Help me figure out how to get along.
April 28, 2011 4:52 PM   Subscribe

Help me make the most of a beach vacation with my future in-laws.

6 months ago, my fiance and I agreed to join most of his family on a week-long beach vacation this spring. The trip is rapidly approaching (2 weeks away!), and I find that I'm getting less and less excited about it.

There will be a total of 8 people going on the trip: we'll be joining my future father-in-law (Jim), Jim's mother Ruth, and my fiance's two younger sisters (Sarah and Alexis), plus Alexis's husband Brian and their 8-year-old son. We're renting a four-bedroom house on the water in a remote area with not much to see/do nearby. For Jim, Sarah, Alexis and Brian, renting a house in this area each May has become an annual tradition. My fiance hasn't joined them before, and this is the first year I've been invited.

Jim has a very strong personality and likes to have everything “just so”. I respect him a lot and I wouldn't say there's any hostility between us, but our relationship is a bit strained because we don't have a lot in common, and because I'm extremely shy/reserved. Still, we're very polite to each other.

From what Sarah and Alexis have been telling me over the past few weeks (in an attempt to get me stoked, because they're both super excited), it sounds like Jim is very much in charge of the whole family's schedule during the annual beach trip, and a lot of the stuff he finds enjoyable doesn't make for such a good vacation in my eyes. Some of these vacation traditions seem really rigid and un-fun to me: for instance, Jim wakes everyone up at 6AM to have a cigarette on the porch (I don't smoke), everyone eats breakfast and lunch at the same diner every day (I have celiac disease, which really limits my options when it comes to restaurants), and Jim has the family convene to watch reality television at a specific time each evening. Jim isn't used to having anyone suggest changes to the schedule, and I know from experience that he tends to get annoyed/offended if people try to opt out of things he's planned.

I suffer from OCD and social anxiety, and I spend a LOT of time obsessing over making a good impression on people, making sure I don't commit any social faux pas, and most importantly, making sure I don't do anything that “rocks the boat”. I'm working on these problems in therapy, but in the meantime I feel like I should focus on coming up with ways to cope and keep myself reasonably calm and entertained on the trip, rather than working on asserting myself.

Some things I've considered:
- bringing a book to read during reality TV marathons and the like (this would almost definitely seem rude, since no one in the family reads for fun, and they see it as a boring/elitist/snobby activity)
- becoming the unofficial vacation photographer
- volunteering to babysit/entertain Alexis's son
- cultivating a sudden, intense interest in fishing or kayaking.

I'd love to hear some other suggestions for how I can make the best of this situation and minimize any discomfort.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'd definitely bring a stack of books to read. Frame it as your fun 'beach reading'. Heck, bring romance novels and thrillers if it gets you off the hook. You could also teach yourself to know so you'll have something to do watching tv.

As for 6 am wake up calls, I suggest being a total bitch if anybody wakes you up at that ungodly hour. Just refuse to get out of bed. Moan. Grumble. Throw your slippers. Do this a couple of days in a row and they will stop bothering you. Once you wake up, smile sweetly and apologize. You just can't control yourself when you haven't had your coffee/beauty sleep! Getting out of meals - start training for a marathon. That will give you a perfect excuse to get out of the house for long stretches, and eat a picky diet.
posted by bq at 5:16 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you're planning on marrying into this family, your fiance is going to have to step up and help you deal with his family. I know that we're only getting one side of the story from you, but it does sound as though your future father-in-law is very controlling, and part of your fiance's job is to protect you and your growing family from any problems that his family is contributing to. If I were you, I'd talk with him right now about how you'd like to handle these situations and what you need him to do if his family gives you a hard time. You shouldn't have to fight with his father. If there's going to be a fight, let him be the one to have it for you.
posted by decathecting at 5:19 PM on April 28, 2011 [10 favorites]

I suggest that you talk up how excited you are to finally get a chance to relax and catch up on your reading so that from the beginning it's framed as "anon is looking forward to reading" and not as "anon is reading to get away from us/our activities."

I strongly second the suggestion that your fiance should run interference for you. He knows his family best, and he can take heat off you at minimal cost to himself.

Maybe the two of you can plan some "just us" activities like romantic breakfasts or walks on the beach?
posted by prefpara at 5:24 PM on April 28, 2011

You say you worry about social faux pas. Something to keep in mind: Jim doesn't. I mean, you could probably offend him in some way (by refusing the 6am cigarette, by not being able to eat the diner food, by not wanting to watch TV) but it wouldn't be because you committed a social faux pas--and he certainly isn't worrying about being polite or nice to his guests.

I have some family members whose vacations were ruled, for years, by a patriarch who liked things "just so." Somehow those vacations were always in a remote area where he could have even more control. I'm going to strongly recommend that you cancel the trip--conjure a crisis at work, or get sick, or come up with a cousin's wedding you have to attend so you can't take the vacation time right now. I suggest you cancel because there's just no good, healthy way to deal with people like Jim when you have no escape hatch. See him for holidays or family events in non-remote areas, for shorter amounts of time. Don't create a situation that will only either exacerbate the tension with your future in-laws or make you crazy (or both).

Alternatively, make a very, very clear plan with your fiance and have him communicate with his father: you will not be waking up at 6am to watch Jim smoke cigarettes and that is ok, you will attend some family breakfasts but not all (because you can't eat at the diner) and that is ok, etc. The only way this trip will be tolerable is if you and your fiance are on the same page about what is and isn't a reasonable expectation.
posted by Meg_Murry at 5:25 PM on April 28, 2011 [11 favorites]

1. What is negotiable? What is not? Example, you can probably suck it up and watch reality TV for a little while.

2. Fiance needs to go to bat for you with non-negotiable stuff.

3. "No, thank you, I think I'll X" is a good phrase.

4. At the same time, respect your fiance's family has their own customs and try to go along if possible.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:33 PM on April 28, 2011

(wow - I kinda hope you changed the names of everyone involved. If not, maybe contact the mods so you can amend that?)

I want to be kind here, but I'm not sure how to say this nicely. Umm, it seems very much like you are approaching this from the wrong perspective and have decided this will go badly before you get there.

Try and see this as an (possibly difficult at times) adventure you undertake for your fiance's sake. Try and look at this not as your vacation, but as an investment in your husband-to-be's family harmony. Be selfless about the whole thing. It's ok to be out of your comfort zone once in a while.

If you can't manage this, then come up with a plausible excuse and don't go.

(I'm assuming that as an adult, you can manage the restaurant issue just fine as you've had to do this many many times in your life up to this point. The reality show thing is easy - think of it as a study in cultural anthropology or something similarly privately amusing. The cigarette part sucks, but being outside either on or near the beach in the early am is rockin', plus, it's not your vacation so try and make the best of that. Again, if you feel your anxiety or whatever is going to rear up and cause a conflict on this trip - don't go!)

Upon Preview - Meg Murray makes some great points and you could try that route.

I'm definitely seeing this from the perspective of "family obligation" not as a joint vacation attended by equals. YMMV.
posted by jbenben at 5:35 PM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yes, your dude needs to run interference. They've got to get used to you, just as much as you've got to get used to them. Which leads me to...

Is there anything you can give on? Cigarette? No. But get up and sit with them at dawn. Diner? There has got to be *something* a Celiac can eat - even if it's a chicken breast. Reality tv? I think you can tough it through. I'm also sure you and fiancé should be able to duck out of a few TV times for a nice walk. Assuming he can stand up for you (both).

Choose your battles, but actually choose them. This relationship, like most, is give and take.

Good luck! Try to have fun!
posted by functionequalsform at 5:40 PM on April 28, 2011

Preview. Yeah!
posted by functionequalsform at 5:42 PM on April 28, 2011

You need to build in and plan for ways to get time alone. Walks with your fiance, walks alone, naps, "phone calls" that you take in private, need to check in with work, you name it. I hear you on hating reality shows. Bring magazines and newspapers - for some reason, this is seen as less elitist when you're flipping through a magazine while the tv is on - and follow along enough to copy the general reaction, laugh when they do, maybe comment on a ridiculous commercial, etc. And heck, be the first one to volunteer to make snacks or ask who else wants one when you go get a drink - and then you just take your own sweet time.

Just be quietly and politely firm, but do give the things that aren't completely horrid (smoking, food that'll make you ill) a try. It's not forever, and you might surprise yourself by having fun.
posted by lemniskate at 5:45 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

After re-reading your question I wanted to add...

It's really GOOD that you and your man have been invited to this!

Focus on this first-time invitation as the positive sign of acceptance it is every time you start ruminating in the negative and psyching yourself. I mean, these folks do this every year - right? So it must be fun, otherwise, they wouldn't keep going!

Don't be your worst enemy here, OK? You can do this! This is your family now, too.
posted by jbenben at 5:54 PM on April 28, 2011

Pick 1-2 things each day that you won't do and rotate them throughout the week. That way it won't be snobbish.

Also, this sounds like a horrible time. You have my sincere condolences for what it's worth.
posted by milarepa at 5:58 PM on April 28, 2011

The 8 year old isn't likely to smoke, so you're hardly alone. Rather than try to figure out how you can bear the enforced rituals, I'd suggest that you think about how you can enhance the vacation for everyone else. Play games with the kid, do girl stuff with the younger sisters, offer to help with everything and anything. Take pictures, flykites, offer to make your secret recipe cocktail, etc. Let everyone leave rejoicing that your fiance finally found the perfect mate.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:59 PM on April 28, 2011

Do you have a killer guacamole / chip dip / snack you can make as soon as you get there? Being able to conjure something small but delightful goes a long way towards gaining goodwill and making up for a multitude of perceived social sins. Guacamole, sparklers, little glowsticks, bananagrams (!!), those ridiculous s'mores roasting sticks that turn with a little button on the handle - bringing something small to the party that makes people feel like you're at least "game" for being a part of the family in your own way.
posted by sestaaak at 6:00 PM on April 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

it must be fun, otherwise, they wouldn't keep going!

My experience with (some) family traditions suggests otherwise. Strongly.

I do think that jbenben's suggestion of trying to have a positive attitude is a good counter to my doom and gloom about standing firm against a controlling patriarch. But I think that it's important to create healthy boundaries with in-laws (or any family members). It sounds like you've been warned in advance that the cigarette/diner/TV schedule is sacrosanct, and you "know from experience that he tends to get annoyed/offended if people try to opt out of things he's planned." What's your fiance's take on his dad's, uh, quirks? From your question, it sounds like he either thinks his dad's approach to family time is normal or puts up with his dad's behavior to avoid conflict. You and he need to work out your shared expectations now.

You are building your relationship with the family right now. Definitely don't go into a family vacation with a sour attitude, but you should feel empowered to stick up for yourself. Personally, I would cancel in favor of attending a different, more manageable family event another time. If you want to go, you and your fiance need figure out how to make the best of the trip together.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:12 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

It occurs to me that the schedule might not be quite as tight now that the group is bigger....I mean, up till now it was a limited bunch of family that went. Maybe it won't be quite as regimented as you think.

(ps-altho I don't smoke either, 6 am at the beach with a cup of coffee sounds kinda nice.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:18 PM on April 28, 2011

I would plan a set of "outs" to take with you, with the hopeful expectation that you won't need them and will actually enjoy getting to know the family and study their family dynamics. You can say you're starting the C25K program, which will buy you at least half an hour every morning and evening for a "workout" on the beach. You can take all the supplies to teach yourself how to knit or needlepoint. You can take some elaborate recipes that fit into your diet and spend an evening (or two) cooking for the family. Take a good, long book and say it's for your book club and you MUST finish it this week. And entertaining the kid will always be welcomed. My kids always enjoyed creating their own t-shirt souvenirs, so you could pack the stuff to do that (white shirt, fabric paint, tie-dye), or another crafty project that would take up an afternoon. So come up with a few things that you would really like to spend time doing on your vacation, and create a strong reason for doing them just in case you get a push-back. And you can drop them if you end up enjoying the family time.
posted by raisingsand at 6:27 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't stress about the diner thing. Be firm but in a happy tone, "Can't. celiac disease. No way I'm ruining everyone else's fun by mistakenly eating the wrong things. Too risky. But y'all have fun!" (maybe explain to them exactly what those risks are, how serious it is)
Seriously, no one can blame you for a disease you have. Unless the guy's a nut, you should be fine.
Setting boundaries is a very good thing (essential with in-laws). But the way in which you set those boundaries can still be done in a nice (but firm and effective) way.

Maybe while they're gone you can cook or bake something that you can all enjoy together.

I also recommend bringing seemingly fun books. No serious politics or heavy non-fictions books (or if you do, keep them in the bedroom at first). The fun books should also give you something to talk about (OMG, this book is so funny/thrilling/girly/etc because of a, b, and c. I'll lend it to you if you want). Every so often laugh with them during the reality tv shows, that way you're still kinda "there with them" but doing your own thing.

btw, do you knit? cross-stitch? crochet? You can do those too. If you don't, you can get cross-stitching kits with complete instructions and supplies at any hobby lobby, michael's, joanne's or other craft stores.

You do NOT have to get up at 6am. If you are morning person, then fine, drop that battle and go drink coffee at 6am on the porch. But if you are like me and the mere thought of waking up that early for no good reason makes you want to puke, then just: Say no. Roll over in bed. Continue sleeping (or pretend to until you actually fall back asleep). That is a boundary that no one dares crossing with me. [I lie. I let someone do that to me once, so I could eat they're oh-so-amazing breakfast. Their breakfast sucked. Years later and I still resent those bastards.]
posted by Neekee at 6:33 PM on April 28, 2011

I'm with jbenben, I think you're looking at this all wrong.

All long-term relationships require sacrifice, and in most relationships that is especially true when family is concerned. Yes, your fiance should be running interference, but it will hardly make things easier on him if you're constantly scowling or making excuses: it reflects poorly on him if he brings the downer, and it makes it harder for him to have a good time if he's being constantly reminded that you're not having a good time.

If I were you I'd have your fiance do some legwork and find out what is and isn't going to make things weird if you don't participate. But really, none of these things are a big deal (aside from the cigarette, and really I'd be shocked if anyone forced you to have a smoke): it won't kill you to watch the sun rise, even if you're not a morning person; you can eat before you go to the diner and have a coffee while you're there; you can suffer through the reality TV with your fiance, because suffering relatives is what committed couples do. Sneak away with him when you can.

Refusing to participate pits your fiance against his family, and that's not fair of you to do over some pretty trivial things. I'd suggest you try to make the best of it with the family, rather than by getting away from them. You'd be seriously surprised how the right attitude can change things. Besides: what do you have to gain by hiding in a corner and stewing?

Lest I sound like I don't know what I'm talking about, my ex-in-laws were unbelievably trying. I could write a book. I've been there. I still made the effort, because that's what this "in good times and in bad" thing is all about.
posted by AV at 7:16 PM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

These rituals sound to me like "we're going to do all kinds of silly and bad-for-you things, together." I think you might try to get into the spirit of it. Go to the diner and order a plate of just bacon, or of green beans and Brussels sprouts. Maybe do that same thing with them every day. I hear ya: as someone who gets nervous about social stuff, I'd worry about "what if there's nothing I can eat? what if at 6 am, I have nothing to say and hate it but don't know how to say no?" but don't worry, just be yourself there with them. Bring the celiac version of lunchables to the diner if necessary. I could see "...and every day, Mary brought her own can of sardines!" being embraced just as wholeheartedly if you do it in a big-hearted laugh-at-yourself way. As someone above said, the fact that they want you there is a good sign, and I'd find a way to be yourself within the spirit of the vacation.
posted by salvia at 7:29 PM on April 28, 2011

You're an anxious OCD-type person, and you're going on a yearly ritual vacation that's been meticulously planned, where you'll know exactly what's expected of you at all times. That doesn't sound too bad, does it? The whole thing has a kind of military vibe about it: early wake-up calls, forced togetherness, remoteness from the rest of civilization, adventures, a sergeant in charge, etc. Honestly, it sounds kind of cool to me.

I don't know if he's really controlling or not, but it seems like Jim is mostly trying to create the kind of intimacy and bonding that born of shared experiences: you wake up at an ungodly hour and feel like shit together, you eat together, you have fun together, you're bored witless by reality TV together. If you try to optimize your personal entertainment, it will surely send the message that you aren't interested in connecting with them like that. If that's true, then don't go.

But if you do want that, it's really not as hard to make this work as you think. You don't have to put your own experiences aside and pretend to have fun, you can have whatever experience you're having, just make it clear that you're 100% committed to being part of the team no matter what. One easy way of doing that without even needing to talk to anyone is to make yourself useful. Dealing with celiac is also pretty straightforward, you just go to the sergeant and let him know that you're committed to being part of the platoon, and you don't want to put the mission at risk by ending up in the medic tent. Or something along those lines. A good sergeant takes care of his troops.
posted by AlsoMike at 7:58 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bailing on the trip is a worthless idea (I know it wasn't yours), because these people will be your family, soon, and you have to learn how to deal with them.

By the same token, they have to learn how to deal with you. And you should start "training" them now about the things that you need to have "just so." You don't do that in a belligerent or grouchy way, of course; but you need to be forthright about who you are, and they have to accept that.

Parts of this you can handle, and parts your fiance will need to handle (and I mean this is his JOB, it's not negotiable).

SO. The getting up at 6am issue: Your fiance handles this. Explains that you're wiped out from work or whatever, need some extra sleep because it IS vacation after all, case closed. What's your future FIL going to do, come personally roust you out of bed? (Getting up at 6 on vacation is nice for some, but as a requirement, it's RIDICULOUS.)

Reading during a reality TV show. Are you kidding me? This one you handle on your own, and you just READ. Anyone who thinks that reading is elitist (reading on vacation is elitist??) should not be taken seriously. Sure, look up from your book and join in the not-so-fun now and then. But come on, reading is a classic vacation activity. Stand up for yourself on this one. You might end up the "weirdo bookworm" in the family, but they'll deal. If you like reading better than TV, they ought to know this, and sooner will be less awkward than later.

Diner food... on this one I think you can compromise, and your fiance and you should work together to decide how. You can go some days, and eat whatever is possible for you, and stay home others with your straightforward medical explanation that there just is nothing much there that you're able to eat. Your fiance can give the explanation if you feel uncomfortable; again, it's his primary job at this point to make you comfortable, not his family.

And obviously none of this should be done with a sour attitude! And you shouldn't go into the vacation expecting problems; you should go in thinking this will be fun, plus a learning experience about your fiance's family, and that you will participate in lots of family stuff but there may be a few areas where you decline in a friendly but non-negotiable way.

Here's one more thing. Blood family may well be willing to go along with the dad's quirks, but there is no way they can, or are likely to, expect an in-law to fall right in line. Go ahead and establish now that you are your own person. Your fiance will back you up, or you shouldn't be marrying him. You'll be fine, you can do this, and have fun too.

[Note: I've had about 17 years of negotiating in-law relationships, and if it sounds like I have strong feelings--I do. I think those ties with new relations should be deeply respected, and I also think the individuality of those tying the knot ought to be held in equal understanding and respect.]
posted by torticat at 10:07 PM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

My husband deals with long-weekend trips to visit my family by looking at it as an opportunity to read. Whenever we transition to a new group of people/new activity he'll politely make conversation for a bit, then when the focus is off him he will pull out his book and sit there amongst everyone and read.

Yes, my family has made comments... "he sure likes to read, doesn't he?" and the like. But he just nods and smiles, and over the years my family has just gotten used to him. The trick is, he doesn't care too awful much whether they like him or not. (And he's managed to be friendly enough that they like him just fine now, even if they thought him a bit standoffish at first.)

I love and adore my in-laws and really enjoy spending time with them; but my mother-in-law is a relentlessly energetic extrovert, and there usually comes a point in all the non-stop interaction and activities when I am just utterly spent. If everyone else is sitting down to play a game or watch TV or heading off to some minor outing, sometimes I'll beg off by announcing that "I'm soooo tired, I'm going to go lie down for awhile." Then I nap or read until I feel refreshed and ready to get back to the party.

I agree with those who are saying that visits to your spouse's family are a part of married life, and while they are usually not what you'd choose to do on vacation, you go along and get along as much as possible as a gift of love to your spouse. Participate as much as you can, but push back when you need to. Unless they are total asshats, they will learn to live with your "eccentricities", especially if you are sweet and polite and accomodating in as many ways as you can manage.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 10:11 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

By the same token, they have to learn how to deal with you. And you should start "training" them now about the things that you need to have "just so."

OMG, yes, absolutely this. That is the heart and soul of getting people to respect your personal boundaries.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 10:14 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

At the very LEAST, they are going to have to come to some sort of agreement with you about the food thing. That's absolutely not negotiable for you to cave in on that one no matter how much you might want to. Jim cannot have his way 100% on that if you go, period.

My suggestion on this trip would be to choose one battle to fight and let it be the food one. Put up with the reality TV, hide in the back with a book and sneak reading if you have to. Maybe fight the cigarette battle or not, depending on how much you can deal with smoke. Don't choose everything to fight on. To some degree you have to cave in to family culture, and to some degree you absolutely can't do it whatsoever. I would say in this situation to cave where you can stand to, and fight the battles where you have to. Maybe Jim will get used to things being not so so and it won't be so bad next time. Or not. But at the very least, you can't always eat at the same gluten-filled diner, so that will have to be dealt with whether he can stand it or not. Or at least, I'm assuming it won't be "just so" if you are massively sick all vacation due to it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:23 PM on April 28, 2011

I think there are compromises to be made here, and you'll need your fiancé on board with you.

Your fiance should explain to his parents that this is a vacation for the two of you as well, and that you'll want some time alone together. So you won't be doing the 6am wake-up call, and there'll be occasions when you'll want to spend time together during the day, just the two of you, so you can duck out of some of the diner meals. I'd guess there'll be something on a diner menu you can eat, though. But the food isn't the point of the diner, it's the shared experience that's important to your future f-i-l, and so I'd say bite the bullet and join in with that experience as often as you can.

As for the reality TV, you know, it won't kill you to watch an hour or two of TV and, again, with your fiancé's backing, you can both use this as an excuse for some time together - watch one show and then make your excuses and leave - together.

Once when I was in Ohio staying with my fiancé, his mum asked me to go to a church social with her. It was a pot luck supper and then music. She really wanted to go, and over the past few months had asked just about every family member to go with her whenever this event came up, but nobody was interested.

Anyway, I thought, well, I'm a guest, it's not going to kill me to spend an evening with my future mother-in-law, although I really wasn't keen on the church aspect of it. So, armed with some home-made sausage rolls, off we went to the pot luck. Daisy really enjoyed introducing me to her church friends, I had the same conversation about twenty times, along the lines of "Have you ever met the Queen" from the elderly ladies and "So what's the price of gas in the UK?" from the old geezers.

And the music! The music!! It was pure roots bluegrass. These weren't professional musicians, just these old country boys who'd been singing these songs and playing the banjo, guitar, fiddle and mandolin all their lives. It was awesome.

So, what I'm saying is that sometimes, when you're doing something for the greater good, it might just turn out to be fun after all.

But even if it isn't fun, keep a smile on your face, and make sure the vacation doesn't end with his family all thinking you're a whiny bitch and what the hell is their son/brother thinking in wanting to marry you.
posted by essexjan at 1:15 AM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, hi, me! Don’t cancel this vacation. That’s terrible advice, and it sets you up for a future of avoiding your in-laws instead of learning to deal with them, in all their eccentric nutty glory. God love ‘em. Here’s what my husband and I do:

Your fiancé needs to go to bat for you. This can be as simple as laying down the law about your dietary restrictions. You should never have to explain, because he should lay down the groundwork before you even arrive at this beach vacation. He also needs to enforce your couple time. You should never have to remind everyone that you deserve time along w/ your beloved. That’s his job with his family, and your job with yours.

Be a good sport. My in-laws know that I will smile and nod and happily go along with them no matter how crazy I think they are, right up to The Line. For me, it’s misogyny, being forced to eat food that will make me sick, and peer pressure about drinking. Shit in the woods? Sleep on the floor? Get up and 5 in the morning to help cook? Watch hours of mindless television without picking up a book? Bow and scrape to the family elders? Hey, that’s cool. Make fun of me because I won’t take shots of moonshine? Go fuck yourselves.

Be proactive in making plans with your finance before you leave, and inform the rest of the family. “On Tuesday and Thursday, my darling fiancée and I will be taking a nature walk instead of watching TV. We’ll be back by 10 to catch the last episode before bed with you guys, so we can all talk about it at breakfast tomorrow.” “We normally eat lunch together as a couple on Wednesday, so for just this one meal, we’re going to pack a picnic.” “Oh, we don’t smoke, but we would love to get-up early and have a cup of tea to celebrate your future lung cancer enjoy the peaceful morning air with y’all.”

Throw yourself into their family life. If you spend your time asking everyone for family stories (especially Jim) and really listening, you’ll learn a lot about what has shaped them to be the way they are, particularly since you find their regimented vacations so foreign.

Good luck! You’ll have more fun if you look at this as a way to get to know your new family, than as a week of torture.
posted by asnowballschance at 1:39 AM on April 29, 2011

I'm going to pop back in one more time to defend my suggestion of canceling as not worthless or terrible: it's not about avoiding your in-laws, it's about managing your time spent with them. It's about wisely choosing the contexts in which you spend time with them. I'm merely suggesting that the remote cabin may not be a good context for a visit with your in-laws.
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:11 AM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

You have potential allies in Sarah and Alexis. As they try to get you stoked, that's your chance to get them on your side. "Do you know the diner's menu? I can't eat a lot of things and this seems really important to Jim." "I don't smoke - is that going to be a problem? I hope not!" "I really want to get to know all of you better, could you help me by giving me some hints/signals/backup, just in case I start to get lost?" "I really wanted to make a picnic lunch for everyone - would it be okay to skip the diner?"

If your fiance is going to bat for you, plus Sarah and Alexis are also at least sympathetic to your needs, while all the while you are trying to play along within the boundaries of your abilities, then Jim really won't have much to say.

Still, you could buy him a box of cigars with a note "I'm not good company before 7:30am, so please think of me when you smoke these, early risers!"
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:05 AM on April 29, 2011

My fiance hasn't joined them before

I'm curious about this, why hasn't he joined them previously?

I think this is the kind of situation that your own family background shapes your reaction to. I personally would rather have bamboo sticks shoved under my fingernails than go on a vacation with almost any member of my family, especially several of them together.

I have to say that anyone who tried to wake me up at 6AM on a vacation would be met with violence no matter how good of an impression I was concerned about making.

I think that in the future, it's okay to say no to large family vacations led by your father in law.
posted by crankylex at 6:31 AM on April 29, 2011

Lots of good suggestions about the activities. About the diner though - you'll have to make that one crystal clear - once you've scoped it out if it's the kind of place where cross contamination is going to be likely and they're clueless you have to just explain and your fiancé has to help you on this one - the consequences of getting glutened are just too dire and if you're going to be part of this family they need to accommodate your entirely necessary food needs. That one seems utterly non-negotiable to me (mother of a kid with celiac, sister-in-law and aunt to others). You could eat first and come drink coffee with them sometimes if that seems workable for you but really - our family would NEVER plan a meal out at a place where someone couldn't eat safely.

Personally the getting everyone up at 6am for a cigarette is pretty weird too. I agree with people who say you should carve out a little couple time - go for some long walks. This trip is about making family connections though so watch the stupid reality tv - bring some crafting if you do that or a book. Some of this is definitely going to be awkward and you certainly want to be as charming and accommodating on the things you can without yielding where your health dictates. Good luck!
posted by leslies at 6:40 AM on April 29, 2011

From the OP:
Thank you all so much, these answers have been extraordinarily helpful. I'm especially grateful for answers like jbenben's, which helped me realize that I've been approaching this vacation with a selfish, defeatist attitude. Also, I think St. Alia made a great point – it makes total sense that bringing three new people along on the trip this year might make the whole atmosphere a lot more relaxed from the get-go.

Someone asked why my fiance hasn't tagged along on the trip before. He has been invited every year, but he usually declines because he's not a big fan of the beach, and because he's quite introverted/anxious himself. The idea of being in a secluded house with several loud, opinionated people makes him kinda nervous, even though they're his relatives whom he loves very much. His lack of excitement about the whole situation has probably been influencing my doom-and-gloom attitude.

After reading all of your excellent advice, I have decided to:
- bring crocheting supplies, a kite, a couple of board games that the family will enjoy, and a fluffy novel or two
- pick my battles. I can absolutely deal with getting up early, and with watching TV shows that aren't my favorite, but I need to start asserting myself when it comes to making sure I don't eat anything that will make me sick. (Plus, I'm a really good cook, and my dietary restrictions will serve as a good excuse to make a few meals for the group.)
- sit down with my fiance this weekend and plan a couple of activities we'd like to do where it will just be the two of us.
- buy a couple of nice bottles of booze – one as a host gift for Jim, and one to share with all the adults in the house
- keep reminding myself that if something is making me truly uncomfortable/unhappy, I'm an adult with the power to handle it gracefully by politely excusing myself or asserting myself.

I feel so much better about things already.
posted by jessamyn at 10:34 AM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

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