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Q: I’m submitting this letter a bit late in the game because I think that as an adult male, I should have figured out how to deal with this issue on my own. Usually around mid-July, I find myself worrying about the upcoming Yamim Tovim. Although I’m aware that holidays are a time of joy, I find the art of splitting our time between my parents and in-laws incredibly depleting. Naturally, I prefer to spend time with my parents, while my wife prefers to spend time with her parents. We each find it easier to accept our own parents’ hang-ups but get easily irritable from our in-laws’ hang-ups. My wife and I mostly get along, but we find ourselves getting into petty arguments before the holidays. My wife complains that she does not appreciate going to my parents because they have little awareness of health and nutrition, their food is immersed in oil, and they feed our children junk without our consent. On the other hand, I feel intimidated by the fact that her parents are perfectionists who get easily overwhelmed from any mess our children create. Ultimately, we end up coming up with a compromise for how to split the holidays but neither of us feels content with the decision. I guess my question is a three  pronged one. First, how do I reduce my holiday stress? Second, how do I lower my level of resentment towards our compromise? Third, how do I set boundaries with my parents and in-laws so we can experience enjoyable Yamim Tovim?


A: Thank you for sending in your letter. I believe it’s never too late because our annual calendar is full of holidays. I can see why as a male you felt uncomfortable to share your concerns, but I can reassure you that this is a very common issue couples face before the holidays. That said, after reading your letter I felt sorry that your summers are robbed of joy because of your stress over the upcoming chagim. The first aspect I’d like to highlight is the fact that you mentioned that in general, you and your wife get along. I’m sure that takes a lot of work from each of you. Unfortunately, it’s only natural that splitting your time between your parents and in-laws will create conflicts, and it sounds like you and your wife have valid concerns about your parents and in-laws.


Someone once told me that her mother-in-law said that that one of the most amazing things about the holidays is observing the headlights of family members pulling into the driveway to visit. The second-best aspect about the holidays is observing their taillights as they drive away. I believe that many in-laws, parents, and children can really identify with this idea. Coping with in-laws and extended family can be challenging for most couples. 

I appreciate that you divided your question into clear parts that I would like to address. You asked how to reduce your stress related to holiday planning. For this I’d like to introduce a cognitive behavioral therapy skill. The one I find most effective in this situation is visualizing the worst-case scenario. I’d like you to close your eyes and visualize spending an entire Yom Tov with your in-laws. You’re probably thinking that this is crazy! However, utilizing this skill can be highly effective. Notice how visualizing this scenario increases your level of stress. Now picture your in-laws getting overwhelmed from spilled apple juice and crushed cookies. Finally, imagine experiencing this stress for a whole week. Notice how despite this difficult scenario you survive this week and finally go home. I believe that engaging in  the “worst-case scenario” CBT technique will help you realize that you can handle more than you think. The good news is that the worst-case scenario will probably not end up happening. Most likely, you will end up spending a portion of the holiday with your parents as well.  This knowledge should bring you some relief.  


As epr your second question about how to lower your level of resentment related to the compromise, are you referring to your level of resentment towards your wife, your in-laws, or both? Let’s assume you are referring to both. As for your wife, it is important to remember that overall, you have a decent relationship. Celebrate that. Normalize the fact that decision making during the Yamim Tovim is difficult for her as well. It is human nature for one to protect their territory, and you are both trying to protect your territory. You are in this together. Respect that. As for your in-laws, I believe that reminding yourself that they are the reason your wife exists will lower your level of resentment. Think about all of your wife’s positive character traits and the role her parents have played in instilling these traits in her. 


As for your third question, let’s address how to set boundaries with your parents and in-laws so you can enjoy positive Yom Tov experiences. I believe that to avoid overstepping, it is your responsibility to set boundaries with your parents, and it is your wife’s responsibility to set boundaries with her parents. Utilize the sandwich technique. Begin by stressing your appreciation for everything they do. Then set a boundary with an “I Statement.” For example, “I would appreciate it if throughout our stay, our children only eat candy during Shabbos party.” Always end the conversation by expressing your gratitude for them  hosting you. 


I’d like to end off by highlighting some important pointers that I find useful. In an article titled “How to Juggle Family During the Holidays” (Chatelaine Magazine; 2010)  therapist Joanna Seidel shared tips couples can utilize to make holidays run more smoothly. First, she mentions the importance of avoiding getting hung up on being fair when splitting the holidays. Second, she stresses the importance of making joint decisions with your spouse. Third, she suggests approaching requests with care and love as opposed to joyless compromise. Last but not least ,she stresses the importance of not falling prey to spite, which can have lasting negative effects on a relationship. 

I wish you, your wife, and your children many relaxing Yamim Tovim, infused with joy and happiness. 

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