An Age-Old Holiday Tradition: Problems With Your In-Laws

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Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

This holiday season, the Sugars are talking about how to set limits for time with parents. A woman writes that whenever she and her husband visit their home town, her husband's mother is very demanding of all of his time — to the detriment of time with this woman's family. She says her husband's parents make him feel guilty for not spending all his time with them when the couple is visiting. What's the best way to tell the husband's parents to give them some space?


Dear Sugars,

Let me start by saying I love my in-laws. I have known them since I was 16 — my husband and I were high-school sweethearts. My situation is unique because both sets of our parents live within 20 minutes of each other. You would think this makes life easier when we go home to visit for the holidays, but in fact, it has made visits extremely challenging.

Before we realized this was going to be a problem, my husband and I never talked about splitting up the time between our two families. We figured it would happen organically. But what ends up happening is my husband's family jumps at the opportunity to spend as much time with us as possible, and my family ends up getting cheated out of time. During one trip home, my husband and I slept separately for a week. I was with my family and he was with his; I hadn't seen my family, but he felt an intense obligation to spend evenings with his parents.

Although my mother-in-law is in the driver's seat when it comes to a lot of these issues, my father-in-law doesn't stop her. He has an especially bad habit of making my husband feel incredibly guilty for not eating dinner with them every night when we are visiting. I thought we had a good solution to figure this out by giving both sets of in-laws a schedule of when and where we would be staying, but when we're at my family's house, my husband's mother will start calling his cell phone around 7 a.m. and every half-hour until he answers. Or if he doesn't, she will then call my parent's home number or my cell phone and ask for my husband to call her so they can talk about our plans for the day — a day we are not scheduled to see them. This was annoying when we were in college, but now it's verging on crazy.

My husband did speak with his mother, but she began crying and she didn't understand why her behavior made us feel disrespected and like children.

I am especially worried because now we are in the Peace Corps and when we go home for Christmas, it will be our first trip home in almost a year and a half.

I welcome any advice you have for me on this. My husband is reluctant to address these issues directly. He feels that since we don't see them that often, why bring up the negative? I can understand this, but I also know that if we continue to ignore it, it will only get worse. Especially after we return to live in the U.S.

Thank you,

Frustrated Daughter-in-Law

Steve Almond: Frustrated Daughter-in-Law, you're right. If you ignore it, it's going to get worse, and it's already pretty silly. It's lovely that you both have loving families; that's a beautiful, wonderful blessing. And it's great that they want to spend a lot of time with you. But the guilt-tripping and the calling at 7 a.m., that's childish behavior and you're right to say to your husband, "This is not OK."

I think probably the husband feels guilty because he's very loyal to his family, and he has decided for reasons that are good and important to live far away from them. This is what the holidays can become. They invoke this sense of measuring importance by how much time the out-of-town relatives get with particular families.

Cheryl Strayed: It seems like a very clear-cut situation to me. This couple, Frustrated Daughter-in-Law and her husband, need to establish those boundaries with his parents. Obviously, the in-laws are doing this because they madly love their son and they want every minute of his time when he's in town. But he's married now, and this is about the husband growing up and setting that boundary with his parents.

I think that FDIL is really a frustrated wife. This sounds like a very loving young woman who wants to have meaningful relationships with her husband's parents, so before we get any in-laws involved in any conversations, I would counsel the two of them to really talk about it. He can't go to his parents and say, "Listen, we really are going to spend half the time with my wife's parents and half the time with you." He can't say that with clarity unless he feels that kind of clarity in his own heart.

Steve: I agree, she should talk to her husband. But if he's not going to bring himself to this, she shouldn't put him in the position of being the go-between, because then his loyalties are divided. I feel that he should go with her, because otherwise they're going to say, "Oh, I get it. It's that daughter-in-law of ours." He needs to, in her presence, say, "Hey, we're united on this."

This is always the battleground. And believe me, it's going to get worse. Because when kids enter the picture, there is a whole additional potential battleground if you don't make it clear.

Cheryl: One piece of advice I would give to this couple when they're preparing for this conversation is to write a script. It sounds ridiculous and overdetermined, but whenever I've had to say something hard to somebody, what I've found is that I'll get nervous in the moment or overly emotional or defensive. Beforehand, I write down everything I have to say. I would recommend they first acknowledge how much they love these parents, and then lay out in very clear, concrete, concise terms what the dilemma is and how they have decided to solve it. I think when you go in prepared, you're less likely to respond to some of the heightened emotion or drama of the moment.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear more holiday-related dilemmas.

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