It's beginning to look a lot like that time of year when couples fight about their families.
The festive season is upon us, with all the high expectations for fun times and sacks of raised hopes of family togetherness. If the prospect of spending holiday time with your partner's family is about as attractive as shingles, take heart, there are ways to thrive in their difficult territory. I asked one of the best family relationship specialists around, psychologist and best-selling author Harriet Lerner, to help with some tips on how to be your best self under trying festive circumstances.
DON'T TAKE IT PERSONALLY
We've all got an in-law we'd rather lived on Pluto. Maybe they drink too much and get obnoxious, maybe they're intrusive, controlling, critical or petty. Dr Lerner suggests you "recognise that this person's judgmental, intrusive, rude or otherwise obnoxious behaviour is about them and not about you". So, when Uncle Frank takes the opportunity of the passing of marriage equality to pester you about when you're going to marry your queer sweetie, keep in mind that his heteronormative prying is his stuff. Then you can let him know that you appreciate his question just as much as your other single straight relatives do, without raising your voice or spilling your mocktail.
This sounds so simple, but it takes concerted effort. If you can practice not taking things personally over the holidays, it will make it much easier to keep your own manners in check. Because don't forget, you may be someone else's least favourite relative too.
PLAN FOR THE WORST
Nietzsche once said that hope was the greatest evil. What he meant was that simply wishing for things to be better keeps us stuck in situations that require action rather than daydreaming. Dr Lerner suggests being prepared for what's to come.
"Make a plan to manage the conversation and your own reactivity, so things don't escalate," she says. "Use humour and lightness. Pass on less intensity than you receive. Always aim to lower your own intensity with your in-laws. You don't have to like them, in order to be calm and cordial.
"The holidays are always stressful times, so expect your in-laws to be on their worst behaviour. It just when your father-in-law is being a big jerk that you are called upon to be your best self."
It might stick in your craw to think about taking the high road with folks whose behaviour you despise. But being gracious doesn't mean bestowing your approval. It means accepting that these are your people and you're not a wombat, so you can't get rid of them by grunting, scent-marking or leaving your droppings in strategic locations.
Take some time to consider how to respond. Think about what gets your goat and be ready for it, rather than using the gravy boat as a frisbee.
IT'S NOT JUST ABOUT YOU
One of the most difficult things to keep in mind when family connections are fraught, is that the whole system is affected when there's fighting or estrangement, especially children, who are dependent on us to keep them free from grown-up tensions.
Dr Lerner says: "Kids raise the stakes for how you treat your partner's parents, not just your own. Your behaviour is your children's blueprint for family and will influence how you get treated when they grow up. How you navigate these adult relationships is the most important legacy that you leave your children."
If you can keep in mind that your goal is to maintain respectful connection, not just for yourself, but in order to make it safer for other family members, especially little ones, it can make it easier to keep your holiday cool.
And finally, remember that being polite doesn't mean tolerating the unacceptable, the unendurable or the unforgivable. Dignity means treating everyone, including yourself, with respect.
As another festive season approaches, it's a time to celebrate. Why not do your best to be part of that?
Psychologist Harriet Lerner is the author of the bestseller, The Dance Of Anger and a new book, Why Won't You Apologise?: Healing Big Betrayals And Everyday Hurts. Zoë Krupka is a psychotherapist and a lecturer at The Cairnmillar Institute in Melbourne.
This article was first published on news.com.au.