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How Do You Set Boundaries With Your In-Laws During the Holidays?

In this image 10 people are gathered together on the couch of a living room. They are watching television together. Two of the people are sitting on the floor together.

How Do You Set Boundaries With Your In-Laws During the Holidays?

In this image 10 people are gathered together on the couch of a living room. They are watching television together. Two of the people are sitting on the floor together.

As the holiday season approaches, the air is filled with joy, warmth, and the promise of quality time spent with loved ones. However, for many, the prospect of navigating relationships with in-laws can be a delicate dance, requiring a careful balance of connection and personal space. In-laws are family, but not the family you grew up with. This can lead to feeling stuck between two positions: not quite comfortable speaking up for yourself the way you might with someone who raised you, but not quite detached enough not to take things personally.

Added to these dynamics is the relationship you have with the person whose family it is. If you and your partner aren’t on the same page, they might not back you up about certain issues. Or, you may struggle to express to your partner how their family is making you feel. Learning how to set boundaries with the in-laws during the holidays can save you some stress this season!

Why Are Boundaries Important?

Establishing and maintaining boundaries is vital to any healthy relationship, and the in-law dynamic is no exception. Boundaries create a framework that defines the limits of acceptable behavior, fostering respect and understanding between family members. Boundaries are always an important factor when it comes to interpersonal relationships. During the holidays, when emotions may run high, and expectations can lead to misunderstandings, having clear boundaries in place becomes even more critical.

5 Ways to Set Boundaries with In-Laws During the Holidays

An African American couple is sitting beside each other on the couch. They are looking at one another as they talk. The woman has an open laptop on her lap.

1) Utilize Open Communication:
Begin with open communication with your partner. Your partner will have a specific history with their parents, the same way you do with yours. Be curious with your partner: do they have any important traditions or events that involve their parents? Are there any potential gatherings that they are averse to? What has already been discussed (and in what depth) with their parents about the holidays; have promises been made? Determine if your partner is willing to back you up if and when you draw a line and which occasions they feel are best handled by them. You may wish to have these conversations in couples therapy with the guidance and support of a therapist. A lot of therapy for couples includes navigating complex situations outside of the one-on-one relationship of the couple themselves.

Once you and your partner understand where each other is coming from and what your priorities are, initiate an open and honest conversation with your in-laws about your expectations for the holiday season. This is a good time for you to express yourself and obtain information about what they are anticipating. You may discover that you have a few common goals. You may also find that you have entirely different ideas of what the holidays should look like. Even this discovery is good, as mutual respect and honest dialogue can help you troubleshoot, problem-solve, and compromise in advance. The last minute is not the time to figure things out.

Ensure that you express to your in-laws that your goal is for everyone to feel heard in the conversation and for everyone to come to an understanding. Often, we feel that communicating our boundaries is pushy. It is actually a gift: other people cannot guess your needs, and you cannot guess theirs. Inviting everyone to share their desires openly gives all involved the opportunity to be heard as well as to show up for their loved ones. Communicate to your in-laws that you care about them and want them to have a happy holiday season, so you really want to know what is important to them and where they are coming from.

2) Establish Traditions and Routines:

In this image we see a firetruck decorated with Christmas decorations. There is a Santa standing on top of the truck with a bag of gifts.

Create and communicate family traditions and routines that work for your immediate family unit first. Whether it’s a specific holiday mealtime or a cherished tradition, predictable routines can help set expectations for everyone involved. Much of the high-stakes energy around the holiday season has to do with managing expectations, as we find so much in our day-to-day lives. A routine and/or tradition is a great way to let everyone know what is going to happen – and what isn’t. The toughest time to be disappointed is right in the moment. Having time in advance to accept what is or isn’t going to happen is a great way to care for your nervous system.

Tradition, both the blending and creating of it, is a topic that comes up here at our practice offering couples therapy in Woodland Hills. You and your partner likely had different upbringings. These differences might be minor, or they might be significant. To establish your own traditions, ensure you know what is most important to each of you. No tradition is too insignificant; nothing that matters to you is silly. Maybe you watch the same holiday movie every year on a certain date. Maybe you bake a specific kind of cookie. Be honest about what makes the holiday season feel joyful to you, and let your partner do the same.

If there are aspects of a tradition that your partner feels won’t be the same without their parents, talk about it. Figure out how to include your in-laws in this way that means so much to your partner and how that will factor into your overall plans with them. Keep in mind what your in-laws have communicated about what is special to them. How can they best participate? Which traditions will be most significant for them to be a part of? If you have children, which traditions are likely to become core memories for them? You know your children best; you can likely guess what will light them up the most. Don’t forget: many of our memories of the holiday season’s past boil down to “We were all there together.” Don’t pressure yourself too much!

An Asian American family of three is decorating their tree together. The father is holding their daughter as she puts an ornament on the tree.

3) Prioritize Your Immediate Family:
Prioritizing your immediate family is essential, especially if you have children. It can feel like an undertaking to set parameters around access to your children. If your in-laws rarely get to visit, or if they are part of your support network upon whom you rely for lots of help with your kids or anything in between, you might struggle with feelings of guilt. No matter how far your in-laws have traveled or how much you appreciate your local babysitters, you are still entitled to do what is best for your immediate family. That may line up with your in-laws’ wishes or not.
Clearly communicate your intention to spend quality time with your partner and children during the holidays.

Your family’s needs are likely to be high on your list of values. A reminder: that family includes you. Yes, there is always room for compromise. But compromise is a two-way street.
Something to remember is that if you do have children, they are not the ideal candidates to steer the ship. They may not have the impulse control to walk away from tempting situations or decline an offer that will burn out the last of their energy. They are also not as capable of emotional regulation as adults; it should not be up to them to keep the peace or feel responsible for the emotions of the grownups around them. If they cannot set and maintain their own boundaries, let your ability to do so be a gift you give them this holiday season.

Sometimes, we take on a “seize the day” type of attitude, reminding ourselves that time flies and life is short. This can create an emotional state in which we feel compelled to accept every offer and participate in every event. Remember that being overbooked and overwhelmed is not the most satisfying way to seize the day. Taking a stand for what is most important is the best way to make the most of your time and appreciate the season. It won’t be a perfect circumstance, but it will be an honest reflection of your values.

4) Practice Assertiveness, Not Aggressiveness:

A young couple and an elderly couple is sitting together in the living room. The elderly man has his hand over his wife. The young woman is sitting on the floor in between the legs of the young man.

Expressing yourself with confidence can feel like a test. We often experience nerves about what we want to say and to keep from shrinking our voices, we aim high. This kind of energy can quickly devolve into accusations and self-defense, which is why feeling grounded and well-versed in what you are trying to communicate is helpful.

To be assertive without becoming aggressive, an important first step is to get honest with yourself about where you stand with your in-laws. Does one or both of them have a remarkable ability to get under your skin or trigger you in some way? How do you usually cope with that; do you have a go-to practice that enables you to move forward? Remember that you are allowed to love your family and still be aware of the ways in which they can upset you. We tend to feel uncomfortable when we have negative thoughts or emotions about our in-laws. It can feel like a slight against our partner in some way. But, just like the complex relationships we can have with the people who raised us, chosen or extended family can inspire conflicting feelings while still being objects of our love, respect, and affection.

Avoid blaming or criticizing; instead, focus on expressing your feelings and desires. There is no reason for you to feel guilty about expressing yourself, especially if everyone else is. Think of this process as explaining yourself. “What is important to me is…” and, “It is a high priority for me to…”

When you are discussing the other person’s point of view, affirm their statements. “What I’m hearing is…” or, “If I understand you correctly, you’re saying…” This way, everyone knows that each other is on the same page. If the other person (or people) involved in the conversation are being vague or you are feeling manipulated, this is a good way to suss out what is going on. It is harder to be misled (or misleading) when everyone is being clear about what everyone else is expressing. This is a way to advocate for yourself; you won’t be unclear, and you won’t be confused.

Three Hispanic children are decorating a gingerbread house with their grandmother. They are all smiling and happy.

5) Be Willing to Compromise:
While setting boundaries is important, being flexible and willing to compromise is equally crucial. You probably have a decent idea of the aspects of the holiday season you are firm about. Consider which things are less important to you and how you can collaborate to give a little and get a little. Hopefully, the most important things to everyone involved are in alignment.

If they are not, then it is important to consider what everyone is bringing to the table and how those aspects can be broken down and organized. For example, if your main priority is time with your immediate family, but there is an event on a certain day that your in-laws want everyone to attend, can you set aside that day for their event and carve out an equal amount of time for your immediate family outside of it?

View compromise as creativity and also practice your boundaries. Compromise does not mean giving in on what matters most. It is about coming up with solutions so everyone involved feels heard, seen, and valued. Lay out your calendar for the entire month if you have to, and mark in where you already have obligations. Plot in what is most important to you, your partner, and the other folks involved where nothing conflicts. With the plans, ideas, and wishes left over, you can see what fits where and which things will have to be compromised. 

Compromise can look like each parent missing a certain event; it can look like attending something that isn’t at the top of your list but is very important to someone else (within reason); it can look like rearranging something that can be flexible for something that cannot be, it can look like doing something you want to do but in less time than you would ideally like to spend doing it.

Holidays bring out nostalgia for our younger selves and a desire to create those same memories for our loved ones. If you find yourself headed into the end of the year, bracing for chaos and anxious about the stress, this is the time to be honest about your needs with yourself and everyone you’re collaborating with. You deserve to enjoy the season, too! If you have been clear about your highest needs, hopes, and boundaries, you have done what you can to advocate for yourself. You are not responsible for other people’s assumptions, and you are especially not responsible for their happiness. If you are dealing with a person or with people who struggle to respect boundaries or to look at the whole picture, you might find yourself feeling frustrated. You may be tempted to move or drop your boundaries to “go along to get along,” but that is rarely (if ever) worth it.

Embracing You Therapy Can Help You Navigate Relationship Issues

At Embracing You Therapy Group, we believe in healthy relationships that add more value to our lives, not stress or chaos. While we all want relationships to thrive, we must acknowledge that all relationships need work. Just because we love people in our lives does not necessarily mean we have healthy communication or boundaries with them automatically. 

For couples counseling in Woodland Hills, CA, contact us today for your complimentary 20-minute phone consultation with our admin team!

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