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How to be nice (and naughty) to your in-laws

Dina Koutas Poch knew she had reached a bizarre new chapter in her life when her father-in-law fed her a slice of turkey straight from his hand.

The awkward moment occurred during a Christmas gathering, and came to represent in the 31-year-old's mind the strangeness of spending the holiday season with someone else's family.

"The underlying problem is that everyone wants you there, but they eat you alive," she said. "Usually I just say: 'Okay, it's 48 hours, I'm just going to pretend I'm in a wacky bed and breakfast.' "

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The most wonderful time of the year can be hard enough when spent with your immediate relatives - the fights, the meltdowns, the palpable disappointment and early-morning binge drinking.

But how do you cope with a whole new set of traditions and tensions, including an in-law's apparent predilection for force-feeding with fowl?

Ms. Koutas Poch provides some holiday advice in her book My In-Laws: Falling in Love with his Family - One Passive-Aggressive, Over-Indulgent, Grandkid-Craving, Streisand-Loving, Bible-Thumping In-Law at a Time.

To avoid last-minute hostility, she advises, couples should make an early decision about where they are spending their holidays - and opt to celebrate "in a single nuthouse."

Each year, the couple should alternate between in-laws, she said, or spend Thanksgiving with one family and Christmas with the other. This way, neither clan can claim they are being ignored.

But even when face time is divided evenly, tensions can simmer between individual family members.

Deborah Merrill, author of Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law: Understanding the Relationship and What Makes Them Friends or Foe, said that most of the Christmas-time tension comes from relatives with two X chromosomes.

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"The holidays do generally cause problems for the women in the family," said Dr. Merrill, a professor of sociology at Clark University in Massachusetts. "A lot of the daughters-in-law indicated that the holidays were particularly frustrating."

But the source of the frustration varies between generations, she said. The younger woman often believes her mother-in-law is being possessive or territorial, while the older woman feels left out and neglected.

"When my husband's family is around, I am always on the outside looking in," Dr. Merrill was told by a woman named Maria. "They say that I am family, but that is not how they act. You have to be born into that family."

Many families are actually too casual about spending the holidays with an in-law, Dr. Merrill said, and fail to address the new dynamic adequately.

"I think a lot of the time families are unprepared for the change that this is going to bring."

The most common change occurs when children are born, she said. Both sets of grandparents expect to spend the holidays with their grandchildren, regardless of the other family's wishes.

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And tensions invariably arise when the men don't intervene, letting their spouses duke it out with their in-laws.

"A lot of women get really upset if their husbands sit back and let them deal with their mothers," Dr. Merrill said. "I think a lot of these problems would be solved if the men intervened."

Of the daughters-in-law she interviewed for her book, Dr. Merrill said, 60 per cent felt there was conflict in the relationship with their mother-in law.

"There were more good relationships than I expected, but the bad relationships were much worse than I could have ever imagined," she said.

One woman she interviewed was offered a bribe by her mother-in-law to end her marriage. When she refused, the mother-in-law issued an ultimatum to her son: divorce or be cut out of the family business. The husband came from a wealthy family, and his mother viewed her daughter-in-law as unworthy.

"At one point, the mother-in-law actually went into the couple's home - which she owned - and threw all of the daughter-in-law's possessions on the front lawn," Dr. Merrill said.

Ms. Koutas Poch believes that having a sense of humour about your in-laws is the most important holiday strategy, as is an ability to "fight passive aggression with passive aggression."

She advises people not to read too much into their families' holiday behaviour, including their gifts.

"You were almost certain they liked you, until you opened a tub of peach-scented hand cream - a gift that says, 'I don't know you and I would give this to the nice lady at church whose name escapes me,' " Ms. Koutas Poch writes. "Rest assured, most gifts are given with the best of intentions and purest of heart."

The worst holiday standoffs tend to occur after a couple is first engaged or married, or following the birth of their first child, when both sets of parents get increasingly territorial, she said.

"It's the only time of the year when you feel like you have to choose. Are you going to spend it with your family or his family?" she said. "Unfortunately, Christmas isn't two days - it would be great if it was."


What your in-laws' gifts really mean

The Gift J. Crew sweater

What they say "I didn't know what size you were."

What they don't say "I grabbed the largest size, Ms. Fatty McFat."

The Gift Subscription to Parenting magazine

What they say "Where are my grandkids?"

What they don't say "Don't screw up my grandkids."

The Gift 16-inch silver and sapphire necklace

What they say "I really hope you like it!"

What they don't say "It's not an engagement ring, but please stay with my son ... "

The Gift Knitted cap

What they say "I thought this colour would look wonderful on you."

What they don't say "We didn't know you were coming and found this upstairs."

The Gift Cotton dress from 1952

What they say "It's vintage."

What they don't say "I've been meaning to clean out my closet."

The Gift Mug, wall calendar or mouse pad with family photo

What they say "Just a little something silly from us to you."

What they don't say "Think of us every morning. And then call us. If we don't call you first."

The Gift $100 cheque

What they say "We know you don't need this."

What they don't say "We know you need this."

The Gift Kitten calendar What they say "We know how much you and Dan adore cats."

What they don't say "Where are my grandkids?!"

Dina Koutas Poch

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