We like to think that when families gather (whether it be for holidays, weddings, or just a weekend dinner) everything will be fun and pleasant, but that isn’t always the case. And, these family gatherings can be tough on new relationships, too. Even in the nicest families, there can be struggles and falling out.

Marriage or a committed relationship means relating to in-laws and extended family. If you start thinking of these people as your own extended family, your frustration level and resentment level will go down. The future of your marriage depends on each of you getting along with each other’s family.

Successful couples learn to accept and appreciate each other's family celebrations, foods, and also the more subtle emotional style of each others’ family. One family may think being loving is exactly what the other family sees as terribly intrusive. One partner may value sharing and intimacy, the other may value respect and privacy. Blending these styles is not easy, but the rewards are great. Getting close to your in-laws or extended family can feel awkward, at first.

Most people want to get along and have a good time, but if both families’ customs, habits and expectations are not taken into consideration, problems can arise. This is particularly important in families that are culturally religiously or regionally mixed—when the family members come from different traditions, cultures, areas of the country or ethnic backgrounds. While a couple may enjoy each others' differences, their families might be very uncomfortable with each other.

Also, different regions of our country have different customs, so a southern family might feel quite foreign to a northeastern daughter-in-law. So, it's very important for the couples to talk about their families: Is there an uncle who likes to pinch the girls when he has a few drinks? A grandmother who's getting a little spaced, and says odd things very loudly? A bitter political difference? Some very traditional religious branch of the family who will be upset if certain customs or diets aren’t followed? Understanding how to get along with your own family and each other’s will make all your future gatherings happier and more pleasant.

Here are some suggestions for getting along with extended family:

1) Get a clear agreement with each other about the boundaries you're going to set with your families. How will you handle holidays and family gatherings? Does one family like to “drop in” and is that OK?

2) Learn to give “adult time-outs” to any family members if they behave badly or pressure you. (that is, withdraw to extremely polite but distant relating—no personal interchanges, but no rudeness.)

3) If any family members are difficult, learn to treat them as members of someone else’s family—with whom you'd not react to obnoxious things, but just politely ignore what they’re doing or saying, and maintain a pleasant demeanor.

4) Be a grownup, whether they are or not. If you have to treat them as misbehaving children, so be it—just don't let them drag you into bad behavior of your own.

5) Find out what your in-laws like most, and try to do some of that. If your mother-in-law is a good cook, ask her to teach you some of your new husband’s favorite recipes. If your father- or brother-in-law knows cars, ask him to help you shop for yours, or advise you about car repairs. Sharing informal, productive activities is very bonding, as is allowing others to mentor you.

6) If you want to be closer as a family, invite both moms to a lunch or to get a manicure with you—another bonding experience. Or, have a back yard barbecue for just the two of you and all your in-laws.

All this is more easily said than done, but if you can do it, the annoyance factor will be small, which will allow you to experience more of the good things. In some cases, a partner who has a lot of skill with people can improve the relationship between a spouse and the spouse’s family.

It’s not always easy even to get along with your own extended family. Some family members are easy to be around, and others are more difficult. It’s not that they’re bad people, others may get along with them fine, but you may have to work a little bit more to understand what they mean, to not take what they say the wrong way, or use a little more patience around them, because their personalities or styles are quite different from yours. It's worth the work, because your differences will stretch you a bit, and enrich your life and understanding in ways that more similar people don’t. Challenging relationships can be the most rewarding, when you understand they have a purpose.

If you don't have an easy time with some of your family, but still want to attend family gatherings, check your own thinking first. Instead of approaching the day trying to get what you've always wanted from your family, instead think of finding a way to enjoy them as they are. Find something you can appreciate about a family member you have trouble with; something he does well, the way she dresses, his good friends, her hobbies. Make that the focus of your time together.

Often, the same quirks, reactions and behaviors that create problems between you and a family member wouldn't be a problem if it was someone else’s family member. If your best friend’s relative did the same thing, you’d probably let it go, gloss over it and focus on getting along. The same techniques will work with your own relative. Try pretending you’re talking with someone else's family member and see if that puts things is perspective. Use the following guidelines to let go of small things that might get in the way of enjoying the day.

To let go of small things:

1. Perspective: Put today's events in perspective—will it be important an hour from now or fifteen minutes from now? Most of them won't be.

2. Self-understanding: If someone or something upsets you, don’t exacerbate the problem by getting on your own case for reacting. Reactions are normal—it’s what we do with them that counts.

3: Rise above: If someone frightened you (a driver who cut you off) then give a little prayer of thanks that you survived, bless the other driver (who probably needs it) and you’ll feel better.

4. Benefit of the doubt: If someone hurt your feelings, acknowledge that your feelings are hurt, then consider that the other person is probably more clumsy than intentionally hurtful. The world is full of emotional klutzes who don’t realize the impact of their words and actions, and they create more problems for themselves than for you.

5. Consider the source: A neighbor or associate who is truly nasty may repeatedly hurt your feelings. Consider what must be going on inside that person's head, and be grateful that you're not hearing that. Even the meanest people are far nastier to themselves than they are to others. That person is tryin to relieve his or her pain by inflicting some on you.

6: Adult time out: If someone repeatedly hurts, abuses or disrespects you, the best way to handle it is with an adult time out.

Handling difficult personalities takes skill and know-how. Here's a technique anyone can learn to use that works every time.

Adult time out
If someone behaves badly in your presence, giving that adult a “time out” is a powerful and subtle way of fixing the problem. All you need to do is become very distant and polite around the person who is not treating you well. No personal talk and interaction, no joking, no emotion. Be very polite, so the person cannot accuse you of being unpleasant, mean or rude. There is no need to explain what you are doing: the problem person will get the message from your behavior—which is much more effective. Most people will change, but even if the person’s behavior doesn’t change, you can leave him or her in “time out” and you won’t have to be anxious about his or her behavior.

©2012 Tina B. Tessina adapted from: It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction (New Page) ISBN 1-56414-469-9

Author Bio:
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California, with over 30 years experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 13 books in 17 languages, including It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction (New Page); How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free (New Page); The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again (Wiley) and The Real 13th Step: Discovering Self-Confidence, Self-Reliance and Independence Beyond the Twelve Step Programs (New Page); Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, The Commuter Marriage and her newest, Lovestyles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. She publishes “Happiness Tips from Tina”, an e-mail newsletter, and the “Dr. Romance Blog.” Online, she is “Dr. Romance” with columns at,, and Yahoo!Personals, as well as a Redbook Love Network expert. Dr. Tessina guests frequently on radio, and such TV shows as “Oprah”, “Larry King Live” and ABC news. She tweets @tinatessina and is on Facebook at and!/DrRomanceBlog
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