How I Recovered From My First Big Fight With My In-Laws
By Janice Quirt
Dec 6, 2018
I remember my first fight with my partner’s father vividly.
I abhor conflict, and I don’t often get into arguments with people. However, as I get older, and perhaps as our parents’ generation gets older, it seems as though all parties are losing their filters and reacting more strongly. The details of the fight are not all that important — things were said that probably should have remained unsaid. Both parties felt attacked and defensive.
My partner was staunchly on my side, although I was to blame as well. However, we were both quick to realize the ramifications of my fallout with his father. I remember the look of sadness that crossed his face as he said softly, “this ruins everything.”
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I knew what he meant. In the minutes after the fight, my fiery temper quickly abated and was replaced by shock and regret. I imagined separate holidays, or strained affairs in which my father-in-law and I avoided each other and I counted down the minutes until it was over. I assumed cottage time had been called into question — we spent almost every summer weekend together at my partner’s family cottage and now that seemed like an impossibility. I even pondered if this meant the end of my relationship with my partner, because I didn’t want him caught between his father and me.
Luckily things blew over and things are civil, although not quite as comfortable as they once were.
The incident made me realize that when you don’t quite fit in with your in-laws, it’s not easy. Self-help experts advise releasing yourself from relationships that are draining, but when it’s family, that’s not possible. However, there are some ways to navigate these oft-tricky relationships.
Making New Traditions and Compromises
Sometimes traditions are the hardest part of a relationship with in-laws. Some families have more than others, and often the people enforcing them are strict adherents. Because of that, it’s hard to feel included at times, and it’s even harder when there is little attempt at compromise.
Unfortunately, insisting on a completely fair and equitable split of holiday time doesn’t always work out.
We can’t dwell in the past forever and need to make new traditions that work for as many family members as possible.
Sometimes things will need to revolve around one side of the family more for a variety of reasons, but if that's the case, then I think there should be a concentrated effort to dedicate some time to the other side. Empathy is required for this, too — like asking each partner to imagine what it would feel like to always be orbiting somebody else’s sun and never being made a priority.
Breaking with traditions doesn't come easily, because it often involves letting go of a few long-held habits from childhood. We can’t dwell in the past forever and need to make new traditions that work for as many family members as possible.
Use Your Outlets
After the fight, I was a major wreck. I didn’t think I had anyone to talk to. And I didn’t want to dump all of my feelings on my partner, because I didn't want to malign his own flesh and blood.
Then someone mentioned I could chat with my sister-in-law’s husband, since he's also a non-blood relative. I resisted at first because I had only met this man a couple of times in my life. But then I thought, “why not?"
And it proved to be a great idea. Hearing that he had experienced fights with the in-laws, the feeling of not being able to work around deeply held traditions and generally feeling like an outsider at times was the balm I needed. We didn’t bitch — that would have become toxic — but he shared strategies and reminded me that I was not the only one to have experienced this. Just knowing that I wasn’t alone was so helpful.
If you don't have immediate access to a cast of non-blood relatives you can joke and commisserate with, find some good friends who will listen and support, because you’ll need an outlet that is removed from the deep ties that bind.
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Take a Break
We can get so caught up in trying to fulfill every scheduled commitment, every family event and every special occasion. And yes, they are important. Spending time as a family is important. But so is realizing when you are burning or just burnt out. Self-care for co-care means, quite simply, that you have to look after yourself if you are going to be a positive presence for others. So perhaps you both don’t need to attend every single special family event or tradition.
Let honest, transparent communication shine through. If you need a break, discuss the option of staying behind for an event or weekend to fill your patience tank. Sure, the kids would likely to prefer to have you there, but being with just one parent from time to time can be really beneficial. And it also teaches your kids the importance of being able to recognize your limitations and say no to some demands to better take care of yourself.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love strong, loving families who just want to spend time together and keep traditions alive. But I always find myself wondering how the partners of the Kennedy clan felt. Were they overwhelmed by the traditions, the demands to spend family time in a certain way and at a specific place? I’m certain that they did. It’s hard to compete with memories of a golden time, before you were ever in the picture. It’s not easy to ask for compromise in the face of charisma, or emotional traditions. But with honest and open communication, I know that it is possible.
And for the sake of the family, it just has to be.
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