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Landmark in the News

In-laws and holidays: A guide to happier family gatherings

Deseret News, by Lois M. Collins, December 17, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY — On Christmas morning, Eric and Harmony Pearce and their four kids will wake at her mom's house in St. George. Before the day's done, they'll also visit with his mom.

This year, it will be a bit chaotic, because one of Eric's siblings and her children's families, who have scattered, will all be together, something that often doesn't happen anymore.

Everyone gets a piece of the Pearces this Christmas.

For many families, the season of joy is also the season of juggling — time, relationships, traditions. For some, it's the in-laws' trek to see the grandkids or vice versa, a journey that may occur once a year. If they live closer, it may be a daylong event or a couple of hours.

But more than any other time of year, traditions, wishes and expectations can mesh or erupt. Families can rise to the occasion and have a great time, or not.

Many families, like the Pearces, have strong bonds. Others take on holiday gatherings amid hurt feelings or other sensitivities that add an undercurrent to interactions. Experts say that, regardless, holidays and family gatherings can be enjoyable.

"Holiday rituals, thoughtfully done, can be a source of bonding and strength," said Tina B. Tessina, a California psychotherapist and author of 13 books on relationships, including "Money, Sex and Kids." To de-stress the holidays, get intentional about them. Lighten up expectations, ask for help and understand what a partner and his family are thinking. A sense of humor helps and people who see themselves as a holiday troubleshooter instead of the architect of a perfect gathering will enjoy it more.

If you take stress out, there's more room for meaning, she noted.

Different is OK

"I think that the challenge really is respecting that you're going to have differences," said Karen Sherman, psychologist, author and educator in Long Island, N.Y. "Instead of fighting it, say, 'OK. We're different,' and learn about and appreciate what those differences are. Take in what you can and be appreciative and respectful, then create your own rituals with your significant other."

One complication is the relationship between one's significant other and his or her parents. "You have to be sensitive, caring and respectful. But that includes to yourself as well. If others overstep boundaries, it's OK to reassert yours, but again, respectfully."

While people like to talk, hearing may be the greatest skill of the season, said David Cunningham, communication expert with Landmark Education. "The one thing that leaves people upset is communication that doesn't get delivered; having something to say that nobody's listened to. A lot of times, we think what is said is most important. People need to be heard. Listening makes a difference."

Similarly, people become obsessed with what others at the table think of them. "I'm sitting with my in-laws, worried about that. If I flip it around, the day becomes 100 percent more joyful," he said. "Make sure they're confident in what you think of them. Go out of your way to acknowledge them, to thank them for something they've done. Two things happen. You quit worrying about what they're thinking. And it takes about 30 seconds of acknowledgement to have love be present."

If there are tensions, Tessina said to treat your family like they belong to someone else. "If it were the family of a dear friend of yours, you wouldn't get upset. You'd be polite and try to deflect things. That's a great way to handle your own family."

Holidays can rise or fall on unmet expectations. So Cunningham recommended turning expectations into requests. If you want your guests to be on time, tell them. "We have a lot planned, so please try to be here by 6." If you expect people to dress up for dinner, express it ahead. Want help in the kitchen or people to stand clear? Say it.

If there's an issue, say, "Here's what's important to me," NOT "here's what's wrong." And don't think that either you or your in-law can be satisfied when traditions or expectations clash. "There is always common ground. Common, not middle," said Cunningham.

Upsets and disagreements always seem to contain "what happened" and "what someone added." They came late to dinner, Cunningham said. That's what happened. They didn't respect my request. That's what's added.

The in-laws bought a gift for my child I don't like. It happened. They don't care or are trying to outdo me. That's what got added.

"About 99 percent of our experience of life comes from what we add," Cunningham said. "If you separate those two out, it defuses every argument."

Real togetherness

Colette and Randy Moser juggle not only holidays with their parents, but also with their adult children. This year, her dad will come up from St. George to Salt Lake. Her in-laws already live nearby.

On Christmas Eve, they'll enjoy a big party with her side of the family, and on Christmas Day, Moser will cook breakfast and her husband's parents will come over, before heading home to prepare for the dinner at their house for the extended family, including Moser's sibling-in laws and all their kids.

Many of the activities are run open-house style and it's a congenial group, but even if they didn't all get along, breathing room has been built in so people aren't forced together.

"It's all really fun," she said.

If it's not all fun at your gathering, experts have advice. Shared activities are a marvel for uniting generations. Don MacMannis, a psychologist in Santa Barbara who co-wrote "How's Your Family Really Doing?", recommended doing a service activity that helps others and reminds children to count their blessings. Lindsay Gaskins, a mom and CEO of a game retailer called Marbles, said board games break the ice, promote camaraderie and bring quiet teens into activities.

"Have things to do, photo albums to look at, a tree to decorate, puzzles to put together, to keep people busy," said Tessina. "If you ask everyone to bring something like a favorite family picture, an ornament for the tree, one flower to add to an impromptu arrangement or a memento of your travels, these items can be a much safer topic of conversation."

If tensions with certain family members are known or expected, "talk in advance about what to do so you'll have a plan," Tessina said.

Sherman said it's important to have conversations with your mate, and not just around the holidays. You need to agree on boundaries. Bending occurs between couples, too, because the parent-adult child relationship is important, just as the couple relationship is.

If there's a problem, she said, it is sometimes helpful to have the person who is related do the talking. Tiff with your mother-in-law? Let your husband, her son, intervene. Kinship helps some conversations stay productive and loving.

Seeing others' relationships has taught Sherman a bit about being a mother-in-law. "I live 45 minutes from my kids and go once a week. I help and when it's time to leave, I leave. I am very aware of not overstepping my boundaries."

The exes

Attorney Jim McGinnis practices family law in Atlanta, and could write a book about what happens when families fall apart — but he doesn't have time this season. He's busy working with opposing counsel to craft holiday plans for people who can't collaborate on one: You get Mercedes and Celia from 3 to 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve. My client has them then until Dec. 27.

"That's the world according to divorce. It's not a good use of your money or my time," he said. "If everyone will do what's in the best interests of the children, they'll make right decisions."

That includes former in-laws. "People who used to celebrate the holidays together can add all sorts of complications. Everyone needs to be clear about their expectations and the more communications there can be, the less likely there will be a problem," he said.

McGinnis and his wife used to visit her parents for holidays. Then they started having in-laws to their house. Now, they are the in-laws who wait to see what the children, now grown, will do. It's a life cycle.

His son and grandsons came the night before Thanksgiving this year and stayed into the morning. His daughter-in-law had to work. After they watched the parade on TV, when it was time for them to head out, McGinnis' wife sent a special pie and gifts of food with them. "We would rather have had our son, grandson and daughter-in-law with us. But we were glad to see them when we saw them."

Life — and holidays — involve compromise, along with the love.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco Copyright 2012, Deseret News Publishing Company