Tips for Traveling with the In-Laws

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The Story –

“Jack, we should call someone. I don’t think he can do this. Do you have reception here? Let’s call someone. He can’t do this.”

…That’s my mother-in-law, Maureen. Jack is her husband, and I am “he,” lying underneath a rented vehicle on an unpaved road high above Leadville, Colo., trying to solve the SUV’s complex spare-tire retention system so I can change a flat. It is 47 degrees and raining. Cold runnels of dull-orange mud are coursing around me. With Maureen and Jack are my wife, Cathleen, and our two children, all huddled around a small pine tree and nearly dwarfed by the pile of luggage we unloaded to access the jack.

Look, we all love our in-laws. We get along fine and have, for years; developed what feels like mutual affection and respect. And yet, if that disembodied voice had belonged to my mom or dad, I would have not responded with a chipper “Almost got it!”

Tension with in-laws, especially during the forced togetherness of travel, is rooted in the obvious; they aren’t your family, and you aren’t theirs.  And you’re under great pressure if not to like them then at least to get along with them.  Listening to that story give all of us some insight as to how you handle that pressure and it can be the difference between having a nice vacation and really needing one.

The ground rules:

First — and people violate this one, shockingly — never invite your parents on a trip without talking to your spouse!

Second – before agreeing to a trip, make sure people will have their own space and opportunities for their own enjoyment.

The point of a vacation is get away from the stresses of life. If you really don’t get along, don’t travel together. A liberating notion, but because that parachute cord is often out of reach, your next move is to set those boundaries.  Agree with your spouse on when to leave and return, and whether one of you needs time alone during each day. Then, it’s up to the blood relative to deliver the message: Say something like this – ‘Here’s what we’d like to do,’ not ‘Here’s what we’re willing to do,’ Tone matters.

This can get tricky if, say, the trip is meant to celebrate your in-laws’ 40th anniversary, and they’re paying. In such cases, you may need to be more deferential, and here’s hoping you saved some vacation time for you and your family for later…For trips involving many people and divergent interests, a resort or a cruise might be a lot better than everyone being stuck in an isolated beach house for two weeks with only one car.  Settings with service staff can also help alleviate the martyr complex for those who feel that they carry more of the chores load.  Thinking ahead about how you’ll want to remember the vacation:  You can ask yourself, ‘Will I feel better if I go off for the day and do my own thing?’” If the answer is yes, make that happen.

First trip with the in-laws: Focus on what to expect.  Pre-discuss how your new partner’s family likes to travel. Some clans play everything by ear, or eat dinner at 10 p.m., or demand your cheery participation in all activities.  If you’re expecting to relax but their plan is to get everyone up at 5:30 a.m. to be out the door at 6, you need to know that and have mechanisms for managing it; such as curling into a ball and muttering “There’s no place like home!” until they leave you alone.  A better tactic might be to submit to their agenda one day but do your own thing the next.

Snipe hunting: If your unease derives from the occasional snipe — say, a mother-in-law telling a grandkid, ‘Don’t you have the BEST daddy in the world?’ with no mention of mommy — just let it go. Put up an invisible shield, and tell yourself, ‘I’m on a vacation I’m having a good time, and it’s going to be very hard for someone to ruin my mood.’

If the bugaboo is politics or social issues, during travel there can and should be a demilitarized zone; and that vacations are not for mining known areas of conflict. In the incredibly likely event someone breaks that rule, remind yourself it’s a limited amount of time that you must spend with these people.  Also, if you’re expecting to be provoked, a rehearsal is in order where you run through the difficult interaction in your mind and practice a defusing response. That way, when your sister-in-law mentions that your carefully chosen dinner outfit makes you look like a rodeo clown, you won’t unleash a fury of biting insults — or that, if you do, you’ll nail your delivery.

Get along with one but not the other: Oh boy, this’ll be fun. Team up with your ally and battle your foe to the death!  Definitely don’t do that!

Play the hand you’re dealt.  Go along with the one who likes you and don’t worry about the other. You don’t need their approval — you have your spouse. Just make sure that if there’s any negativity it’s not coming from you.  If you really want to seek higher ground; approach the territory of a heart-to-heart talk.  Find time to say, ‘I really love your daughter, and I know you do too. I also know you and I don’t have a very warm relationship. I’d like your help to make that better.’ It’s very valuable to show that you’re receptive to help. You’re trying to create common ground.  Full disclosure could elevate your vacation to a height of Zen or fast-track you to a nearby motel.

If you finally lose it: Don’t hold back, surface every hurt you’ve carried around for 25 years and, please, please, please post a video of this tantrum on social media.  Really?

NO!  Issues will arise on most trips with in-laws — midnight ukulele practice, the mandatory pre-dinner seance, binge drinking — and when you’re seriously careening off your axis it’s best to work through someone the offender trusts to get your message across. If you happen to be the offender, try to receive such overtures with grace, especially if they’re coming from the police.  Very rarely does open confrontation work. Studies show that negative events have a much greater impact on mood than do positive ones — by a factor of 20 to 1.  That means that if everything has been great up to a point and then there’s just one blowup, everyone will remember that incident. Therefore, ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it to challenge grandpa on his stance on abortion or the death penalty on this trip?’ People aren’t going to change, and you’re certainly not going to be able to change them.

So be a good person, refrain from even thinking ‘I told you so’ after changing the tire, and let the little things — and even a few big ones — slide. You’ll be a happier traveler for it!

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