11 Ways to Have Fun at Your In-Laws

by Julie Rains on 18 December 2012 1 comment
Photo: Micah Sittig

Visiting in-laws can seem like competing on "Survivor." You have to learn to thrive in a foreign environment amid unfamiliar ways.

Though I have never been on a reality television show, I have made numerous visits to the homes of my husband's family, just the two of us in the beginning and later accompanied by children.

I have learned survivor-like skills such as how to accept and overcome challenges, make shrewd decisions, and show an unflagging spirit (that is, how to select Christmas gifts for all ages, contribute to meals for extended family gatherings, and get active children to behave well during multi-hour car trips). 

Over the years, I have also learned ways to enjoy what may otherwise be an emotionally and physically draining experience due to the stress of travel, holiday preparation, and alien surroundings. Consider these techniques to increase genuine pleasure of visiting your in-laws. (See also: 15 Tips for Hosting Holiday Houseguests

1. Pack Your Own Supplies

Missing the amenities of home can make you miserable. So if there are a few things that can bring you pleasure or keep you comfortable, then carry those with you. If your in-laws aren’t coffee drinkers (mine avoid caffeinated beverages for example), pack a great instant version or your own grind. If beds and couches are in short supply, bring a sleeping bag, pad, or blankets; or book a room at a hotel or inn.  

Be self-sufficient with your own supplies, rather than expecting others to provide all that you want or need.

2. Bring a Book

Reading a book gives you a fun escape without completely ignoring everyone else. Unlike watching a movie, listening to music, or playing a game on a digital device, reading is not totally isolating and generally considered acceptable during extended visits.

Just because you may be with people who you see occasionally doesn’t mean that every moment must involve deeply meaningful interaction. You can join and exit group discussions while reading, and you may find that the right book is fodder for conversation.

3. Take a Walk

Out-of-town visits are generally not conducive to fitness activities. But you may be able to step outside your in-laws’ home and take a walk in the neighborhood to get fresh air and exercise.

On my trips, I have enjoyed walking with my immediate family and some of the in-laws. Along with way, we study the architectural styles of nearby homes and businesses, tell and listen to family stories that involve a certain street or house, and note changes that have taken place since one or all of the siblings have moved from the area.

4. Go on an Outing

Getting out of the house for a few hours is a great stress reliever. My in-laws live in a small city, so there is not much to do there in terms of cultural or sporting events, art or historical museums, etc.

However, the city has an expansive park near their home and the city’s center. When our children were younger, my husband and I took them to the park’s playground, which included old-fashioned slides, swings, and teeter-totters.

5. Help With Food Preparation or Clean-Up

There are various levels of expectation regarding contributing to meals and clean-up when visiting. I won’t claim to be an expert in all situations, but I do know that lending a hand can be a pleasant way to pass the time; you don’t have to take charge, but you can participate. You may learn a new recipe or cooking technique, plus you get to hear stories that may not otherwise be told at the family table.

6. Learn (to Love) Family Stories

Every family has a set of stories that are told and retold. The introductions may vary, so you may not realize that you are going to hear a familiar story until you have invested your attention and time into listening to what seems like the same-old, same-old recounting of a long-ago event.

But these defining stories can help you to understand the family's values as well as the times and circumstances that they experienced. You may hear about the reaction of a child to her first sleepover camp, which reveals much about individual personalities and family dynamics. You might learn about a close call during a foreign war or economic harshness in the early 20th century. You'll hear the stories many times, so learning to love them and detect nuanced differences in each retelling can make visits more pleasant.

7. Learn Family Secrets

My mother-in-law often talks to me about the past of the immediate family as well as more distant connections. She shares stories of difficult circumstances, belligerence that caused personal and financial problems, romantic and career plans gone awry, regrets, disappointments, and life-changing illnesses along with instances of grace that saved family members from disaster.

Like the tales that are told and retold, they help define the family — who they are as individuals and as a whole. The stories can help illuminate the rationale behind decisions and possibly give you understanding and compassion for unusual fears and biases. Hearing about heartbreak itself is not fun but helps put your current troubles into perspective.

8. Get to Know Someone Each Time You Visit

Discover how interesting your extended family is. Take some time to learn about another family member's world — what they do at work, how they spend their free time, and even the circumstances of their childhood. You don’t need to drill this person, but you can work on making conversation as a way of laying a foundation for future interactions.

9. Be Prepared to Tell Your Story

Family extroverts are always ready to tell you about what’s going on in their lives. Being surrounded by talkers who are eager to share the highlights of the past year (the real-life equivalent of the holiday newsletter) can be trying, particularly if you are an introvert.

By the time you feel comfortable sharing what’s happening in your life, your visit may be over. Prepare for the extended time with family by thinking of things you would like to share, such as career milestones, hobby-related accomplishments, or vacation plans.

10. Don’t Think About Work

Having to worry about work can be a drag on your happiness. Unless you are required to be connected, cut off digital gadgets and work-related distractions. And, as much as possible, don't think about the office, store, or project worksite. You don't need the double stress of dealing with professional concerns and family issues at the same time. Let yourself enjoy a change in environment.

11. Befriend the Kind Relative

During the first several years of family visits, I often felt like an outsider who needed to display the survivor-like traits of loyalty and value to the team. However, I realized later that I ought to have been focusing on the family members who loved and adored me for who I was. Discovering that person or those persons is essential to enjoying the extended visit. 

The kind relative may not be obvious at first. Look to those who accept you “as is” while encouraging you to become the (better) person you hope to be. Certainly beware of inappropriate liaisons but don't ignore the kind aunt, sister-in-law, or cousin. She can become not only an ally but also shed light into family dynamics, reinforce how endearing you are, and help you to feel the love that may not get showered upon you in a crowd.

How do you have fun at your in-laws? Are the visits naturally enjoyable or have you learned to embrace new and different circumstances?

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Pray hard it goes well! That's what I do. I ask if I can help. I try not to say too much and keep it brief.