Can't we all just get along?
November 22, 2005 9:34 AM   Subscribe

Experience/advice in blending seemingly incompatible families at holiday celebrations?

My husband and I have been married for just over three years, together for 4 1/2. Every Thanksgiving until now, we’ve done the two-household Thanksgiving – I’d cook at our home for my family, then we’d go and visit his. This year, we’re combining everyone at our place, and I was looking for some advice in making things go as smoothly (and as enjoyably for all) as possible.

Our families have been in the same place only three times. Once when his parents met mine prior to the wedding (at a semi-awkward restaurant dinner), once at our rehearsal dinner, and then at the wedding itself. No contact since. Oh, and they’ve only met one of my husband’s two brothers, since one was unavailable for our wedding (more on that in a second).

Some family background – my parents are 60ish, Southern, conservative Republican. My dad is hard-of-hearing (has been all my life, does well with hearing aids, but still has trouble picking up on random comments or side conversations). He’s also a retired high-ranking Army officer and still works for the federal government. I’d say both my parents have a good sense of humor and are kind and personable, though with just three of us in the family, we’re all fairly introverted and are used to family events being subdued and, dare I say, dignified.  I’m also pretty sure they’ve never dealt with anyone quite like my in-laws.

My husband’s family are the wild ones. His youngest brother is 21, pretty well-adjusted and successful. The other is 23 and was recently sprung from prison after serving a couple of sentences for drug/weapons charges. He’s a known heroin addict (on methadone now) and has no impulse control. He’s not a mean or nasty person, but has been known to make some pretty shocking comments, moon people, and engage in similarly pleasant behaviors. Mainly, I’d describe him as having the behaviors, attitudes, and conversational patterns of a very wild 12-year-old. His girlfriend, whom I don’t know that well, will also be attending. My father-in-law was recently released from a hospital after his second stay following a nervous breakdown. He is also a drug abuser and hasn’t worked in quite some time as he recovers. He has typically worked as a factory/plant manager and in similar capacities, and also is a veteran, but served a couple of years enlisted in the Navy, so his and my dad’s military experience isn’t similar enough to be a commonality. My mother-in-law is a very nice and comparatively normal person, who spends a lot of time trying to control and calm the others.

My parents know about my husband’s family issues, and his family knows mine knows. Everyone seems optimistic but sort of tense about this gathering. I just want it to be pleasant for all, and for it to break the ice for more blended celebrations, since my husband and I are planning to start our own family next year.

I’d be grateful if anyone can offer suggestions or advice on how to make things comfortable and fun for such a diverse group. I’ve never hosted so many people at once and so want this to be positive for everyone.
posted by justonegirl to Human Relations (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My sympathies, and I'll be facing the exact same thing at Christmas time (I think we might belong to the same families!).

I plan to have everyone bring photo albums (seems like it will bring on a kind of neutral conversation & a good way for everyone to learn about each other). I also hope to play some games - Monopoly & card games - to keep everyone busy.

Beyond that I haven't a clue - and I'm a bit worried too about it being a positive experience for everyone.
posted by LadyBonita at 9:43 AM on November 22, 2005

personally, i like to memorize jokes in advance of awkward moments
posted by poppo at 9:52 AM on November 22, 2005

Try to add more people. It's counter-intuitive, but if you've got any other extended family who might be able to come, and who aren't bringing any terrible baggage to the mix, well then -- the more, the merrier.
posted by voidcontext at 10:00 AM on November 22, 2005

Best answer: As much as the holiday is about everyone trying to have a passably good time, I would sit down with your SO and make up some priorities about how the two of you want to let this day go. The more you can provide a united front, the happier you'll be in the post-game wrap-up phase of this event. Some good starting points should be

- does everyone need to be in the same room and/or doing the same thing while they're here? what is the maximum time people are required to be together?
- how much bs do you feel like tolerating from your SOs brother? Can he make wisecracks and act out, or is that going to be something that will be discouraged?
- it it okay if Dad turns off his hearing aid and just sort of tunes out everyone else? Should the brother's girlfriend be made a part of everything or shoudl she be left to her own devices?
- does Mom-in-law's tendency to control need to be mediated in some way? do you two feel comfortable setting the tone in the house?

Basically the two of you need to make sure that you're on the same page about how you'd like things to do and that will be a good start. From there, you might want to pass on good ideas to other people if they seem at a loss. The thing they have most in common is you, so as much as it may be hard being the center of attention, the more you can highlight everyone's similarities [how much they like YOU] the easier it will be for people not to get too involved in each other.

So, I'd think of a few things that are sort of safe areas for people to interact in: have the game on the TV, have photo albums out, have tasks that people can help with (so you don't have to do it all and so other people can be kept busy) and have some conversation starters if people seem reluctant or shy. Think of good things about everyone who is going to be there that you could find ways to share, especially about the folks you are worried the most about.

In general if people are tense but positive they will likely ollow your lead. I just did the two families meet thing a few months ago and what worked was having sort of a break up between structured time and unstructured time [now we eat, now we sit around, now we have dessert, now we check out the backyard] so that if people wanted to be less sociable they had time off and people who wanted together time knew they'd have it. I'd also recommend just restating that you're happy everyone is together and how happy you are that they're coming over, etc. It's harder for people to be picky and fussy if you admit that you know it's hard for them and you're so happy that they're trying to make this a nice day for everyone.
posted by jessamyn at 10:07 AM on November 22, 2005

I agree with LB, provide people with some form of activity or entertainment. If you have enough space, set up a couple places that people can hang out so they're not forced to sit and stare at each other if things have become uncomfortable. Having a selection of good DVDs lying around wouldn't hurt, either.

My other feeling about this is that, part of adult life is dealing with uncomfortable familial and social situations (so get over it). But that approach won't make your party very fun.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:09 AM on November 22, 2005

Best answer: My family has similar issues regarding my father's family and my stepmom's. My stepmom has a big, loud family with a bit of Jerry Springer-ness going on, my Dad's side is pretty reserved and independent.

The best way we've worked this out is to allow for the fact that the two groups may not intermingle. Depending on the space available in your house, you might want to keep some avenues for escape available. The way we work this is to have a porch for smokers, leave a guest room open so people can "rest" or make calls, and use the basement tv for people who don't want to watch sports (what's on tv seems to be the basis of most arguments.

You could also make a small list of items that you might need so that people can get away for a little while (ie: beer, ice, soda). People will jump at the chance to run errands or help prepare food/set the table.

LadyBonita's idea is good too--baby pictures and a deck of cards are two good ways to bring people together. Put some old home movies on, leave photo albums prominently displayed (especially the ones from the events they've attended together), you never know, they might just get to talking.
posted by SassHat at 10:16 AM on November 22, 2005

Best answer: I'd suggest you each approach your particular parents and say gosh, mom, dad, could I ask a big favor of you in helping keep the peace with hubbie/wife's family? They have some issues that are challenging for them and it can make getting along with them tough. They're wild/repressed and kinda loud/introverted, and they're prone to unrestrained behavior/kinda easily shocked. But for all their issues I want them to feel welcome and happy since this is a time for family and comfort so if you could put a little extra effort into forgiving them some kookyness/playing a little extra straight and narrow, I think it would go a long way towards everyone having a good time.

I don't know that you can make everyone at ease; they're all operating out of their comfort zones and in ways they're unpracticed at. The good news is, it'll get easier. They'll get used to each other's idiosyncracies and after a few of these they'll just take it in stride, like we get used to steering that car that pulls left. Is there some reason other than this difference in styles that they have had so little contact? Distance? Schedules?

The nice thing is that you can play the cause-you-love-me and its-important-to-me card with your individual families and pull each side towards the middle.
posted by phearlez at 10:18 AM on November 22, 2005

Best answer: Try to remember that you are not personally responsible for how others act and try not to let any unpleasantness negatively affect your holiday. One way to keep people from being uncivilized is to keep them busy. When Mrs. Fez and I combine families we usually plan a bunch of overlapping activities. Say a euchre tournament, cookie decorating contest, and some outdoor activity all taking place at the same time. This serves the purpose of forcing interaction but also giving space to be apart from others one finds repellant. It helps that both families are chock full of mildly competitive.
posted by Fezboy! at 10:19 AM on November 22, 2005

Best answer: What's the adage - you can't change other people's behavior - only how you react to it. You say your parents know about this family - can they be convinced to let go of their need for something dignified and roll with this. Maybe the four of you - your parents and your spouse could plan a nice lunch to celebrate again separately where you can all have a good laugh at how your brother in law was nodding off in the bowl of mashed potatoes...
We usually mitigate crazy with the addition of lots of people. We'll have about 30 Thursday - some of whom are people of obligation rather than affinity - but with so much going on - its hard for any one person to make a big enough scene as to disturb anyone. Oh - and there are a few people who do just turn off their hearing aids...
posted by Wolfie at 10:21 AM on November 22, 2005

Party games. I'm serious. Especially if they involve teams -- then you can pair up members from each family. If you make it light and fun, then people will forget they are doing the heavy work of "getting along."
posted by samh23 at 10:35 AM on November 22, 2005

I agree - board & party games are the way to go. I have always found that Balderdash is a great activity when I have a big mix of different people at a party. Everybody seems to get along really well with that.
posted by pazazygeek at 11:12 AM on November 22, 2005

Unless you're likely to have truly horrible weather, encourage people to get out of the house. How about a nice walk throught the neighborhood? Are there kids who would like to run around at the park for a little while?

I second jessamyn's suggestion to check in with your husband and see what he's expecting. If things get a little tense or there is a blow-up, you'll know what kind of damage control you're expecting.
posted by annaramma at 11:33 AM on November 22, 2005

Ditto samh23 - try Risk or Pictionary.
posted by Pressed Rat at 11:55 AM on November 22, 2005

Talk to your husband about alcohol. Brother-in-law probably shouldn't drink, and father-in-law may be on meds that contraindicate it. In my family, there was often a booze-related outburst at holiday meals, so I'm wary.

If there are outdoor options, like a nice walk, that can help work off nervous energy. Now is the time to start your own family traditions, like playing board games after dinner, singing show tunes, or watching home movies. That way both sets of inlaws can bond over thinking you're bossy.
posted by theora55 at 3:38 PM on November 22, 2005

How'd it go, justonegirl?

What worked and what didn't?
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 6:11 AM on November 26, 2005

Response by poster: It went actually better than expected!

What worked: giving a handful of people a task when they arrived (uncorking wine, setting out the platters of food, etc); having plenty of cocktails available; allowing our parents to share embarrassing stories about family holidays past; a rollicking game of drunken Cranium after the meal.

What didn't work: mixing up the seating arrangements (people still talked to whomever they would have chosen anyway); trying to shoo people away from me and my food preparations and be forced to mingle in the living room; having my mother-in-law bring apple pie (since everyone wanted my pumpkin anyway).

I appreciate everyone's great advice. Thanks again. :)
posted by justonegirl at 9:22 AM on November 29, 2005

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