The holidays are here, and with it comes turkey, pie, festive music and presents.
Also, the in-laws.
What could be one of the best times of the year is often fraught with anxiety and tension. Even those who have generally good in-law relations feel it.
Such is the case for Penny, a Michigan mother-in-law to a woman we'll call J. Penny said J is, most of the time, a "kind, giving person. But sometimes she zings me. It's her tone of voice," Penny said. "She makes me feel like an idiot."
In-law relationships are some of the most complicated in our lives, said Dr. Deanna Brann, author of the book "Reluctantly Related: Secrets To Getting Along With Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law." "It's an artificial relationship," she said. "[Mother-and-daughter in laws] only come together because of their husband or son. It's an immediate family situation and really hard to do."
Daughters-in-law feel it too. Lauren, from Tennessee, is married to an only child whose mother has "boundary issues." She said her mother-in-law wore an off-white, floor-length gown with a train to Lauren's wedding. Her mother-in-law's dress was $5,000 more expensive than her own. Some people thought she was the bride.
Needless to say they didn't get off on the right foot.
But Lauren said she tries her best to be nice to her mother-in-law. One reason is that they don't see each other all that often since her in-laws live in Florida. They've seen each other about four times in the last year. But they will be spending Christmas together next month.
"I try to keep quiet and forget about it," she said, referring to her mother-in-law's sometimes overbearing behavior. "We go shopping together and I try to keep her busy. When they come for Christmas they will be here for three days and I have an activity planned for each day."
Brann was quick to point out that it's not the holidays themselves that cause in-law stress. "There's typically tension already there," she said. "The holidays just exaggerates it."
That's true for Lauren. She said in addition to her mother-in-law being difficult to begin with, there are also issues about religion: Lauren is Jewish and her husband is Catholic. Lauren is also pretty sure her mother-in-law just doesn't like her much.
"Who is going really like their only child's wife anyway?" she asked.
Penny and J will spend this Thanksgiving with Penny's son (J's husband), their two children and family friends. If there's a zinger, Penny plans to let it go and perhaps talk to J about it at a later date.
And while Penny plans to approach J in the nicest possible way, Brann said confronting the problem more often than not makes the situation worse. But Lauren's approach of keeping quiet isn't necessarily always going to work either.
"You can't always keep your mouth shut, especially longer term," Brann said. Her advice is to change your own behavior. "When one person in a relationship changes their behavior, the other person or people necessarily have to change too."
It's also important to take into account your husband's or son's feelings. "Often times he feels caught in the middle," Brann said. "He loves both women. They both vie for his attentions and loyalty, it keeps the two women at odds right off the bat."
Dr. Brann's top five in-law survival tips:
1. Be a team player - Regardless of who is hosting, remember to ask questions, compliment your mother-in-law or daughter-in-law, offer help and let her know you're interested in her thoughts.
2. Don't take things personally - Everyone is stressed during the holidays, so as long as you know you're on your best behavior, you can be certain "it's not all about you."
3. Find the humor - No matter what happens, look at the humor in it and tuck it away for a story about what she did "this" time.
4. Find some down-time for yourself - Just a few minutes to reflect and re-energize can be just what you need to get your energy back.
5. Establish ground rules in advance - Talk to your spouse and agree on how long you'll be staying. If necessary, take two cars and don't forget to let your family know what time you plan to leave.
And it the end, remember this too shall pass. "It's just one day," Dr. Brann said. "Anyone can get through one day."