A Qualified Yes

December 06 2021 | by

DEAR DR. POPCAK: I got married earlier this year, and so far it’s been great. However, I’m really struggling this holiday Christmas season with knowing how to handle my mother-in-law, her demands and expectations, and what I would like for my husband and I. I know she means well, but she’s very opinionated and strong willed. I think my husband feels caught in the middle because he wants me to be happy, but he’s also not comfortable standing up to his mother to tell her that things need to be different this year. How do we handle this situation gracefully without anyone getting hurt?


Congratulations and God bless you on your new marriage! The holidays can be tricky times with extended family – particularly when you are all adjusting to a new dynamic. As you mentioned, you know she means well. This is going to be crucial to keep in mind as you work on communicating the needs you all have and developing the plan to meet those needs.

Sometimes you do need to set boundaries with people, but you don’t have to feel like you are threatening the relationship to do it. Setting basic boundaries doesn’t mean pushing people away or even frustrating them. It just involves proposing a healthy and appropriate way for them to get their need met while saying “No” to less healthy or appropriate suggestions. For instance, if your in-laws are pushing you to stay with them over the holidays, but you know spending that much time together would be hard on all of you or won’t give you and your husband the time that you need together, you might say, “We’re really looking forward to getting time together, but I think it would be better for all of us if we stayed at a hotel.” In this example, you’re respecting the desire for everyone to have family time, but you are setting a boundary that increases the likelihood that getting this time together will be pleasant and successful. Set boundaries that focus not so much on avoiding short term conflict, but on the long term health of your relationships.

Additionally, when your mother-in-law or other people ask you to do things for them, instead of feeling stuck between having to say “Yes” to everything and not being able to meet your own needs, and saying “No” too often, use the “Qualified Yes” technique. In other words, when someone asks you to do something for them, don’t immediately focus on whether you can help at all, instead, focus on negotiating how and when you might be of assistance. For instance, if your mother-in-law asks you to help with an event, such as cooking a meal, you might say that while you wouldn’t be able to cook the whole meal, you could assist with a part of it. Or if she asks for you and your husband to visit with them for the whole week surrounding Christmas, you might say that while you can’t be there on Christmas Eve, you could be available on Christmas Day or the day after Christmas, depending on what works best for you and your husband and the time and traditions that the two of you would like to have with one another. Using the qualified yes technique allows you to avoid polarizing requests and feeling trapped between disappointing others and meeting your own needs. Instead, this method gives you a way to be generous to others while still being faithful to your own needs and obligations.

Updated on December 07 2021