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How do you bring up difficult in-law issues to your spouse without hurting their feelings?

In a follow up to last week’s column on how to love your family well and still create healthy boundaries during the holidays, a reader wrote, “How do you bring up difficult in-law issues to your spouse without hurting their feelings?” My response will build on what I wrote last week, so if you have yet to read that column, please consider looking it up on the Herald’s website or in last week’s edition.

I once spoke with a couple going through a rough time who had a litany of in-law issues. At one point in time during the conversation, the wife said, “I just want to know that, when push comes to shove, you love me more than you love your mom.” That statement summarizes a vast array of the in-law problems observed on Everybody Loves Raymond and perhaps in your own life as well.

The complexity of in-law relationships stems from the messiness of merging two circles which have existed independently. A great deal of this has to do with expectations (said or unsaid) within a relationship. When two people get married, they have a host of expectations about the way holidays are ‘supposed’ to work. Do you open gifts on Christmas Eve? On Christmas morning? Do you go to church on Christmas Eve? What do you eat? Does your family have a big brunch or do they have a big dinner? Do they go out for Chinese food and watch a Christmas Story? Although these seem like minor things - and indeed they should be peripheral in our relationships - they can become very major when expectations are never discussed. Rarely do I meet a couple who has discussed expectations prior to conflict. Normally, conflict brings unstated expectations to the table in almost comical ways like, “What do you mean we aren’t making a ham for Christmas dinner?”

There is another level on top of all of this which becomes very complex. Your family and your in-laws also have expectations for your spouse, and chances are they haven’t given it 20% of the amount of thought that you have given it. In most cases, family expectations are simply dealt out like a hand of poker, conflict arises, and then the newest member of the family is viewed as intolerant, uptight or high maintenance. The reality, however, is that in-law expectations were projected onto another person without any conversation or discussion.

Within marriage, we must remember this truth. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Marriage is a process of leaving and cleaving. We leave our family. This does not mean that we abandon our family, but we do indeed leave them. We leave their care as the primary providers of love and resources. This is a major shift and one which leaves many mothers especially aching for the loss of a son as a new woman replaces her in the role.

Not only do we leave our family, but we cleave with our spouse and create a new family unit. This family unit will need to, through mutual submission and sacrifice, create new traditions and define new expectations.

In-law issues must be de discussed with your spouse openly and clearly, but this has to happen from a position of humility and kindness and not from the leverage of “I am your primary love.” You need to explain to your spouse what issues are bothering you and why they are bothering you, with a desire understand and solve - not simply complain. Help your spouse to understand why specific actions done by their family are bothersome to you. This obviously cannot happen until you are self aware enough to know why you are bothered beyond, “Your mom drives me crazy.”

Some hurt for your spouse is inevitable. When we talk about family issues, there is always a tendency to get defensive - as if we are being personally attacked. The above discussed pointers are a good foundation for you as a couple to strive and work towards wrestling through these issues instead of just getting in fights around the holidays. As you, together, properly understand the idea of leaving and cleaving as well as the role expectations play in creating holiday strife, it should alleviate some of the difficulty and pain in talking through and dealing with in-law issues.

Talking with your in-laws after discussing things with your spouse? That’s a whole other can of worms, and probably needs to be reserved for another column. Quick advice - do it as a couple and let the immediate family member, and not the spouse, take point on the conversation.