It’s the holidays, a season for food, parades and sitting on the couch with your pants unbuttoned as you take an early evening nap before you head out to the store and buy a bajillion Christmas gifts. All in all, it’s a pretty magical time — unless you have to deal with those jerks in your partner’s family who clearly don’t like you. In that case, the whole season is an exercise in forced smiles and barely contained rage. So what to do if their family hates you? Read on…
How to Tell If They Hate You
The first thing that you want to be sure of is whether or not their family actually does hate you. Some people are just weird or awkward — for example, some people think it’s totally appropriate to poke fun at your receding hairline the first time they meet you (on a related topic, screw you, Uncle Frank).
Anyway, do they really hate you? According to body language expert Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma, there are some telltale signs for when family members are giving you some shade. “Look for signals that show they’re shut down or turned off. They may turn away from you, or slump in their chair,” Wood says. She also says to watch out for them breaking eye contact or looking at their phone in the middle of you talking (although let’s be honest, that’s less of a giveaway than it used to be). If they’re especially jerkish, you may even hear some loud sighs out of them when you talk.
Those family members may also try some not-so-subtle things like excluding you from conversations or talking about you behind your back. Regardless of what signals you’re getting, psychotherapist and relationship expert Lisa White recommends giving them the benefit of the doubt early on. “Wait until they do it twice before you bring it up with your partner,” she says. Speaking of which…
How to Bring It up to Your Partner
Bringing up the subject of, “I think your family hates me” to your significant other is a tricky one, so you’ll want to be careful how you approach it, especially if it’s a parent. White says to frame it like this: “I notice that your mother did this, what do you think she meant by it?” Or maybe say something like, “Am I crazy, or did you notice that too?” The benefit of approaching things this way is that it will prevent you from framing the situation in a “me versus them” context. This may also help you gain some perspective about the offending in-law, as your partner probably knows them better than you do and may be able to offer an explanation.
The other advantage of not framing it as “me versus them” is that you don’t force your partner to pick sides — something you should really try to avoid. Dating coach Harris “Dr. Nerdlove” O’Malley says that much of how this is going to play out is going to depend on your partner and how much they “see.” “Hopefully they’re upset or horrified by it. Because if their family is rude or dismissive to you, they should be offended. However, if they say stuff like, ‘This is just how they are,’ or, ‘They don’t mean anything by it,’ that’s going to make it a lot harder,” says O’Malley.
Ideally, if they’re on the same page as you, they’ll become your biggest advocate within the family and either your relationships with the family will improve, or at least you’ll have some emotional support on the matter. Therapist and relationship coach Jodi Erin says that you can also problem solve together to figure out a solution. Erin says, for example, that you may want to try an approach like this to help move things forward: “I know that you love your mom and appreciate her feedback, but sometimes when your mom is over, I feel like she’s really critical of me and it makes me feel insecure. Can you help me figure out how to approach this with her?”
On the other hand, if your partner doesn’t see what you see, O’Malley says to try to bring them around by saying things like, “Do you see how I could take it that way?” or, “Do you see how that could be offensive?” Convincing your partner that their family members are being jerks may be a tall order, but having their support is going to be a tremendous benefit to navigating these waters. White even goes so far as to say the whole relationship may depend on it.
How to Change Their Minds
If the relationship is important to you, you really should try to make things work. If your bad blood perhaps stems from a poor first impression or an error on your part, Erin recommends taking responsibility for it. By humbling yourself, you may find that those grudges aren’t quite as deep as you thought.
On the other hand, if it really is a one-sided assault on you, O’Malley recommends going with a charm offensive: “Try to show them that you’re someone of integrity and that you’re an awesome person. Maybe ignore little slights and gloss over the awkward moments. If you make a consistent effort, perhaps they’ll be able to see you as who you are instead of how they perceive you.” Do your your best to be the bigger person and lay it on thick, but don’t be phony — just try to present yourself in the best possible light while still being sincere.
What to Do If You Can’t
The uncomfortable truth is, though, that even if you make a concerted effort, you still may not be able to get them to like you. Some people are just fundamentally incompatible or hold grudges for no good reason, so if you’ve tried to be liked and your efforts come up short, there are some things you can do to deal with being around them, even when it comes to big family gatherings like Christmas.
Amanda, a mother of two who used to have the mother-in-law from hell, says that she would get through family gatherings by simply making polite conversation with her husband’s diabolical mother. “I would just ignore her snarky comments and stick to very casual, polite conversation like, ‘Hi, how are you?’ and that was about it. If she asked me questions about her son I would answer them, but other than that, I wouldn’t get into conversations with her,” Amanda explains.
Erin also says that it may help to develop a “self-care plan” for dealing with them. “This can look like taking breaks when having your partner’s family over, having trusted friends or family around so that you feel supported, or in dire cases, deciding to not put yourself in situations that feel emotionally dangerous. Let your partner know about your self-care plan so that you’re both on the same page.”
What You Should Tolerate
Look, you’re going to have to let some stuff slide when you’re in the presence of these people. You can’t storm out of the house or pop off at every little slight without looking like the jerk, so some things will have to be taken in stride. For example, Amanda says that she would let go the deliberately insulting Christmas gifts she’d receive from her mother-in-law, like when she received a year-old box of chocolates or a gift card with no money on it.
O’Malley says to just try your best to ignore any petty things or snide remarks. Be polite, keep the conversations to a minimum, and ignore any passive-aggressive efforts to get your goat. Aside from that, do what you can to avoid these people. Sometimes they may be unavoidable, but don’t go over there every weekend if it’s just going to make you angry. O’Malley says that, when putting up with those crappy in-laws, “It’s Road House rules: ‘Be nice, until it’s time not to be nice.’”
When to Stand Your Ground
“That said, don’t ignore your values,” says Erin. “If the reason that you’re not getting along with your in-laws has to do with particular choices that are important to you and your partner, it’s vital to stand your ground.” She explains that it’s worth standing up for yourself when it comes to things like child-rearing decisions, cultural or religious issues, as well as situations like if you’re of a different race than them, or if you have a sexual orientation that they’re uncomfortable with. Erin says, “It’s okay to let them know that while you respect their feelings, your family’s values are important.”
For Amanda, some rather egregious events prompted her to all but completely separate herself from her mother-in-law. “One time she stole my husband’s debit card and paid off all her bills with it. I told him to press charges but he wouldn’t. Then there was the time when she put all this horrible sh*t about me on Facebook, but the final straw was when there was a family baby shower and she sent me to the wrong address. On purpose!” From there, Amanda swore off her relationship with her mother-in-law and just stopped trying. Fortunately her husband backed her up, and they made the decision to almost completely separate from her.
If You’ve Got Kids
Things can be even more complicated if you have children with your partner. Child therapist Veronica Acevedo says that you should do what you can to not expose your children to the issues you’re having with your partner’s family. “Those are grown-up problems, they aren’t kid problems. Kids already have enough to worry about. They shouldn’t have to worry about why daddy doesn’t get along with grandma,” says Acevedo.
She also encourages families to allow children to form their own opinions of their family members and to allow your child to love them freely, without their opinions being colored by their parents, unless of course it’s a matter of safety or some other complicated issue. Eventually, you may have to explain why you don’t talk to that relative, but for the most part, try not to involve the kids in these rivalries.
If the Relationship Is Important to You Though, Keep Trying
O’Malley stresses that if the relationship with your partner’s family means a lot to you, you should do whatever you can not to draw lines in the sand and try to work to improve the interactions. Over time, you might even come to an understanding with your ornery in-law and things really may improve, like they did for Maria, a mother of one who had some rocky times with her mother-in-law.
“Shortly after my son was born, my mother-in-law had been helping out with watching him and she was basically living with us at the time, which had started to wear on all of us. At some point she accused me of not trusting her with my son and I just lost it with her over that — I even ended up calling her a bitch and she responded by saying she wasn’t going to watch her grandson anymore. Within a few minutes, though, we were both crying and apologizing to each other, and honestly, it strangely strengthened our relationship. Now we get along great, and I’m really grateful that she’s such a big part of my life and my son’s life.”
And Finally, If Things Don’t Work out…
If, for whatever reason, things don’t go the way you’d hoped, Amanda recommends that, if fate presents you with the opportunity to get some sweet revenge on that jerk in-law, you should definitely seize the moment.
“When my husband and I were splitting up, I didn’t have to hear from her anymore, so that was good. But one day I was shopping in Walmart and I just happened to run into her. At first, I saw her and my heart was just pounding. Then I thought to myself, This is my moment! So when she looked at me and said, ‘Hey, how are you?’ I just lit into her. I told her, ‘Don’t even try to play fake with me. We’re done, and we both know we don’t have to play fake anymore!’ She basically responded by saying, ‘Yeah, you’re right,’ and we just walked away from each other. That was seven years of pent-up anger at that woman, and let me tell you, it was the best feeling in the world.”