If Christmas with your mother-in-law (or your daughter-in-law) features more tension than tinsel, you’re not alone.
“A family unit is like a world with its own culture and rules,” says Melbourne psychologist Dr Mandy Deeks.
“At Christmas, these cultures are literally clashing. There could be differing views on everything from giving presents and time spent together, to the role that each family member plays.”
Dr Deeks — who along with psychologist Marilyn Cobain runs workshops on improving the mother/daughter-in-law relationship — explains that communicating your values and understanding the other person’s is key.
“If you start off a conversation by sharing your values about Christmas, then it will help the other person to better understand where you’re coming from,” says Dr Deeks.
Here’s some advice on how to navigate the five most common causes of festive fallouts…
WHO GETS TO HOST
“For many mothers-in-law, letting go of the hosting duty can cause real anxiety as they’ve drawn confidence from that role over time,” explains Dr Deeks.
Cobain adds: “The mother-in-law is the prime person in her family and feels grief when her son goes. I don’t think daughters in-law necessarily understand that huge sense of loss.”
So if she is someone who enjoys hosting Christmas, having that taken away from her, too, can feel like another big blow.
SOLUTION: Discuss the arrangements ahead of time.
“People become defensive if they feel their values are being stomped on,” says Cobain.
“Recognise there are two families, so try find the best way of managing that.”
Dr Deeks suggests: “If you’re wanting to host for the first time, try having this conversation many months before.
“Try saying something along the lines of: ‘I think you’ve done an amazing job at hosting all these years; I would really like to give it a try, but I’d need your help.’ You never know, she could say: ‘Thank goodness, I didn’t want to host this every year anymore.’ But if you get shut down, you should still find a way to host a celebration on another day.”
Your family has always done Secret Santa but your in-laws buy gifts for each family member.
“Families may have different budgets with some being able to spend more than others,” explains Dr Deeks.
So how do you approach gift-giving without upsetting anyone? Sensitivity goes a long way, say the experts.
SOLUTION: Cobain suggests tackling this issue with honesty and compromise. This means talking about it ahead of time and coming to a decision as a family. If you prefer doing Secret Santa, then perhaps you can compromise by doing it on alternate years, for example.
ACCESS TO GRANDCHILDREN
This can be one of the most anxiety-provoking conflicts in this relationship dynamic, says Dr Deeks.
While a mother-in-law may be feeling excluded from her son’s children, a daughter-in-law may be feeling inadequate as a parent due to her mother-in-law’s constant comments.
There may also be unspoken expectations around child care over the holidays.
“Grandmothers can sometimes feel used because the children are left with her to take care of but there isn’t a reciprocal or more intimate relationship with her daughter-in-law,” says Dr Deeks.
SOLUTION: Talk about child care and work out what suits both sides — don’t assume anything.
“If you’re a mother-in-law, try to take a step back from the issue, not offer too much advice and respect your daughter-in-law’s attitudes about how she wants to raise her children,” she suggests.
WHEN THERE AREN’T GRANDKIDS
When a couple has decided not to have children or to put off having children for a while, this may be a source of grief or disappointment for the mother-in-law, says Dr Deeks.
“This can cause distance as the younger woman withdraws from her mother-in-law to avoid questions about why she’s not having children.”
SOLUTION: Both sides need to respect the other’s feelings and points of view, says Dr Deeks.
“While the daughter-in-law needs to be clear about her and her partner’s reasons for not having children, she can soften it by saying something like: ‘I understand our decision upsets you but it’s one we’ve made.’ Similarly, the mother-in-law needs to respect this decision.”
NOT ENOUGH MOTHER-SON TIME
Similar to the issue of grandkids, a mother-in-law’s access to her own child is important. It’s a perennial issue, but it gets worse around Christmas and both women can compete for their son or husband’s time and loyalties.
SOLUTION: “Just as a daughter and her mum have time on their own, a mother-in-law also needs time alone with her son,” says Dr Deeks. But those meetings shouldn’t be secretive: “The daughter-in-law needs to feel she’s not being cheated on.
Mother and son don’t need permission, but communication is a nicer way to go about it.”
WHAT A DAUGHTER-IN-LAW REALLY WANTS TO SAY
* Please cut the apron strings
* Give advice when you’re asked for it
* Accept me for who I am
* Accept the goals your son and I have for our life together
* Compliment me when you see me do something good, kind or caring
WHAT A MOTHER-IN-LAW REALLY WANTS TO SAY
* I need some support to cut the apron strings
* I am only trying to help by giving advice — it comes from a place of love
* I have real anxiety that you may stop me from having a relationship with my son or grandchildren