Get any group of men or women in a relationship together prior to a holiday situation or other get-together and the conversation will invariably turn to a discussion of the in-laws. And, the conversation will be fraught with anecdotes of the foibles and missteps of said in-laws. Additionally, the in-laws will be heavily critiqued about their malicious and unequal treatment of the relatives including grandchildren and partners. Often, this includes discussions of gifts of unequal value for the grandchildren.You should also expect to hear about preferential treatment bestowed upon their biological children.
It is a wonder that anyone gets through these "celebrations" with their sanity and marriages intact given all of the blame and hurt feelings that very frequently ensue. At the very best, you can let things go and move on. At the very worst, you may choose to harangue your hapless partner about the despicable behavior of his mother and threaten to cut off your kids from this set of in-laws. There is more that occurs along a similarly negative trajectory. Some of us may put our kids in the middle of these issues and involve them in warfare against our in-laws. Of course, I am using a bit of hyperbole here but I am merely trying to describe the high level of drama and destruction that is often associated with the in-law relationship.
Yes, there are many among us who have good and even excellent relationships with our in-laws. It is from you that I have collected my advice about how to make these relationships as good as they can be. I always say that relationships are what we live for and provide us with all kinds of sustenance and support. So, with this in mind, please follow me as I describe steps that will help with these in-law relationships. Who knows? Your mean mother-in-law may turn into a major source of support for you.
Let's get on with things. Time may be running out. You may have a birthday party or even a barbecue coming up. I would rather have you skewer your dinner rather than your partner or your in-laws. Please read on. The sanity you save may be your own.
1. Above all else, do not blame your partner for his/her parents' behavior. I am sure that your partner is already painfully aware of his/her parents' shortcomings. There is no reason to cause further shame, embarrassment or humiliation, is there?
2. When you are disappointed by your in-laws try as hard as you can not to escalate the situation. Becoming "extra" and volatile or excessively emotional never does anyone or any situation any good. Once certain words leave your mouth you can never re-insert them. And, you should expect some disappointment. We are all prone to disappointing others so in-laws should be expected to disappoint at times as well.
3. Keep your expectations of your in-laws reasonable. Always remember that they are not your parents and that they will behave differently. It may be helpful to lower your expectations so you are less likely to become distressed.
4. Perhaps, you may want to give your in-laws a role. Look, we all want to feel necessary. This needs, of course, to be mutually agreed upon. Your in-laws may enjoy house-sitting, baby-sitting or even dog-sitting. On the other hand, they may like the opportunity to contribute in some way to family events. I have noticed repeatedly that individuals of all ages do better when they are needed and appreciated.
5. Consider how much time together is the right amount and try to find the sweet spot. An entire week together may be too much but a weekend may be just right. The sweet spot will vary for all families. Find yours.
6. Try to the best of your ability to take the high ground. Your kids are watching you. If their grandparents are behaving badly then you certainly do not need to respond similarly. Set limits regarding what you will tolerate but do so as gently as possible. It is important not only for you to behave in a kind manner but it is also important for those around you to see you behaving this way in tricky situations. A fringe benefit here is that your in-laws may actually take note of your behavior and follow suit. Yes, people do mimic behavior.
7. I believe that most people are well-intended. That is why it is so important to communicate rather than to make assumptions about your in-law's motivation. And, perhaps you should have your partner talk to his/her parents about intentions and motivation. Understanding and communicating are priceless and can make the possibility of family fractures and misunderstandings significantly less likely.
8. Keep in mind that you may be lucky to have in-laws once you allow yourself to discover what brings out the best in them. Your children, too, may benefit from having even more adults in their lives who care about them.
9. Take an interest in the activities that your in-laws enjoy. This will make them feel loves and accepted. And, if it doesn't then at the very least you will know that you have tried. My experience has been that everyone loves the opportunity to talk about the activities that energize and/or soothe them. We all know that it is a joy to be listened to. It's tiring to always be the listener. Do you agree?
10. Try to arrange an activity that will be fun for everyone. Sometimes what happens during a yearly vacation can be very different than what happens during Christmas at, let's say, an aunt's house.
There are many more ways to work on this tricky relationship but please don't make the assumption that the in-law relationship will necessarily be toxic. Also, as a clinical psychologist and a plant lover I would like to request that you not refer to the snake plant in the accompanying picture by the nickname-mother-in-law's tongue. That is just not fair.
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