How to Break the Ice with In-Laws

The holidays bring families together and that can lead to sticky situations.
Find out how to avoid family feuds and learn to create healthy relationships
with your in laws.

Of all the difficult relational situations you’ll ever face, none takes the cake
like rubbing elbows with the in-laws. Holiday dinners, gift-giving, and even
simple get-togethers can all raise issues bigger than we are. Before you set
off a firestorm of family feuds this holiday season, try implementing a few
in-law enforcement steps to protect your in-laws from becoming out-laws.

This time of year is full of strong feelings and emotional sentiment about
how things should and should not be. An individual, who is usually
reasonable and of sound-mind 364 days of the year, can become ferocious
at the suggestion of a simple change to a Christmas tradition.

LIZ: A girlfriend of mine called me in tears yesterday regarding all the angry
e-mail exchanges among her family members surrounding the topic of,
“what are we going to do for Christmas Eve?” Some people wanted to play
games, others wanted to watch a movie, some family members complained
last year’s program went too long and voted not to read the Christmas story
this year. When the suggestion of food was broached, some wanted potluck,
others wanted a catered dinner, one person even said they hated last year’s
dinner so they didn’t want a “repeat roast of 2010.” Other disagreements
were over the Elephant exchange; “can we just have one for the adults, and
not the kids?, or do we need to continue to have two different exchanges,
one for the adults AND the kids?” The tears and the ideas went on and on.

So right off the bat you suggest that the person who HOSTS decides the


The rest of us get to practice being gracious and kind. Isn’t that wonderful? If
you have tension in your family right now, hooray! You will especially feel the
true spirit of Christmas this weekend because it will be such a contrast to
how you feel right now. As you practice Christmas, whatever that means to
you, you will notice the striking contrast. Without the juxtaposition, the true
meaning might elude you. So take advantage of it; let bygones be bygones;
forgive; be flexible; be kind; be grateful. When it is your turn to host or to be
in charge of the white elephant game, do it your way. But this year, it is not
your turn and the holiday will not be ruined because of the absence of or
adjustment to such tradition.


Avoid this tempting triangle of taking sides. (Ever heard of the Bermuda
Triangle? It’s not good, trust me!) If you are the newest one in the family,
watch out! because others may want you for a team-member to strengthen
their side. One of the e-mails my friend received from her step-mother in-
law was, “You’re not going to believe what so-and- so said about you?” This
can be such a hook if you’re not careful. Remember, emotions run high, this
communication did not come to you directly and could easily have been
misinterpreted along the way; and who among us hasn’t said something in
frustration about each other to each other? The best answer, “Oh, there must
be some misunderstanding because I adore _____. Thank you for telling me
but I’m sure ______ didn’t mean it to come out that way. Everything will work
out and we’ll have a wonderful holiday/party/dinner.”


Model kind, respectful relationships with your extended family members,
including all your variety of in-laws. Even before your children reach the age
of young adulthood, discuss with them your family traditions; which ones
came from generations before, which ones started when you and their father
married, and open the door to discuss what traditions they think they might
want to start in their own families one day. Help them build their own
ornament assortment they will take with them one day for their own holiday
decor. Notice the message it sends: “I want you to grow up and have a family
of your own one day; I trust you to be able to do so. And, I am readying
myself for you to one day leave and live a successful life of your own. That is
why I’m raising you as well as I can. You never were mine for keeps. One day
you will be part of a much larger family and won’t that be wonderful!”

You may remember me telling you about the story of a friend of mine who, in
those ripe teaching moment would say to her son, “Learn to do this for
Barbara. Do it for Barbara…Honey, one day Barbara will love you for it!”
Finally one day he said, “Mom, who in the world is this Barbara?” She replied
saying, “Well, Barbara is just the fictitious name I’ve given to the woman who
will one day indeed by your wife. I’m trying to live right by you and AND by


We can’t perfect what we haven’t practiced. Open up the communication
doors, especially as your teenagers begin to date. Become familiar with the
other parents and their rules, morals, and values; share yours and find
common ground you can agree on. Give your children the opportunity to
build a connection with these other parents; help them practice being
respectful and kind. This sets precedence for building good in-law
connections later on down the road. Practice leads to refinement.

If you are an adult and are dating, question the belief of “it’s best to wait
until we’re really serious before introducing each other to our families.” Do it
sooner than later. Every situation with your dating partner teaches you about
that person’s family-of-origin ~ those family members play a large part of
how that person came to be. Learn all you can. The only time I would
maintain the rule that you wait for personal introductions is when we are
talking about introducing your minor children to your dating prospects. Make
certain that you are serious enough about your dating partner to introduce
them to your children; otherwise, it’s too confusing to children to be
introduced to the ‘flavor-of-the-month.” It makes your dating life seem
cavalier and careless.

Perhaps this is the genesis of everything; there is often a we-against-them
mentality. Is your son good enough for my daughter? And vice-versa? We are
proud of our families, we prefer our own type, we like our own foods, culture,
and traditions. So, the more we practice opening up our arms and enlarging
our hearts and flexing our flexibility muscle, the more refined we will be as
our family grows and blossoms, changes shape, color, texture, style, and
even religious extensions.


Start with the end in mind…..think what you can contribute to game night,
Christmas dinner, or Sunday brunch that will leave any setting better because
you were a part of it (certainly not worse because you were a part of it!) An
easy-going attitude and quick-smile are sure winners when nothing else
comes to mind.

Keep your eyes out for new board games, family activities, questions to ask
your in-laws about their childhoods; stock-pile an arsenal of tools to assist
you in getting to know your partners family. It’s hard to dislike someone is
who genuinely interested in us. Remember your youth! This family was
formed long before you came along; do not “think” your ways are better or
more refined. They may be, but just thinking them so makes them not so!
One of the important steps in being happily married is to be a good in-law.
Start being a better mate today by improving the relationship you have with
your partner’s family. Start somewhere. Start NOW!

A former radio host of Bonneville’s “Dr. Liz Hale Show,” Dr. Liz has become a
household name to many. As Studio 5’s resident shrink, she discusses a wide
variety of hot-topics ranging from sex to stress. (Sometimes all in the same

Dr. Liz is a transplant from Seattle, Washington, although “a few” years ago
was a college co-ed cheering for the Utah State Aggies. While USU football
hasn’t changed through the years, she remains a loyal fan.

Dr. Liz, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, has been in private practice for 12
years specializing in marriage and family relations. She currently serves as a
board member on the Utah Commission on Marriage and is a popular
speaker at their annual conference.

Her greatest joy in life comes from being with her own family and working
with other families along the Wasatch Front at her downtown SLC practice.

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