Difficult in-laws and holidays, yay
December 22, 2016 10:49 AM   Subscribe

Surely I must not be the only one with a difficult family-in-law. I am at a loss and extremely nervous about the holidays. How do other people deal with this?

So my SO's family is very difficult and demanding. His father ticks most of the boxes for narcissist personality disorder and the rest of the family actually do revolve around him like the earth around the sun. They are also an extremely close-knit family and they basically have no other social contacts outside of their immediate family. They have cut off contact with all extended family except for FIL's brother, who they all hate but try to get along with because they both work in the family business. Oh and add to that your run of the mill racism, sexism, xenophobia etc. Their main way of communication is arguing, and with that comes a lot of yelling, namecalling and swearing. It's really stressful for me to be around, doubly so because the family I grew up in is very conflict avoidant.

The biggest problem is that they are very controlling, demanding and manipulative towards my SO. He has a lot of trouble dealing with this, but does recognize this as a problem and is working on it in therapy.

The other complicating factor is that FIL, the main instigator of hate, apparently does not know how to interact with me (or maybe anyone? I'm not sure if this is me-specific, they may be socially and emotionally stunted in general). He never adresses me directly, doesn't look me in the eye and only communicates indirectly, for example by saying something that is clearly meant for me to someone else in the hope I will react. Also, they never ask questions, not even "how are you", because they don't want to "interrogate" me. All of this together makes it very hard to even have a conversation! When I visit, it's like I'm entering a parallel world where social norms don't exist, I feel like I'm completely in the dark.

And there are even more complicating factors, because apparently, despite behaving like I'm an unwanted outsider, they think I'm the best person ever and their biggest fear is I won't like them. But still, they are seemingly unable to treat me like a normal human being. The only way they show that they like me is by showering me with expensive gifts, which makes me feel uncomfortable because I'm not able to reciprocate and most of the time these are gifts I don't even like or want (though I have learned to accept them gracefully).

Of course this occasionally leads to strive between SO (who is, considering the circumstances, extremely loyal to his family) and me. I mostly try not to interfere and I want to give him the space to deal with his family the way he considers best, I don't want him to feel like he is stuck between me and his family. Of course, this is almost impossible and I don't feel like we're at a place yet where we completely agree and form a unified front. But - disclaimer - we're getting there, with the help of a therapist, so you don't have to worry.

It's just, we're not there yet and the holidays are coming up where I will have to see them, and I'm already getting anxious. Most of the time I just try to ignore all the hurtful comments and stay quiet, but not rude. When they do act nice towards me, I always react friendly. But it's hard accepting everything and biting my tongue, especially when they start to harass SO (luckily, they never intentionally harass me the same way). The thing is, I think they do notice I'm not comfortable around them AND they are completey oblivious about the fact that they're acting like assholes, so they don't make the connection.

So my question is, how do I do this? How do I interact with my difficult inlaws without hurting them (they of course are very easily offended), hurting my SO and hurting myself? How do other people take care of themselves in such a hostile environment? I find it doubly hard since I am the outsider and not part of the family. Surely I must not be the only one with difficult inlaws, right? How do other people navigate such stormy waters? I would really appreciate other peoples' experiences. Sometimes it feels I'm the only one dealing with this problem. When I talk to people who are close to me, their only answers are either to cut off contact or to accept everything gracefully. Both are not an option for me (for now) and surely there must be a happy medium?
posted by leopard-skin pill-box hat to Human Relations (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You say you can't cut off contact entirely, but do you have to visit THIS year? It sounds like you are your husband are still working through some stuff, and it's not like there's some law that you have to visit every single year. Maybe this year do something different? Or, if that isn't possible, limit the length of your visit to a shorter amount of time, and plan something nice for yourself (a massage? going to fun movie? etc.) afterward to decompress. For example, say you're going to spend Christmas morning at your place, but you'll come over for 2 hours in the afternoon and then really stick to that. If you have to travel, think about staying in a hotel nearby so you have a place to escape to, and plan activities outside of the home so you get frequent breaks.
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:03 AM on December 22, 2016

it's hard accepting everything and biting my tongue, especially when they start to harass SO

I would just have my SO's back, following every insult or slight with a compliment.
Insults about his appearance: "I think he's gorgeous, and I get to look at him/hug him/be with him every day!"

Insults about his personality: "I think he's hilarious and I get to have dinner with him every night!"

Insults about the gifts he bought: "He's the most thoughtful person I know."

Insults about his work/money: "To me he's always the smartest guy in the room."
You're not refuting the insult, you're just making clear that everyone doesn't see your SO the way his family does. If you say it with a smile and a twinkle in your eye as you look at him, even a touch on his sleeve, you are showing real affection for your SO. This telegraphs nonverbally that the insulting person's opinion doesn't matter anywhere/anytime in your SO's life outside of that few-hours-long visit to the past.

This also doesn't come off like you're fighting his battles for him, which in that kind of family just adds fuel to the fire. This is just you being you, not protecting him, just stating your opinion. He was born into them but he chose to be with you - your opinion carries a lot of weight.
posted by headnsouth at 11:06 AM on December 22, 2016 [23 favorites]

You and your SO stay home, and start making your own traditions.
posted by sageleaf at 11:07 AM on December 22, 2016 [10 favorites]

Remember that biting your tongue is not equivalent to giving in or letting them win. Sometimes it's the most skillful response available. The things that will equip you to better endure them will not likely come from interaction. It usually comes from deeper changes you experience independently, and those changes take a very long time.

Depending on your comfort with RX, many doctors are happy to provide chemical assistance to help you get through these situations, similar to what they do for people scared of flying.

Prepare yourself with multiple excuses to minimize your interaction time with them. "I'm so tired and need a nap" is rarely met with suspicion, and you can just leave! I am particularly fond of "work deadline", which allows me to bury my head in a laptop and tune out.
posted by yorick at 11:09 AM on December 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

My mil is incredibly difficult in the ways you are describing. For awhile, I thought it was hard on me, but I eventually figured out it was much more difficult for my husband. That's when I started the "New Sheriff In Town Protocol." You are the most powerful person in the room because you weren't raised in that mess. You are the new sheriff, and you decide what comments are out of line.

My mil is on watch - and she KNOWS it. If she behaves, then we're good. If she's crapping on my husband with lies and cutting remarks, then I'm immediately on top of it. I either refute comments directly or remove my husband from the situation. He is precious to me.

I don't hate my mil, but she doesn't get treat my husband poorly. If she picks on him, I remind her that he's happy, successful, and beloved. And my family just adores him.

Polish your badge. You are the sheriff.
posted by 26.2 at 11:20 AM on December 22, 2016 [51 favorites]

I can empathize with a LOT of this, right down to the narcissistic FIL and they fact I've been in their lives for 10 plus years and (not even a lie), I do not think he's ever said ONE nice thing to me ever. Not ever. And he's very rude and mean to me often.

How do I cope?

Well, I anticipate the crazy before we get there.... and I TRY to be in a positive frame of mind at the start of the day, which sounds simple but is actually REALLY important. If I'm in a bad frame of mind, I have a terrible time there...
My SO and I spend a lot of time looking knowingly at each other when ridiculous things are said, we have in-jokes and in-actions that get us through the day.
I try not to "react" to the statements that are absolutely designed to get a reaction from me, despite that being VERY hard for me.
I say nice things to him constantly and ask him a lot of questions to keep him talking about him, which is his favourite subject. I deflect questions and change the subject as much as I can.
We mitigate the amount of time we spend there... we are going over on Xmas eve but not staying the night there. We try to get there later and leave early.

You say you don't want to "accept things Graciously" and you really don't have to, but you have to figure out whether actively fighting things is worth your time and effort. I tried to fight the "battle" for years, really thought I could change the family dynamics. I'm afraid you can't and it just gets worse the older (and more stuck in their ways) people get. So I do keep myself sane by somewhat accepting the situation and just going with the flow as much as I can.

There are some times though, when I can't let things slide, and in those circumstances I have certainly called my FIL out on his behavior, told him I thought whatever he said was unacceptable, and walked away. I didn't engage in a debate, I just said something like "I find that comment extremely disrespectful" and walked away.

It really is a no-win situation, you just have to speak to you SO and be breezy the whole time. You can get through this with a PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) and a partner in crime (Your SO).

Good luck and here's hoping we BOTH have drama free Christmasses!
posted by JenThePro at 11:39 AM on December 22, 2016 [8 favorites]

Well you definitely aren't alone in this, so know that! My parents are awful in the ways you describe, and my spouse and prior bfs have/had it tough. The playing a game idea has worked in the past because then you can banter about the game and not about other bullshit like politics. We've done Balderdash, card games like Spades, Pictionary, and Clue since my folks don't like newer games.

The sheriff thing can work too as 26.2 described. I remember one time I was getting reamed over some bullshit at a holiday gathering when me and my ex were visiting my family, and then they started turning their toxic crap onto him. He suddenly started yelling at them about how they were petty and spiteful people and it was amazing because I had never talked to my parents like that ever --- no one ever had really -- and it shut them down and made everyone regroup. Now, this approach did result in hurt feelings all around but we all got over it and I'll tell you, the next holiday? Was so much better because everyone was trying harder to be nice.

Lastly, pick your battles. You don't have to roll over for everything, but if there's toxic stuff being said and its really bad, I will speak up and say that I don't appreciate these kinds of comments, and I always try to redirect.

This is really really hard stuff - you have my empathy and I hope you guys have a decent holiday gathering.
posted by FireFountain at 11:42 AM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't avoid them entirely or cut them off, but can you set certain logistical limits on your time at your SO's house? Like, make it only a half-day visit, or stay at a hotel instead of at their place?

And as for making conversation, why not ask them a few questions about their hobbies or something instead of having them indirectly address you in hopes that you'll react? That way you can show that you do like them, have been paying attention to who they are/what is important to them, and want to get to know them.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 12:19 PM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've been dealing with a similar MIL dynamic for almost 20 years now. Even though we live closer to her now than we ever did before, I try to minimize contact as much as I can. However, we still have to do things like Christmas next week, so I put on my game face and try to make it work.

The first time I met her, she insulted my husband (and me) by saying she couldn't believe I would fall in love with the likes of him. Faced with those sorts of remarks, I consistently use the approach suggested by headnsouth above, and respond by contradicting her with a positive take. So that becomes, for example "He's an extremely lovable and loving person. I'm very lucky."
posted by gateau at 12:20 PM on December 22, 2016

This is SO hard. For a while I thought I had written this question. I think one of the biggest things you need to do is figure out where exactly your husband is at and try to go at this like a team. It's not you surviving your in-laws, it's both of you enjoying your Christmas around your in-laws.
One of the best things we ever did - and I know your husband may not be there yet - is to play Jackass Bingo. We made a list of all the things that the family does that drive us nuts, and put it in a 4x4 grid on our phone. It worked out really well because it distanced us from what they were saying. That way, when my FIL talked about that time someone disrespected him and he told them off and almost lost his job AS IF HE WERE THE HERO IN THAT STORY, we just gave each other a look. Afterward we regrouped and and laughed about how predictable they were and talked about what would make it on the board next year. I know that's mean, but it gets us through and kind of gave us a sense of control over something objectively uncomfortable. In a weird way, it's celebrating their dysfunction. I consider it one of the kinder ways of dealing with them.
We also give each other a little pep talk before we leave and promise to focus on the little things we do appreciate about our family - there's always something. Have an idea about your boundaries and try to be self aware. If it's getting to be too much, go get some air or sit in the bathroom. And try not to worry about how they feel about you or what they want from you. My FIL loves to cut down my husband because he is getting older. My husband is ten times more successful and well adjusted and fitter than he could ever hope to be. Remember that it has everything to do with their ego and not with you. Check with your husband before you defend him too well. My husband would rather deal with it on his own terms and worries his sexist dad will see me defending him as my husband being weak. Is it reasonable or fair? No. But that's where we're at. Good luck! You two have got this!
posted by Bistyfrass at 12:31 PM on December 22, 2016 [8 favorites]

Definitely stay in a hotel, never stay in their house --- it gives you a bit of breathing space, free from them.

Limit the time you spend with them --- don't plan to stay in their area for a week, keep it down to a couple days maximum; heck, leave even earlier if possible.

It's probably too late to change your plans for this year, but there is no requirement that "you must always spend x holiday with the in-laws". You can stay home, you can make plans for just the two of you; you do not have to attend either family's celebrations of any holiday. This will be really important in the future if you have kids: start laying the groundwork now for your own new family's celebrations and traditions.

(And for a passive-aggressive approach: ignore the indirect comments, only respond if FIL directly addresses you. Go ahead, have fun and drive him nuts.)
posted by easily confused at 12:48 PM on December 22, 2016

I'd recommend two things:

1. Ask your SO how you can support him during the visit. Does he want you to stand up for him or would that make it harder for him? Would he like you to make sure you are always in the same room as him? Can you set up code words for "get me the hell out of here"?

2. Pretend that you are an anthropologist visiting an unknown society. Observe as if you doing research to write a paper on this particular society. How do they interact? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What's the power structure? The point is that you can float above their craziness. Who cares what they say? It means nothing to you. As long as you've done step 1 and made sure that you are supporting your SO, nothing else matters.* It's all just a weird group of people you are observing for a short period and then you get to leave.

* Assuming that you are both physically safe.
posted by mcduff at 12:55 PM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

This almost exactly describes my in-laws, and the more recent answer has been to just not see them. But prior to that, it was a lot of one-on-ones with the people I could handle, and generally no responses to the ones I couldn't. Lots of time separated while reading books or watching tv or something, anything that was non-social.
posted by freezer cake at 1:37 PM on December 22, 2016

I will have to see them,

Nope. You don't. This is not fair for you husband to ask of you. I would not see them.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 3:35 PM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

And going along with this (if they're still actively abusing him) is not "supportive" as much as it is enabling. It enables them all to pretend like this is normal, tolerable, okay. It's not. You should not tolerate watching someone talk to someone you love in a "harassing" way! Nor should you feel the need to police his family, or get into a fight just to have him treated well. It's a sick system and should be avoided.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 3:38 PM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh, honey. I'm SO SORRY. This flu that is going around is TERRIBLE, and Lort Knows you wouldn't want to pass it on to your family. You stay home, now, y'hear?
posted by cyndigo at 7:43 PM on December 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

The popularity of the "New Sheriff in Town" suggestion concerns me. In theory, it's great, but learning how to Sheriff in a way that doesn't make matters worse can take years, and in some cases it is impossible. If any of the difficult people involved have strong narcissistic tendencies, anything resembling confrontation will only increase suffering, no matter how well chosen the words are. I got VERY good at putting people on watch and winning arguments, but it never resulted in any relief, it was just a more exhausting way of reaching the same emotional outcome.

There is a comforting self-help-seminar feeling to being told "chin up, you've got this". Thing is, not everyone is capable of the vigilance, intimidation and assertiveness that such a role requires AND THAT IS FINE. Nobody should feel like a failure because they lack the extensive skillset required to deal with horrible people.

If the people you are dealing with are those that might respond to Sheriffing, and you have the constitution to do it well, it may be a great approach. Just remember that there are plenty of other effective solutions available to you, even if they sound a little less inspiring on the surface.
posted by yorick at 11:49 AM on December 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

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