- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 1999

Mary Kelly is looking forward toa small family celebration this Christmas no fuss, no in-laws and no fights.
The Alexandria mother of two, who in the interest of family harmony is not using her real name, still hasn’t recovered from last year, when a holiday-time fight with her sister-in-law soured the extended family visit.
“Everyone has some kind of in-law problem,” says Mrs. Kelly, who as a psychotherapist frequently helps clients deal with such issues. “But I think that it’s especially difficult during the holidays because everyone goes expecting a Walton Christmas and goes home recovering from some kind of horror movie. My practice always increases right after the holidays.”
Experts agree that the holiday-filled stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is fraught with familial strife, and no relationship is more challenging than the bond created with the strangers who turned into family when you married your spouse.
“There’s no question that holidays intensify the normal dynamic of relationships,” says Gary Hulme, executive director of the Center for Pastoral Counseling of Virginia. “We often pick a spouse that has the positive, but also the negative, traits that we see in our parents.”

Got you under my skin
Mr. Hulme says it’s important to identify those things that get under your skin before there is a holiday flare-up.
“The holidays set us up for unrealistic expectations,” he says. “We all long for the Christmas that we never had as a child or are disappointed when it’s not exactly like the Christmases that we fondly remembered.”
That’s why he urges couples to analyze the trouble points, away from the pressure of the holidays, and together come up with a holiday survival plan.
It may be too late for this year, but Mr. Hulme suggests making a new start in January by identifying problem areas as well as common ground and scheduling a good time and place to discuss them with your in-laws.
“They might not want to deal with these problems,” Mr. Hulme says. “In that case, it becomes an acceptance issue, and you just have to realize that this relationship may be limited.”
Leah Shifrin Averick saw the gamut of in-law problems in her practice as a psychotherapist in Chicago. But she turned into an in-law specialist a few years ago when her son called her to tell her that he was engaged.
“The word mother’ is the most venerated word in every language around the world,” she says. “But add in-law’ to that title, and that same warm and wonderful wo-man is expected to turn into an ogre. I realized that I didn’t want to be an ogre.”

Biblical in-laws
After studying the issue and discovering fascinating informational tidbits (such as the fact that men in the African Chaffres tribe turn their head so their mother-in-law’s shadow won’t fall on their head), Mrs. Shifrin Averick wrote “Don’t Call Me Mom: How to Improve Your In-Law Relationships.”
She doesn’t promise that using the book will turn troubled relationships into the Bible’s ideal bond between Ruth and Naomi, but she hopes that investing in the relationship at least will get all parties not to hate one another.
“All relationships take time to develop even when people are attracted to each other,” she says, “but the in-law relationship is not one that you choose and therefore is especially uncomfortable.”
She says incorporating these new people into your life especially when you’re young, vulnerable and dealing with a new marriage causes a “disruption in your psyche” as you deal with not just more people, but a whole new way of doing things.
Mrs. Shifrin Averick told of one client who was excited about her new in-laws because the exuberant clan was the exact opposite of her own Midwestern buttoned-up family.
“When she went to her first holiday celebration, she thought that they were so much fun because they started throwing pies at the end of dinner,” Mrs. Shifrin Averick recalls. But the food fights grew old, and eventually the woman divorced not just her husband, but the whole family. She wasn’t able to incorporate such a foreign lifestyle into her psyche.

Cultural divides
Cultural differences can make in-law bonds even more difficult to form. One young Fairfax couple, whose families are both from India, have been struggling throughout their nine-year marriage to win acceptance from the husband’s parents.
The husband’s family comes from a province that speaks Hindi, and the wife’s family hails from a province that speaks Sindhi. Whenever the husband’s parents visit, tensions flare about which language is spoken at home.
“I am going out of my way to teach my children both languages,” says the mother of two, who did not wish to be identified. “But for my in-laws, it’s a power, as well as a cultural, issue. They don’t want to feel left out of any conversation.”
She says she is fortunate because her husband supports her, and their relationship remains strong, but she admits that her mother-in-law has often reduced her to tears.
Creating a united front in dealing with parents is crucial to marital peace, says Kathy Norton Warren, director of the Bethesda-based Center of Families in Transition.
“In-laws pose a threat to a marriage because of their demands for time and attention,” she says. “This is especially true during the holidays, when the couple is pulled between satisfying the demands of two families.”
Mrs. Norton Warren says the goal for the holidays should be “supporting one another through the inevitable frustrations,” but all too often, the bulk of the burden falls on the wife’s shoulders.
“Take my own family,” says the mother of four. “Whenever my parents visit, it means more cooking, cleaning, more work. But my husband tends to withdraw when they come. Last year, he took an infamous four-hour nap on Christmas Day. I want him to help more, not less, and he thinks he’s off the hook because my parents will take care of me.”

Not mind readers
Mrs. Norton Warren says families usually get into conflicts when “they wish that the other person would read their mind,” instead of articulating what’s troubling them.
Sylvia Bigelsen, a family therapist from Morristown, N.J., agrees there would be fewer problems with in-laws if there were more communication especially during the exhausting holiday season. Though most of her clients don’t seek marriage counseling because of in-law problems, she says, “it’s a major factor in a vast majority” of her cases.
“Couples especially men are afraid to speak up because they don’t want to hurt their parents,” Mrs. Bigelsen says. She says one of her clients actually ate two complete Thanksgiving dinners for years one at noon and one at 5 p.m. because of fear of offending either set of parents.
It wasn’t until their children were old enough to stage a mutiny that the couple finally ended the caloric practice.
She says couples need to make their decisions together, stand firm and know that no matter how hard they try, someone’s feelings will be hurt.
“When I was first married, I spent every weekend running to my mother’s house on Saturdays and my mother-in-law’s house on Sundays,” Mrs. Bigelsen says. “I didn’t have a minute for myself, but they still both complained that I wasn’t spending enough time with them.”
She vowed to set a better example for her own son-in-law and daughter-in-law, and this year she wrote a book, “The Ties That Bind … and Bind … and Bind: A Survival Guide to In-Law Relations,” that outlines some of her advice.
“It’s pretty simple,” she says, “Mind your own business; don’t visit when you’re not invited; be generous; and never, ever put on a guilt trip. Humor helps, too,” she says, and then she tells a story about one of her couples in counseling.
The husband’s mother constantly showed up at their home and always found fault with her daughter-in-law’s housekeeping. One day, she would note that her son’s shirt was wrinkled and would iron it. Another time, she grabbed the bowl of cereal off the table and fixed her son homemade pancakes. The final straw was when she scolded her daughter-in-law for not keeping her husband’s shoes polished and then proceeded to polish them to a high gloss.
The next day, the mother-in-law found 10 pairs of shoes lined up on the dining room table. “Mom, you did such a good job yesterday that I decided this is your job from now on,” the daughter-in-law said.
“They all had a good laugh about that, and the mother-in-law got the point,” Mrs. Bigelsen says. “You can’t change a person, but you can change your own reaction to them.”

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