My wife and I have gathered with my parents and siblings (my brother and my sister + her husband and kids) for every Christmas since 2004. My wife does not feel completely at ease around all of them, and it’s led to some frustration in trying to plan our Christmas travel. Her parents live overseas, and although she misses them terribly, for a number of reasons she does not visit them very often; this is why Christmas has always been with my family. A few times now she has proposed staying at home for Christmas while I travel to be with my family. This of course is not really an option: I would feel horrible knowing my wife is all alone on Christmas, and I would also have to explain it to my family. The only other alternative is for me to stay home with my wife, and she doesn’t want to deprive me of the opportunity to see my family. And at the same time, I hate the idea that I’m dragging my wife to an occasion where she’s not totally at ease.
I can certainly appreciate that someone might not ever feel like they are “just another sibling” in their spouse’s family. My sister has said as much about her husband’s family. But that outsider feeling doesn’t seem to be universal. Example, my brother-in-law seems very comfortable around the rest of us (granted, he and my sister have been married 25+ years), and I have friends who feel very comfortable around their in-laws.
So I’m curious, looking for some perspective, I guess. If you’re married, how do you feel around your spouse’s siblings and parents? Completely at ease? Always on edge and minding your manners? Somewhere in the middle? Have you been reluctant to attend family gatherings because of your unease?
His mother passed away a year after we were married; we had liked each other fine. Now all he has left are his three children. They don’t have any use for me, nor I for them. One actually lives with us, he’s okay. We are polite and let each other be.
We spend holiday times with my family. He gravitates toward the ones that are easier to deal with. I think I’m actually more tense than he is.
I’m always “on” at my SO’s family, like on a stage, and we’ve been together fifteen years. I’ll never be fully comfortable, but they are not really that kind of family that you can fully relax. I always mind my manners - they are not my family and never will be. I like them, of course.
A couple of things:
A) There is nothing wrong with being alone on Christmas. It’s just something perpetrated by our society, and maybe she really wants to be. Why don’t you let her be this one time? One time I was alone on Christmas and I bought a couple of books and ate junk food and read all day long and it was great.
B) Go and see your family without her. It won’t hurt one time. I wouldn’t encourage her to do it every time or even often, but one time isn’t going to hurt anyone, and your family may even appreciate having you like the old days for once.
C) Yes, sometimes I would like to skip on family events. It makes me miss my own family, as crazy as they are.
One thing to understand is that people have VERY different attitude about what it means to marry into a family.
Take me for instance. Until we attended a family reunion recently, I hadn’t even spoken to my in laws in 3 years, and not because we are in a spat or a feud or bear any ill will towards each other. They don’t live nearby and it’s just not part of our relationship where they expect me to think of them as my family except in the loosest, most generic way. Which is awesome from my point of view, but I bet there are people who would be super upset with this state of affairs.
If she’s proposing spending Christmas apart, multiple times, it’s a hell of a lot worse than not being totally at ease. Really. She’s trying to tell you she really, really doesn’t like being around your family (at least at Christmas, we’ll discuss that more in a moment) without having to come out and say that, thus hurting your feelings. It may be that she doesn’t like them, or feels like they don’t like her, or that your sister’s kids work her nerves, or your family dynamic is different enough from what she grew up in that being with them just plain wears her out. I have no idea what the issue is, and you’re certainly not going to figure out what the issue is by talking to us, iyswim.
Whatever the issue is, it may be something fairly low level that she can ordinarily deal with, but Christmas stresses her out enough that it becomes a lot harder and more unpleasant to have to deal with your family on top of it. A lot of people get seasonal depression from the weather, or the bustle and stress of all the stuff we expect ourselves to do during the season…or because we’re separated from our families. Being away from your family at the holidays can be hard, and spending that time with another family who shares the sort of history and ease you’re pining for, but you don’t share in it, that can make it a lot worse. Especially if they do things a lot differently from how your family does it.
Feeling comfortable and feeling like part of the family are two totally different things. I feel comfortable around my in-laws, mostly. I’ll go root around in the kitchen to find glasses or silverware, or dig through the bathroom cabinets/closet to find more toilet paper, or maybe even tell them about the hilarious thing that happened to me at the gyno if it’s just us girls and it’s relevant to the conversation. But even after 16 years I don’t feel like part of the family. Their way of interacting is just too fundamentally foreign to me for me to really feel like a part of that unit.
I’m comfortable with my inlaws - they’re very sweet people. I’m not all that crazy about one of my husband’s brothers, but then, I don’t much like my sister’s husband either - it’s a personality clash, I think. My husband is fine around my family also, and we pretty much share opinions on who’s a flake.
Honestly, the biggest problem I have with his parents is that they try *sooooooo *hard not to offend or not be a burden that it can make me overly cautious about what I say to them or how I phrase things. When they stay with us, the insist on using the same bathtowel!!! But after 28 years, I can’t see any of us changing, so it’s just the way it is. At least this Christmas, we’ll just be spending 3 days with them. That’s about the right amount of time that the stories don’t star to be retold at dinner.
I’ve been with my husband for the better part of 20 years. His parents are nice people. They’ve always been very welcoming. However. I never really relax around them. I feel very ungenerous complaining about ridiculous details, but here’s an example. I try very hard to take a “when in Rome” approach. My preferred eating schedule is moderately sized meals with multiple snacks, and dinner happens between 6:00 and 7:00. My in-laws eat lunch at noon and dinner at 8:00 - with no snacks in between! By 4:30, I start to get grouchy, but I don’t feel comfortable enough to go rummage in the kitchen for something to snack on. By 6:00, I’m ready to chew my own arm off. By 8:00, I don’t even care about eating any more, so I just pick at dinner. My solution to this impasse is to bring a box of granola bars to hide in the guest room, but then I feel like have an eating disorder when I’m hiding and sneaking food. I’m fully aware that this is a pretty trivial issue and I should be brave enough to say, “I could use a snack, would anyone else like something?” But I’m not that comfortable.
Once, when we’d planned a long weekend visit to my in-laws, one of the cats ran outside and refused to come back in. My husband and the kids went off as planned while I stayed home to wait for the cat to come home. (He did.) That weekend was sooooooo pleasant, I can’t even describe it. Ever since, I’ve been lobbying for the husband to take the kids without me on one of our semi-annual visits, but apparently that’s not the done thing. Sigh.
I’m generally comfortable with my wife’s family, her siblings moreso than her parents. I don’t approve of her parents’ lifestyle because of the way it hurts my wife and her siblings, but I manage to suppress my frustration with it when we’re together. I don’t like spending much time in their company without my wife there as a buffer. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve spoken to them on the phone in the 20 or so years I’ve known my wife.
After 20 years of marriage, I’m basically as comfortable with my wife’s family as I am with my own. They’re in Florida, and we generally fly down to see them a few times a year, including every other Christmas and probably about every 3rd or 4th Thanksgiving.
I prefer my husband’s family to mine. They are much more pleasant to be around, and don’t find it necessary to respond to comments and stories with advice, my family is very tedious to be around. Its only gotten worse since the Obama election and my father’s apparent need to punctuate every dinner with shouts about “its called the White house for a reason”. Even if someone were to wave a magic wand and take away his hateful bullshit, I would still prefer my in-laws.
There is a “mi casa es su casa” feeling missing there. I’m completely at ease digging through my sister’s or mom’s fridge/cupboards for whatever I want whenever I want; I can’t think of any other households besides my own where I would feel so at ease, and now that I see your example, I expect this may be at least a part of my wife’s unease when spending Christmas with my family.
Thanks for your input. FWIW, we do talk about it, and I know we will be talking about it more. Her happiness is important to me, and I tell her so. It’s just that sometimes I struggle to understand what makes her happy/unhappy, and why, and in the present case it’s been difficult to grasp how staying home alone for Christmas would be preferable to spending it with my family. This discussion is helping.
My immediate in-laws are no problem. His little sister and I are close and when with the MIL I am treated like just one of the kids. Ditto my FIL and his wife - we are all comfortable together.
The extended in-laws are another kettle of fish, and that’s not irrelevant for holiday times. Thanksgiving and Christmas on his Dad’s side of the family are humongous formal affairs, maybe 100-200 people, most of them family members. Heck, we attended a birthday party two weeks ago that was black tie and formal gown required, maybe 150 people, separate venue, with 4 celebrity impersonators, gymnasts and contortionists performing casually during hors d’oeuvres. They laid out a red carpet and hired paparazzi to take our pictures and demand autographs.
It’s completely surreal. I grew up lower middle class. His Dad’s side of the family possesses the kind of wealth I only ever saw on TV growing up. I find I am ambivalent about the extravagance of these events and it’s harder for me to feel like part of the family - not just because of the money but because the whole culture of the family feels strange to me - I have four cousins, my husband has nearly 30. They are staunch Catholics and I’m an atheist Buddhist. They’re conservative businessmen and I’m a radical social worker. Nobody has ever treated me poorly, though, or like I don’t belong. They’ve been very kind to me and more than generous as well. I went to this last party only because my husband asked me to, and I ended up enjoying it a lot and then feeling guilty for not wanting to go in the first place. I think I’m finally starting to get used to it and accept his extended family members for who they are.
ETA: My husband used to have to drag me out the door for any Thanskgiving event, not because I personally disliked the hosts, but because Thanksgiving is generally the hardest time of year for me due to past associations with bad things. I’m better now, thanks in part to my in-laws. I wouldn’t discount the fact that for some people, the holidays just aren’t a time they feel like celebrating, and that doesn’t change whether they’re invited over by their brother in law or the Queen of England.
Both of my parents were comfortable poking around their parents-in-law’s kitchens as far as I can remember and I understand that his mother had a policy of asking future children-in-law to help set the table on their second or third visit specifically because hasta la cocina (“come in all the way, to the kitchen”) is what differentiates family from guests, but I can’t say any of us are comfortable in SiL’s. It certainly makes an enormous difference - and at least, after 11 years we’re able to go to the en-suite bathroom or the upstairs bathroom if the one to which guests are directed happens to be engaged! My mother actually considered it a triumph the first time SiL whined to her about something, you don’t whine to strangers.
I’m really comfortable with them, which is great since they’re my only family here. I do find myself watching my mouth a little more around his mom, because she’s all proper and polite and I’m a smartass, and I would rather not offend. We do holidays with them all the time. I like the extended family too, but I don’t see them as often.
It took me a while to get used to my in-laws. When we visit them, nearly every minute is planned out and the entire family must do absolutely everything as a complete unit for the entire duration of the visit. It can get exhausting, but saying something like “I’m not all that interested in the botanic garden tour, but you guys have fun; I’ll meet you for lunch after,” would be full-out scandalous and taken as a personal insult. I really do like them, though, and they’ve never treated me like an outsider in any way, so I’ve learned to just go with the flow over the years and I’ve grown pretty comfotable with the way they do things.
On the other side of the coin, when we visit my family, and we have no plans until dinner, and people are just hanging around reading or off doing things on their own, it kind of freaks my wife out. She doesn’t know what to do with herself and it falls on me to keep her entertained. Even though we have no need to fill every day with activities when we’re at home, she’s been conditioned to expect that during family visits.
Let’s back things up a few years:
I’m very comfortable with them. They’re like a second family. I have no problem hanging out with them without the spouse around. I’ve spent time with both my MIL and FIL while wife was out doing her own thing. Never had any problems at all with them.
Fast forward to day. My wife and I are divorced so there is a bit of awkwardness around the whole thing. I no longer hang out with them. I don’t eat with them or visit them or anything like that. But, for example, a few weeks ago I was picking something up that happened to be at their house and I ended up chit chatting with exMIL for 20 minutes or so.
I can honestly say that I really do hope that the next time I’m in a serious relationship I get along with her family as well as I got along with my ex’s family.