How to gracefully navigate in-laws from hell

If you prefer to listen here’s the podcast version of this post on Soundcloud and iTunes.

I know holidays with the fam can bring up a ton of uncomfortable feelings, especially if you have not-so-loving-family or in-laws who make you feel excluded or like you’ll tear your hair out. This is for anyone with family who are supposed to be nice but instead, make your relationship difficult. Maybe they constantly divide you and your spouse, instigating arguments – pushing your spouse to take sides or turn against you. Maybe you’ve even tried making peace, being the bigger person and reaching out with different olive branches – but nothing seems to help the situation. The heartbreak and hurt of an unloving, unsupportive family can be excruciating during the holidays – and with all the stress, you might feel like you’re going crazy.

A tumultuous relationship with your extended family is a problem that catalyzes a lot of other unrest: for your sense of self, the love in your relationship, and your threshold for abuse. Yes. It’s a huge bummer, and not what you SHOULD have or what you deserve. But to address it, you must choose empowerment – doing what you can to improve it, not staying the pain of the victimization. Empowerment is where positive change is accessible.

This is for a new friend who wrote to me recently – hang in there. I know this ain’t easy and it takes a strong and loving person to manage it.

As per usual there are three parts – the what, the why and the how.

Part 1: The What

Extended family who treat you differently in punishing ways– like an outsider, a second-class citizen, or like you’re invisible. This dynamic can appear in different forms depending on the family’s culture and rearing style.  Different sets of emotional baggage create different ways of exerting control. For example, a passive aggressive and non-confrontational style will manifest family members who intentionally talk about you as though you’re not there: literally, in third person. Or they speak to your spouse and not to you.

Similar in style, different in root, a family who suffers from depression might completely ignore your presence to the point that they show no signs of awareness that you are present. The see through you.

Maybe they’re the opposite and force comfort: they overstep your boundaries, disrespect your wishes and exert control over your spouse’s life by demanding attention. Maybe they have set up a style of relating to you that allows them to be the center of focus –creating awkward and, by your standards, inappropriate situations. They might assume the most important position in your spouse’s life, showing affection that feel similar to a romance and not a parent. They might even manipulate their kids to feel guilty and sorry for them, playing a constant victim, like a child with hurt feelings. All are ways to control the emotions of their child. You become the bad guy for asking for what anyone would want in a committed relationship: boundaries and respect.

There’s also the kind of family who prides themselves on being “above” everyone else or hold an external measure as their bar for someone’s value. These kinds of families create absolutes as a way to judge others. They hold tight to an external structure for their terms, whether it be the rules of a class, religion, or a level of education.

There’s also a family who cares about getting their way and disregards the feelings of people.  They might enact blatant and directed cruelty, which can be one of the most painful kinds of non-acceptance to endure. This can cause a lot of anguish for the spouse and you, the outsider, because it becomes an arena for abuse that you would never otherwise tolerate.

Depending on the style of the meanness it can make you internalize the reaction and believe maybe there is something not to love about you. When a family member who is meant to love and welcome you chooses to shut you out and hurt you, it’s the type of situation that can unsettle your sense of self, because it doesn’t make sense. Their upside down world can make you feel like you’re going crazy: like you don’t have the right to ask for what you want, or the meanness is in your head, that you’re not right for your spouse, or that there’s something wrong with you.

PLUS this situation can create a rift between you and your spouse, causing you to feel they don’t love you enough, they’re not doing enough, or they are weak and cowardly. Your spouse can feel forced into the middle of something they are hurt by, just as much as you. When someone is torn between you and their family – it’s difficult for you to be close to them, because there’s always this rock between you, and it’s impossible for them to choose between you and their family. Because it’s love and cannot be willfully undone.

I want to offer you clarity as a place to start from, because relationships like this are disorienting and make you feel not like yourself:

Firstly, no, you’re not crazy and this isn’t in your head.  If you feel it, its there. Trust your gut.  Some people are experts at passive aggression or manipulation.  So as a general rule for yourself, if you are hurt, your feelings are valid and should be treated as such. Know that it’s healthy for you to react to the negative treatment– you are healthy for not accepting it silently.  By acknowledging this pain, you stop it from being internalized – which is where it would hurt you the most: if it were left to fester inside. When things are externalized, they can be addressed. So, even though it hurts, you’re doing the healthiest thing by vocalizing your pain and choosing to do something about it. No matter how inconvenient that happens to be.  Now that you are aware of the problem, it can be better managed by you and your spouse.

Second, it’s not about you. At all. You are deserving of love and respect exactly as you are. The fact that you are not treated that way is very unfortunate for everyone involved, you, your spouse, and also this other family member who is doing the meanness. Because really it’s a loss of so much good they are inflicting on themselves. Even though others can make you feel like it’s because of you, or their feelings are your fault – you must always know that it’s not about you, personally. Always approach this situation from that awareness.

Third, this isn’t about your relationship. It’s infecting it, but it’s separate. Family is its own ball of wires and it’s tied to all sorts of weird things inside a person – so take as much of the blame off of your spouse as possible and keep them as close to you as you can. You need their love and support right now so it’s vital that you communicate peacefully, honestly, and from a non-blaming perspective. This has to be a united team – so work on ways you can help them make it so. Don’t assume they are capable, but find the solutions that they can do for your. Respect their blindness when it comes to their parents. It’s harder to deal with than you can see it is from your vantage point.

Regardless of what your spouse does or doesn’t do, establish to yourself, aloud, right now, that you don’t want this to infect your relationship – why? Because it’s much smaller and easier to address if you keep it away from your bond with your spouse. Don’t allow this to take anything more from you. This is this person who is attempting to affect your relationship but keep it away from that. It’s too sacred. Don’t get it dirty. More than anything just keep that in the back of your head. It does you no good to lump more into the fire – keep it to the real good and evil, and don’t escalate fights related to the conduct of your spouse. Fight those battles when it’s something related to your love for each other.

If you want my official answer, yes, your spouse should be putting you first – choosing you over their family, but in reality it’s not that black or white. It’s not exactly fair to ask someone to do as a blanket rule – because sometimes it’s not that simple and it’s not easy, depending on their baggage with their parent or how much power the parent has over them – to manipulate them. Parents know weak spots and also have different love and intimacy standards. For the sake of isolating the problem and keeping it manageable, attack this as an issue between you and the parents – so that you can keep it in your own mind – from souring your bond with your partner. You need them with you, supporting you as much as possible and blaming them moves them further away.

So for the sake of being the most empowered in this situation – treat this as a family issue. Not a relationship one. It’s both of your problem, you need each other in order to be effective. Trust that they have limits and you can’t feel how they feel – but they mean well. Keep blame out of it and take the actions of your partner out of it as much as possible. You need them to support you so if you put them on the offensive it’s not going to help anything get better. The trick is to prepare yourselves enough that you protect your relationship from it, and don’t allow it to sour your bond. It can’t be put in the hands of your significant other. And it doesn’t belong in between you two – keep it out of there! Your relationship is sacred.

This is about watching the crazy as an outside story line that you have to navigate now and again. It’s nothing to do with you – you are whole and happy. It’s almost like a reality show and they’re the star character: the audience inside your brain is watching your in-law with horror. Those people are victims of themselves – of the crazy inside. They’re the ones destroying their lives and what would be happy fun time. Laugh at train wrecks, feel pity for them: don’t engage them.

So to recap: this problem must be addressed from a very clear position. It’s not about you, and it’s not about your relationship. Keep the terms pristine because it will give you the best outcome.

Part 2: The Why

Metaphors help to assign logic to situations that might otherwise hurt and confuse you.

From this point forth, I want you to think of this relationship in metaphor – any appropriate imaginary land that this family member inhabits. You can think of your own or use mine – a hyper visual one works best. It’s not personal so you must arrive at this situation as a whole and self-protected person.

Think of their world like a Grey Gardens style kingdom: this person believes they are the King or Queen of the family. When you interact with this person, you have to picture their mismatched outfit and remember how crazy they are – the image they see in their heads doesn’t exist. And how sad and sweet it is that they live in such a different world.  You are like a documentarian who is visiting them with an amused and respectful smile, handling their feelings with kid gloves.  Navigating this relationship is all about being a nonstick pan: zero offensive moves, a constant state of love.

You cannot expect anything different from them than what they have demonstrated they will do. They live in their own imagination, which is rife with old issues – all of which have nothing to do with you, whatsoever. Whatever brand of crazy they happen to be, don’t take it personally.  This person’s baggage blocks their ability to be loving and open – which is sad, and I’m sure embarrassing for your spouse. They’re stunted somewhere and it’s a loss for everyone, especially them.

Here’s a bit of background on why they might be this way. It can be one or all of these things…

  1. They See You as a Threat to Their Title

There are a lot of parents who think of their kids as a personal achievement: they placed so much of their own identity in their child that they take everything about their life, personally. Even as an adult, they see their child as an expression of who they are and a sign of their success. Their unrealistic expectations extend to who their kids choose as a mate, therefore, you becoming a part of their life is similar to a robbery or a personal attack. If you don’t align with their preferences or personal vision, you are dinging their perfect family portrait.

They also feel a simultaneous fear of losing their child.  There’s an unhealthy form of attachment, therefore their rudeness is a form of vulnerability being expressed. They always sat on the throne, and you’ve been welcomed to sit in their chair as “most loved person in their life.” They see your entry as a power grab for boss.

  1. They See You Are Vulnerable

We all have personality dynamics that are visible to others the moment they meet us. Think about when you see a stranger you don’t trust – you sense subtle cues right off the bat. So this person, who feels vulnerable to you and threatened by you, is keeping you safely below them by using what they detect as your weak spots.  Their rudeness is a form of armor to keep you at a safe distance and off balance: a tactic for power and control.  They likely saw how they could control you if they kept you vulnerable, which makes them feel valid and powerful, and less uncomfortable. If you acted oblivious to their control tactics, they would give up on them for the most part. Because they understand something about you, they are taking advantage.Which is all the more reason for you to be whole and autonomous to approach this relationship.

  1. They are Deeply Unhappy.

If you’re trying everything to be nice to someone who is very unhappy, you’re easy prey for abuse. Because, like a punching bag, they know you will come back again just as nice or trying harder. Why unhappy people are mean to others, at all, is they have very deep set in damage from childhood that they are living out in loop form. I talk a lot about unconscious behavioral loops that play out in our personalities like broken records, and this is a prime example of just that. If you want to read more about it check out Negative Thought Habits.

Usually people who are unhappy are mean because they don’t care enough to be nice. They feel like crap inside. When you are full of hate you can’t will yourself to choose to be nice because you don’t feel good or gratified. And this chemical state of being becomes set in, as a habit of being. Like when you cry a lot and you get depressed or low for the next day or so.

Chronically unhappy, mean people are trapped in a very old loop of thoughts and opinions that originally comes from protecting low self-worth. The negativity is actually them continuing to prove their own value to themselves. So they might say things like, “That guys a moron. I’m smarter than everyone at work. All (fill in the blank group) are lazy and I hate them.” That voice is the product of feeling low, powerless, and insecure and in order to feel a tiny bit soothed, they put other people down and label things bad or lessor. Think of a threatened, insecure person: they will constantly need to prove their worth aloud, “My xyz is so much better than that. That person sucks.”

Where this negative self-worth comes from is usually their parents – if they had a parent with high standards, who made them feel they had to earn their love. Or a parent who didn’t give them unconditional love – and so they forever feel unimportant and like a bottomless pit. Parents can define a secret truth in someone – that they will believe but never know exists. It all revolves around the idea of not being good enough. How people act is a mirror to their insides and how they feel directly translates to how they treat others. So if they are treating you as lessor, they believe themselves to be of lessor value, too. If they are intolerant of you, they are intolerant of themselves. What you are experiencing is the product of their lens. Crazier still is for the most part, they have no awareness they are seeing things through this negative filter. It’s just “the world” as they see it. Most people don’t realize their thoughts are not them – and that they can choose which ones to listen to and which ones to rise above.

So as lame an excuse as it is, this person likely has no idea that this deep insecurity and self-loathing exists, because it’s so old and buried deep, and they don’t have the window of insight to work on their issues. The brain is an amazing protector, so if you don’t use the proper windows of time to grow and undo your damage, at a certain point it’s buried deep and in the back of your consciousness. And there’s so much resistance to look within and question yourself: it’s too scary and overwhelming to look.  If you’ve been running from an issue your whole life, it feels too powerful to face – like it would unravel too much.

  1. They Feel Good Feeling Powerful.

People who intentionally hurt others or exert control over others with emotional manipulation, do so because they feel good having any kind of empowerment. This might be happening to you because this person doesn’t feel empowered in any other area of their life. And how sad that is, for them. To be able affect anyone gives them the only feeling of power they have. Lame, unkind, and petty – but a tiny kingdom exists when a person has no real power. It’s simply an expression of their anger and resent.

  1. They’re Willfully Ignorant.

Ignorance can be deliberate, and when that’s the case, it’s usually coming from fear and a feeling of inferiority: because they don’t want to know they’re wrong. They refuse to be open to anything, because it scares them and it will require they change – which they don’t feel confident they can face. It’s safer and easier and less scary to stay rigid and close your eyes. Like the defense mechanism of a child afraid of the dark. They don’t want to see the truth of their own faults, and this brute denial is a way to protect that truth. The reason people choose to not look or open to newness is because they’re afraid of what they’ll see and they don’t want to face change.

Another form of ignorance is elitism. Elitism is a form of blindness that comes from fear: not wanting to know or accept something unknown. Both are unconscious forms of hate – hate of anything “other” or “new” but veiled in ideology. These opinions are blunt and basic and broad and have nothing to do with you or the truth. They’re instincts that are primitive: an internal system born of wanting to create safe rules for the world that they can hold onto in the face of so much unknown. It’s the ego’s way of creating a world that they can prove to themselves “I’m good. I’m worthy. I’m right. I’m a success.” But it’s a fragile set of terms so when something threatens it, they bark loud.

  1. They have damage, just like everyone else.

I just want to also remind you that at this time 2015 – people in the older generation didn’t have access to therapy. Nor did they have access to the internet to understand why they are the way they are – which is not an excuse – but for computer illiterates, it’s a piece of information that can help you see why they are so unevolved. It wasn’t around them and it wasn’t’ popular to seek understand for personal issues. Therefore they get stuck inside and deform their world view.

So if you grow up around all wealthy people and you’re poor – you might forever obsess about wealth and status, continuing to pass that judgment onto your kids. If you grow up feeling ashamed of having any dirty thoughts, and let’s say you grow up praying for your own salvation, you will judge your kids and others based on your own self-hating, fearful shame. You internalize stuff like that in many strange unseen ways.

A lot of people have really severe trauma from their parents and in a generation of people who didn’t get therapy – with parents who had worse issues, there’s a good chance they are enacting the damage of their childhood. You might not even see it in your spouse’s grandparents, but people change dramatically when they’re at that age and the relationship is much different with their children’s children. For example, if this person is hyper critical and only focuses on what’s wrong with you – no matter what you do, that is a sign they had a parent who did that to them. If things are never enough – it’s a sign they weren’t given unconditional love by their parent – so it’s what I like to call being a bottomless pit.  It’s never enough when they feel empty inside: I’m not loved enough, give me more. That’s their inner kid talking. We can only give what we got, growing up.

Why Your Spouse Might Not Do What You’d Like Them To:

Your spouse experiences something much more difficult: a conflict with no solution. One that will hurt them in any direction, that they cannot do anything to remove themselves from being smack dab in the middle.  Many will side with their parent because they feel they are weaker and that their spouse is strong enough to deal with the offense. So it’s a compliment that doesn’t feel good or help you in any way.

Some people will shut down and pretend things aren’t happening as a way to avoid conflict and self-protect. So if your spouse is ignoring the conflict, reacting with a blank stare or refusing to acknowledge instances, it’s a defense mechanism based on a lack of ability. All of these reactions are defensive and based on a person’s lack of ability to cope with stress and navigate family baggage. It relates to upbringing and personality type, so don’t take it personally. When people don’t react the way you want them to, it’s not because they don’t love you. Their choices are not “wrong” – they’re just different than your expectations of them, and they’re doing their best with the tools they have.

To get them to understand why and how they can help you, communicate with compassion. Most people are terrible mind readers, so if you want them to do something – tell them. If you feel something, say how you feel and don’t expect them to see things as obvious. Leave blame out of it and build a method for them to support you that they are capable of, taking into account their family dynamics. Always lead with love. Make the solutions always from love, and if you give them the proper ways to help you, they will gladly take you up on them, to the best of their abilities.

This situation is a tough one, and it’s not fair to you or your spouse. But the best way for you to get more good and happy in your life, is to put all your needs and wishes aside – and choose empowerment.  Accept the truth and navigate accordingly. Which means choosing to use your own power in this situation and not succumbing to the need to feel sad and a victim of this situation. Which isn’t fair! I know. But it’s life. And you get to choose to move on – to put the not-helpful stuff aside and move toward more of what will make your life richer. Which brings me to…

Part 3: Ze Tools!

  1. Mourn

I know this doesn’t sound super empowering, but it is the most important and powerful step in this situation. This is a very sad thing to be going through, and a lot of the pain you are currently experiencing is not wanting to accept that this is the way things are. Because they shouldn’t be and you deserve better. You deserve love and acceptance and enthusiasm from your family. At the very least, you deserve humane treatment. And that truth really stings. It’s so painful that your brain will actually try to protect you from it by skirting it and debating it or distracting from it with the constant attempt to analyze them and make sense of them. But the truth is, you deserve love and these people are incapable of giving it to you. You must look at that fact – that you are not going to get what you want – and accept it. Feel it. Mourn that truth and know it.

Really mourning this fact and allowing yourself to be sad about it – is a very difficult step. It hurts so much and the pain is scary to feel – it’s dark and deep. And yet, this part is something you must move through. Really witness and accept the truth. See them as they are. Separate from you. They’re damaged and limited humans.  You? deserve better. I know your pain and it’s almost unbearable. “But why don’t they love me. Why can’t they see how great I am?” Because they’re incapable. No matter what you wish or try to change, they are who they are and it has nothing to do with you.

A lot of this part of the process will be almost like your brain is trying to hide from this truth – like dodging it with justifications and rationalizations – “But maybe I can show them in a different way. They HAVE to understand…”

The best thing you can do for yourself in this loop of hurt – is step back and look at them for what they are. Accept it and know that you don’t deserve it, and that is very very sad. Cry about it. Mourn that loss. Feel that wound in yourself so you can come back to this and choose your relationship.  Because once you accept all of them, you stop getting hurt.  You stop expecting them to be different, and instead you empower yourself to create something better – a little bit at a time.

If you skip this stage, what happens is you blind yourself with hope and expectations and get crushed, again and again. “They’re still not changing! How could they?! They’re still hurtful! This was a big deal to me – how could they do the same mean thing?!” Yes. They are the way they are. Now accept that and allow yourself to be sad now, all at once.  Do not blind yourself to anything. And once you do that, you really KNOW who they are –THEN you can strategize. You don’t have unrealistic expectations. Get over the fact that they’re jerks. Make it into a manageable situation where you actually get surprised for the better now and again. Your path becomes a slow upward incline! Which is better than a rocky plateau.

I have a friend with a crazy in-law who hurts her immensely and causes constant conflict, but she can laugh about it and at the end of the day she loves her husband enough and has enough confidence in herself that she makes peace with this woman after incredibly hurtful things have been said. Why? Because when you take yourself out of it and stand above it, you only care about solutions. You know it’s got nothing to do with you. This is about being able to confront the truth so you can accept it and protect yourself.

  1. Pause

This is a profound and simple tool to apply in the moments when you feel you can’t help but react to this family member who is mean to you. Maybe your responses are so gut and painful, and you end up feeling you lost in the game of better-than. In the moment of reaction, take a breath and simply pause. Take a beat before doing anything at all – just a full moment of non-action.  Observe this pause and feel what is going through your physical body.  This one’s from a great book called Radical Acceptance. It’s the key to altering your reactions. Reactions are the base-level gut responses when things get the better of us. When we don’t “choose,” we react from instinct and that choice is never reflective of our highest values as a person. When we fall victim to the low-blows of another, we leave feeling humiliated and angry at ourselves for allowing ourselves to get down to their level. Plus, we’re an emotional wreck – notes plucked inside us like the strings of a harp. So this is a way to train yourself not to fall victim to that.

Because this is like a muscle, you should practice this tool by simply pausing before an everyday activity – for example, right before you brush your teeth or take a sip from your water bottle. Take a moment before you do that thing and say in your mind, “Pause” or “One-One-Thousand.” It’s a way to hone your pausing ability for the dinner party with your in-laws when you’re afraid you’ll yell across the table. Because in that moment – when you don’t react, and instead you choose a response – something above the evil of this other person – you have won. You overcame their game. It’s an incredible feeling of empowerment and you’ll find that it frees you emotionally and gets easier and more enlightening, each time.  Eventually even freeing you to look upon them with compassion and even love.

  1. Witness Their Pain

This one is super powerful and I use it daily. When someone is cruel or mean or spitting hate at you, try to become a witness to just the pain operating inside them: like a pain program on a computer.  Try to see the pouting child that wants love and attention, or the adult who is scared everyone will see how disgusting and worthless they are. Take yourself out of the scenario in your mind and focus on just them, alone – as though they were sitting under a spotlight, doing what they’re doing, talking to themselves. Feel pity for them.  Observe how tortured they are, how filled with unhappiness they appear to be. How painful would it be to live inside their body – feeling the way they do. What a loss for them – to miss out on you and your love. It’s sad, really. And you can observe this pain program with pity, but keep your awareness that it’s outside of you – don’t let it penetrate you.

When it comes to rage or rude people, their pain program can also be the result of unconsciousness. Like the rage zombies you see on the freeway – when people get stressed out or never turn their brains off, they are on autopilot: they are not thoughtful or reflective, they are purely guided by the chattering voice of the cranky ego. When you live operated by the ego, your brain creates easy paths and you save energy by using familiar habits. So we end up living according to routines – habits of being that are not truly us. So this person might just be trapped in the habit of being hateful. They likely have no idea they have the option to step back from this state or that it’s not them, at all.

Whatever the form, step back from the room and witness what is operating inside this person. Is it automated rage? Is it a child’s pain? Feel sorry for them. Or if it’s easier, laugh at them. It’s a tool to keep yourself safe and autonomous.

  1. Mud is for Babies

Imagine they’re a filthy, angry child playing in the mud and every time they do something mean, they’re slinging it at you. When they do that and you react to it, you have now sat down in the mud and you’re playing in it too. Get off the ground. Stop crawling on their level. If you don’t receive something, it doesn’t exist for you at all – and whether or not you receive something is up to you. You can watch a passive aggressive mud clod fly by and land on the wall behind you – if you don’t want to catch it, let it go and focus on something else. If you notice yourself stuck on something they said, clean out your ears! Wash out the muck cause some of it got stuck inside your head.

Don’t engage in the dirty games. It’s a waste of energy and it dirties your person – in your own eyes. That stuff is for babies, not healthy, happy adults, like you. Your task is really to find the best raincoat to wear while you’re around them. Get your spouse to hold up an umbrella so things don’t hit you as often. Never escalate – not because you’re not right, but because it’s a distraction from your goal and a waste of your time. It leads you away from the rational solution. Don’t take things personally. Always approach this like you’re a bomb squad and you are making sure to not escalate conflict as much as possible while staying safe behind your gear. You’re the smart one with the higher level strategy – never forget that.

  1. Kindness is Teflon 

Always be kind. Why? Because nothing sticks to it. It just bounces back or slides off, leaving no trace of dirt behind. Think about when you’re rude to someone and they’re rude back. You feel validated. Now think about when you’re rude to someone and they’re nice back. You feel like a stupid idiot. Don’t allow this person to validate their hate at your expense. You always exist above it, and you must show them their pettiness by maintaining your truest self.

You are always a separate whole individual, outside of this person. Keep that skin on no matter what.  Don’t alter your truth as an individual. Let go of the outcome of your actions, and know yourself and your goodness of heart.  If you do something kind for them – do it because you are kind, and not because you want them to do what they’re supposed to do. That’s setting yourself up to be hurt and asking for a response.  You don’t need anything from them, because you have yourself. Don’t wait for them to change because it’s just inviting more injury to yourself. Hate and fear are stubborn and when they’re catered to they feel validated. So in other words, you must not cater to the hate by feeling wounded and fighting it. You must demonstrate you are above it by acting as if.  Eventually, it becomes you through and through. Come from love, expect nothing, and you will know yourself in a profoundly freeing way.

Will the relationship ever change? Can they ever see the light and grow? Sometimes a major milestone can shift the dynamic – a birth or a death can hit a big reset button on everything a person knows. But that’s not something you should rely on.  This isn’t about you, this is about this other person wanting to change. You must take care of yourself, first and foremost, and come from an acceptance of reality. If they come around one day – that would be awesome. Your job is to be loving to yourself and others, but not to base anything in your life on the actions of another. Leave what others do out of the equation. You choose who you are and how you will act.

  1. Leave the Ref Out of the Fight

This conflict is toxic so keep it small and isolated.  Don’t allow it to merge into a conflict with your relationship. The more you put your spouse in the middle, the harder it will be to manage, so keep it its own separate thing. Reaffirm to your spouse that you’re loving them by honoring his or her relationship with their parents. Don’t focus on whether or not they are taking sides – work from the positive. Focus on actions to take moving forward, and keep those conversations for home base. You are a united front!

  1. A Locket of Allegiance

This is a tool to help you feel safe and protected when you’re in the threatening environment and might be hurt by this person.  Choose an item with your spouse that will represent your love and support of one another – something specific to the strength of your relationship.  Wear this gift from your spouse while you attend this function, and if you start to feel weak, focus on this object and remind yourself that it represents something powerful and sacred between the two of you. Hold onto its power while you are there. Know that you are in this together – and nothing anyone says can break this bond or take this away from you. When you find yourself being pelted with mud, focus visually on this item – whether it’s a ring or a bracelet – something specific that you attribute this love and power to – a symbol of allegiance.

  1. Defense is a Team Sport

Put on matching uniforms under your clothes and make this play a team effort! Not literally, but before you enter a family gathering – strategize as a team. Make up a set of plays you can enact in the most difficult scenarios. Even if they’re small and gestural cues. Create safety words and emergency chords for one another. Know that you have each other’s backs and you are in this together.

Your best approach with your partner is humor and honesty and open communication. Make a plan with your partner before the hang out with the rents. Make it clear you know they are in a tough spot and invite them to be honest and open with you about what they’re going through, without judgement. The more you can strengthen your bond and intimacy, the better.

If this is conflict in your family, strategize with a sibling or bestie.  Any other person who can spot the dynamic and understand where you’re coming from. Just having one person who you can ground to is immensely helpful – especially right after entering the lions den. You need to hear someone echo back to you, “Nope you’re not crazy. That sucks, and also it’s kind of hilarious.”

In closing

Know that you always have a choice: to engage or not. You don’t have to participate.  If someone is coming at you with hurtful tactics, choose not to play. Say nothing, be neutral, and walk away.  You control what you do with your body and who you give your focus and attention. You always have a choice.

Building any relationship takes time. Especially if that relationship is one between a mature loving adult – you, and venom-filled childlike adult. The best thing you can do for yourself and your spouse is forgive, forgive, forgive. And as painful as it sounds – accept, accept, accept. Because when you get to that place of letting go of what you wish was true – you can truly react from a place of stability and wholeness. It just is, and it’s got nothing to do with you – and nothing to do with your spouse, and what makes you two happy together. It’s just this unfortunate thing that you have to navigate around as best you can. This all comes down to choosing the best relationship you possibly can – to the situation. Not the individual. It’s a comedic construct! The in-law with bizarre issues.  So you’re not alone – we’ve known of this dynamic existing across generations – it’s the reason it shows up in so many comedies.  It’s one of those things that will forever exist. Why? Because people are crazy when it comes to their kids, and also, older generations have less access to therapy and self help. So cut them some slack and lovingly pity them in their tactics. It can’t and won’t touch you. That’s what you must ensure. You always hover above them – on another level. Smiling down. And they know that. It’s just about making sure you do too.

Does the good of working harder to maintain a safe and loving system to navigate this person outweigh the bad? If so, then choose to put in that work. Be the bigger person. Why? Because you are empowered in this situation to choose. And healthy self-loving people choose to get the most out of any situation, regardless of how that has to be achieved. Who cares if it’s not your fault? Being their victim is a perspective gets you nowhere. But wounded and longing for them to change. Which is irrational and not based on reality.

Build the right system to get as much of the love and family experiences you possibly can – because life is short, you are smart and you can choose to change the course if you use your own power. Walk slowly, with a smile, and hold your partner’s hand. This is about milking it for all it can give you, while avoiding as much of the negative as possible. So work toward that path. As a couple – be Teflon. Don’t let anything penetrate your bond. And as a person, do the same. No one can alter how you feel inside yourself. This person is not allowed to affect you and your sense of self and your world. It’s not about you. Come from love, and let the rest go. Smile lovelies.

Teaspoon of Happy takes hundreds of hours to create. If you appreciate this work or it brings value to your life, please consider making a monthly donation. Even something as small as a cup of coffee makes a world of difference. Xo!

(Featured image via Universal Pictures)

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