, it's about them!).

'A good way of dealing with critics is to agree with them - it really throws them. When mum-in-law tells you that your potatoes could have been cooked a little longer say, " could be right". This is a technique called 'deflection' and is used to confuse the other person. She wants you to retaliate and when you don't she usually gives up.'

Pre-empt what you think she might say but don't come back with a snappy or bitchy put-down instead think of something you could say that reassures her. For example, if she complains that the house is very dusty, say that you appreciate her concern and that you'd love some help. She might volunteer to help you with the housework or encourage your partner to do more around the house.

Flashpoint: They're stuck in their ways

Sometimes it seems as if the in-laws are living in a different century and you have nothing in common.

How to defuse the situation The best thing to do is to have a plan. When you know that you'll be spending time with them plan some activities that you can all do and enjoy, maybe a film, a visit to a park or zoo. Think about a few topics that everyone can talk about, such as what's on TV, what the kids are doing at school or your favourite foods.

Alison Kerry from mental health charity Mind, says: 'Take a hike! A walk around a local park has been proven to reduce stress and lift mood. You can use it as an opportunity to spend some time alone or you can bring the family along to enjoy some quality time away from the television.'

It's very tempting to spice things up with booze but this'll do more harm than good and could lead to people drinking too much and arguing.

Flashpoint: They try to parent my children

This can be one of the most infuriating habits mothers-in-law have and is very difficult to deal with.

How to defuse the situation First of all speak to your partner about this and promise to support each other in whatever decision you come to.

Think about exactly what you want to say. For example, 'When you shout at the kids for playing with their food, it upsets them and it hurts us.' But surround this sentence with lots of compliments, so they can't get angry or offended by what you're saying. So, for example, 'The kids love being with you and we really like having you over for lunch but when you shout at them for playing with their food, it upsets them and it hurts us. So can we work out a way for us all to help the kids eat properly?'

Flashpoint: Nothing I do is good enough for them

Does it seem like everything you do is wrong? Even when you try to do things their way, they still don't like it. This is one of the games adults play when they feel threatened or insecure.

How to defuse the situation Try not to show them that their constant disapproval is getting to you - if they know that then they'll believe their behaviour is working.

You need to remember that in most cases this sort of behaviour is because the relative feels threatened. Their fear might be that they've lost their son/daughter, or that their son/daughter will feel differently about them now that they've got a partner.

Confront your in-laws with your concerns but do it at a time when you're calm, not straight after the event. Gladeana McMahon recommends speaking to the person before they visit. 'Tell the person what you like about them - "you are such good fun and the kids love you" - this shows that you do appreciate their positive side.

'The next step is to point out the behaviour that you and others find difficult - "I've noticed that we never seem to be able to do things that totally please you, however hard we try and this can be upsetting". Be clear and direct. If the individual makes a fuss, breathe deeply and look as relaxed as possible while you repeat what you've said.

'If the person becomes defensive and starts using a guilt trip by threatening not to see you again, let them know that they will be missed but that's their choice.

'The important thing is that, if you don't set any boundaries around someone else's behaviour you are giving them the message that this behaviour is acceptable.'

Flashpoint: They overstay their welcome

Some people never get the hint do they? Even if you love having people over there comes a time when you want to go to bed or you just want time to yourself, but getting rid of people politely can be tricky, especially if they are your relatives.

How to defuse the situation Being tactful and diplomatic is key. You could warn your guests beforehand that you have an early morning the next day and will want to finish at a reasonable time. Or when you feel ready to call it a night you can ask if anyone fancies a final cup of coffee or tea before home time/bed. They usually get the hint.

Flashpoint: They don't help out

Of course, you don't expect your guests to help clean up or tidy but sometimes in-laws can take things too far, such as dropping something on the floor and not picking it up, or being very demanding and difficult.

How to defuse the situation As annoying as it is, you may have to grit your teeth and prepare for this sort of behaviour. You know what to expect and there's only so much you can do without being rude or causing an argument. This might be an occasion where your partner has to have a private word - but be very careful, often criticising your partner's family can cause rows between you.

More help and advice

. - Do you know how to argue properly? - We've got the secrets to a good marriage - Are you a good friend? - How has married life changed over the years

Need to talk to someone? Contact Mind

When someone is argumentative Some people just love arguing - it's how they are. The reasons could be pure stubborness, feelings of resentment or a general deep-rooted anger at the world and feeling hard done by. There could be lots of reasons but the key is to try and calm the situation and resolve the problematic issues.

How to diffuse arguments First of all don't argue back, if you do then you'll be playing into their hands.

Try and find the common ground, something that both parties can understand and agree on, then see if a mutual compromise can be made on a given issue.

During special occasions such as birthdays and Christmas be careful with how much alcohol you serve them, as this can fuel anger and arguments.

Prepare yourself for trouble at any time You can never tell when argumentative family members will cause problems but try to react calmly and ignore it wherever possible. It might help to have a few lines to stop this person in their tracks, such as 'I'm sorry you feel that way' or 'let's talk about this rationally' - this normally helps.

If they start shouting and you have to quieten them down, try speaking slowly and in a soft, low tone. This will calm them down a little and may even give you a chance to have a conversation about whatever the issue is.

Take a break During heated situations it might be best to separate whoever is arguing and take some time to cool off. Usually when everyone returns they are a little more clear-headed and less likely to argue.

Alison Kerry says: 'Find a listening ear - if family feuding is a problem, then find a friend that you can turn to. Talking through issues with a good friend is a great chance to let off some steam.'

'Try not to take it all too seriously - they don't say 'laughter is the best form of medicine' for nothing. Laughter is known to provide short-term stress relief. Invite the family to play a silly game, look through an old photo album or settle down together to a feel-good film,' she says.

And remember, don't talk about contentious subjects such as religion or politics.


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