Surviving In-Laws: Tips for Happy Holidays

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Thanksgiving is just around the corner.

As the days toward the culinary holiday decrease, many will find their anxiety increasing. The traditional turkey and football mean heartfelt family reunions for some, while others may dread the fourth Thursday in November like no other holiday.

One potential stressor for married couples is the emergence of in-laws from the woodwork, especially those whose relationships are usually fraught with conflict. Problems with in-laws are nothing new for those in relationships. According to Fiori et al. (2020), conflict among married couples is often caused by relationships with in-laws. Indeed, hostile in-law relationships undermined relationships (Fiori et al., 2020; Cheraghi et al., 2019).

But these relationships don’t have to be this way. Positive in-law relationships can be a massive source of comfort and can increase relationship quality. That is, if they’re balanced (Fiori et al., 2020).

Couples adept at walking the tightrope while retaining their own “we-ness” emerge from these challenging relationships unscathed or with minimal damage (Cheraghi et al., 2019). Cheraghi et al. (2019) studied Iranian couples, among which in-law relationships were culturally significant to the couple’s success. They found that the teams who maintained their own identity separate from their in-laws while maintaining flexible boundaries with in-laws triumphed.

In the counseling arena, therapists often encourage their patients to “build a boundary around their relationship so that it can develop…” wrote Greif and Woolley (2019). However, these boundaries can only work with an open dialogue and clear speech. Boundary ambiguity, or “not knowing who is in or out of our family or relationship,” can be a considerable risk factor for marital strife and mental health issues such as depression (Boss, 2006, p. 12, as cited by Greif & Wooley, 2019). Ignoring boundaries can also lead to instances where news or knowledge is held back to avoid conflict. For example, Young and DeGroot (2021) found that daughters-in-law withheld information from mothers-in-law in certain instances for these same reasons.

Therefore, having frank, empathetic, and thoughtful conversations with in-laws and your spouse or partner is essential to relationship management. Those who put in the work, and if the parties are amenable, can find that the support and comfort offered by extended families can help support the framework of a successful relationship.

It helps if the work starts at the beginning of the relationship. Scott et al. (2013) looked at marriage rates and causes of divorce and recommended early education programs for couples on subjects such as expectations. Often, couples do not seek help with serious difficulties, which grow more robust as the years progress (Doss et al., 2009a, as cited by Scott et al., 2013).

When problems become overwhelming, there is always help available through therapeutic approaches to healthy relationships. For instance, Breathe Easy Therapy Services offers relationship therapy that can help address these issues when the stress is at its worst. Contact us here for more information.

5 Keys to Surviving Holidays with In-laws

1.) Open and honest communication. Caring and empathetic approaches can mean the difference in relationship management.
2.) Create a feeling of “we-ness” with your partner. A strong foundation can weather many storms.
3.) Take a Break. Removing yourself from stressful situations for a beat can give you breathing room.
4.) Time for new traditions. Create a tradition just for you and your partner.
5.) Address the issue early. If you know the holidays are problematic, try a proactive approach and discuss it with your partner before the holiday when you’re both receptive and open.


Cheraghi, M., Mazaheri, M. A., Motabi, F., Panaghi, L., & Sadeghi, M. S. (2019). Beyond the Couple: A Qualitative Analysis of Successful In‐law Relationships in Iran. Family Process, 58(4), 936–953.
Fiori, K. L., Rauer, A. J., Birditt, K. S., Brown, E., & Orbuch, T. L. (2020). You Aren’t as Close to My Family as You Think: Discordant Perceptions about In-Laws and Risk of Divorce. Research in Human Development, 17(4), 258–273.
Greif, G. L., & Woolley, M. E. (2019). Women and Their Mothers-in-Law: Triangles, Ambiguity, and Relationship Quality. Social Work Research, 43(4), 259–268.
Scott, S. B., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Allen, E. S., & Markman, H. J. (2013). Reasons for Divorce and Recollections of Premarital Intervention: Implications for Improving Relationship Education. Couple & family psychology, 2(2), 131–145.
Young, V. J., & DeGroot, J. M. (2021). Topic avoidance as a boundary management strategy in communication with a mother-in-law. Family Relations, 70(2), 408-421.

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