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The Fraught Negotiation of Determining How Much Time to Spend With Your Family Versus Your Partner’s

Is it simply destined to be one-sided?

My mom and dad are both from big families. My mom is the middle child of nine. My dad is the youngest son in his family of six. They grew up within five miles of each other, but their family cultures have always been very different. Both families are loving, but my mom’s is super tight-knit. So much so that I grew up in the house where she and all of her siblings grew up. In fact, my mom and dad moved in with my grandparents just a few years into their marriage. Not to mention, we spent all of our free team at her family’s sporting events and dinners and saw about a dozen of her family members every week of my life growing up — and, of course, at every holiday. When I asked my mom about this decision as a kid, she always told me, “It was never a question.”

My dad then just came to accept this inequity in extended family time as a fact of life. “I didn’t know I was going to spend a lot more time with her family than mine when we first got married,” he says. “After the first 10 years of dealing with her family but not mine during the holidays, I realized that was the way it was always going to be. We were always invited to one of her sibling’s houses for the holidays and that took up all the time. It wasn’t a big deal to me. But entering that big, lively dynamic was a lot at first. I didn’t say much for a long time — like years.”

My family’s dynamic supports the social science indicating straight couples spend more time with the woman’s family than the man’s once they have children. This leads to a lot of disgruntled grandmothers, making for headlines such as “Parents of Sons Are in Second Place. Why?” and “I’m Heartbroken That My Son Prefers Wife’s Family to Ours.The New York Times calls it “The Maternal Grandparent Advantage.” And according to the Journal of Family Issues, “Relationships with children-in-law were more strongly associated with qualities of ties to grandchildren than relationships with grandparents’ own children.”

Understandably, couples without children seem to feel less pressure in regards to scheduling family time. My colleague Tim Grierson lives in L.A. with his wife Susan. They divide their time with one another’s family quite practically. “We basically alternate Christmases,” he explains. “In the even-numbered years, we go see her family in Texas. In the odd-numbered years, we’re with my family. It just seemed like the easiest way of handling things.”

Fellow MEL staffer Ian Lecklitner and his long-term girlfriend don’t have kids either, but he says both the proximity and culture of his girlfriend’s family accounts for how frequently he sees them in comparison to his own family. “I spend way more time with my girlfriend’s family. I even see her grandmother every other weekend — I haven’t seen mine in probably five years. One big reason for this is simply that my parents moved to Texas a few years back, and I don’t have any other family (besides my sister) in L.A.,” he tells me.

“But even before that happened, we still spent a lot of time with my girlfriend’s mom and grandmother, because they have a tradition of hanging out virtually every Sunday,” he continues. “My family never did anything like that. My mom and dad visited his mom for the first time in years this Thanksgiving. My mom dreaded it. I never really thought much of it, but we saw my mom’s mom way more often growing up. I kind of feel bad when I think about it.”

Surprisingly, though, marriage and family therapist Gaea Woods says that it can often be far easier (and much more relaxing) to chill with your partner’s family rather than your own. “From a family systems perspective, it’s common for old family dynamics to emerge when we see our families,” she explains. “Even as adults, spending time with our parents, siblings and extended families can make us feel like we’re right back in childhood — for better or worse.”

“Family dynamics typically don’t change with the progression of time either. Unless the whole family works to pursue an intentional shift, ingrained styles of communication, criticism, sibling rivalry and expectations from family to live your life according to values they themselves hold (which may be counter to your personal values), will likely remain unchanged from your childhood.

“So maybe the idea of spending time with your partner’s family sounds better than seeing your own family purely on the basis of being less emotionally draining. Maybe time with your partner’s family is rejuvenating — after all, you can always throw your hands up and excuse yourself from the room as needed. As I get older, I realize so much of self-care and fostering happiness in life is doing the things I want to do, and avoiding buying into pressure (whether familial or cultural) to do anything that makes me feel drained, unseen, misunderstood, isolated, criticized and so on. If you feel as though you need a vacation after having just been on vacation visiting your family, maybe it’s a sign to choose an alternate side of the family to spend your time with next time.”

“I’m not saying I don’t value family, or that family isn’t important,” Woods continues. “I think family is extremely important. In fact, I use my two short vacations each year to spend time with my parents. But it’s important to evaluate for yourself, on an individual basis, what it’s really like to be in an intimate relationship with anyone’s family (yours or your partner’s), and to use that information to inform your decision about how much you let them into your life.”

Of course, for a lot of people, the goal is to simply go along to get along (whether their family time is multiple times a week, no more than a couple times a year or once a decade). To that end, I asked body language expert Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma, for tips on making the most with your love’s loved ones. Here’s what she suggests:

  • Whether or not you’re the host, immediately go to the family member as they come through the door and hug/greet them warmly. Even if you’re busy cooking or watching TV, make them feel like they’re the most important thing to you. Also make an extra effort to get up when they leave — walk them to their car or help them carry things in or out of the house.
  • Speaking of extra effort, talk to every family member in attendance, however briefly. Make really good eye contact and nod your head to show you’re listening.
  • Similarly, pat them on the shoulder or give them a hug. When you touch someone in a non-threatening way, they’ll self-disclose more. For example, just a quick touch on the forearm, lasting less than a fortieth of a second, can increase your persuasive powers.

As for my dad, he did eventually start to speak up at our family gatherings, and in the end, his relationship with my mom’s parents became among the most rewarding in his life. “They were like my real parents,” he says. “I respected and loved them that much. I got very lucky. I’ve heard a lot of guys complain about their in-laws, but I’m like, ‘My in-laws were golden.’ My mother-in-law would give you the shirt off her back and help you out at anytime, for any reason, no questions asked.”

He adds, “My father-in-law started out as kind of a pain in my ass when we began sharing the house. The trash had to be done a certain way. The cars had to be parked a certain way. The towels had to be folded a certain way. But after 20 years, I got so close to him. I was even with him at the end of his run. He basically died right in my arms as I tried to give him CPR, which is still probably the hardest thing I’ve dealt with in my life.”