Here is an interesting suggestion after the holidays: in order to improve a visit with your in-laws, approach them as an alien culture.
So, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, “What’s the deal with in-laws?” Why do they cause us so much stress? — I mean, not me of course, my in-laws, who happen to read all of my articles are awesome and exempt from all of the obnoxious statements that come next — perhaps I should re-phrase that — Why do your in-laws cause you so much stress?
The answer to this question is simple: Your in-laws are aliens…
Every family is a culture unto itself and all cultures develop rules of propriety, hierarchy and membership. For example, while some families insist on eating a formal breakfast that begins only when all members are awake, clean, and wearing monocles, others permit and perhaps even encourage thunderous belching of the national anthem while eating Cool Ranch Doritos in the family room — we don’t need to name names, you know who you are. There are families that are dominated by a single parent or grandparent and others that have a more egalitarian dynamic. Some parents might consider anyone who stops in on Christmas Eve to be a part of the family, and others require you to earn your place at the table by slaying a boar or porcupine, or performing some other feat of gallantry…
So, what do you do? Basically, I suggest an imaginary sociological approach to the problem. If you pretend that you are a sociologist trying to learn about an alien culture you will probably have less grief when you visit your in-laws and you actually might be able to enjoy yourself a bit.
This is a take on a classic sociological idea: if a Martian came to earth, what would they objectively observe?
If we want to go further with the idea of viewing your in-laws as an alien culture, we would also have to discuss the issues with being a participant observer. When visiting, it would be hard to simply sit and watch without being involved at all. (Of course, this could be easier in some family cultures than others.) At the same time, one could easily participate too much and not retain the objectivity necessary to understand what is truly going on. Finding this middle ground may be difficult but it would help in being able to hold both an insider and outsider perspective of your in-laws.