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Parents-In-Law Don't Want to Play Nice?

How to deal with your in-laws’ objections

You and your spouse have been doing everything right in handling your in-laws. You became a united front. The two of you drew the lines in protecting your family. You’ve been enforcing these boundaries when challenged. So why are your parents-in-law still a pain in the ass?

Being told that your behavior is inappropriate, offensive, hurtful is a tough pill to swallow. Even if your in-laws know that they’ve been out of line, you and your spouse are likely to get objections or incredulous reactions in calling them out on their behavior and saying enough is enough. This is especially true if your in-laws are high on themselves, the stubborn sort, or total narcissists.

These reactions are even likelier if the situation has been going on for years, and/or if your in-laws have been getting away with treating you like a child—versus a mature adult—for far too long.

Managing parents is much more easily said than done. This is especially true in situations where the in-laws don’t see the problem(s) in quite the same light, or don’t much care if they’re wreaking havoc on a son’s or daughter’s life. Many in-laws don’t want to play by the new rules, at least not right away.

If this is your headache, here’s how to proceed…

Don’t budge an inch.

Stay firm in your position. This is not to be difficult, but because, as the saying goes, if you give someone an inch, then they’ll take a mile. Unless you stand your ground, your in-laws will work to have things their way, as Phoebe, a 37-year-old newlywed, explains: “My mother-in-law puts pressure on my husband and I to go to church every chance she gets. While I wouldn’t mind going to church, it needs to be on my accord and not because she wants to save my soul. My spiritual practices are none of her business and I’m not going to throw her a bone on this one since she’s then even less likely to quit bugging us.”

Don’t forget that you’re the authority in your family.

Yes, it’s easy to step into the role of a child anytime you’re around somebody old enough to be your parent, especially if that person expects you to do as you’re told. If you find yourself falling into that trap, remind yourself that you are an adult, and that you have the right to do things your way, even if that means upsetting others. You can respect your elders, but they also need to respect you and your family’s wishes.

Put your in-laws in their place.

If boundaries are still be disrespected, then bring such to everyone’s attention, e.g., “You’re not criticizing my childrearing practices again, are you?” This may need to be done several times, as positions of power don’t shift overnight, and people often act out when they feel powerless. Training in-laws can be a lot like teaching children boundaries, with a “try, try again” approach necessary. Such can, however, become really old really fast, with more extreme measures required in putting an end to unacceptable behavior once and for all.

The tone of your conversations may need to change if your in-laws don’t want to take the hint and continue to disrespect your wishes. In these cases, call them out on their behavior and how it makes you feel, explaining to them that there will be major consequences if they cross your “bottom” line, which you need to then make perfectly known.

If you find yourself dealing with the same in-law issue over and over again, or new ones are cropping up, you and your spouse may need to employ any or all of the following tactics in managing his parents…

Re-evaluate the boundaries you’ve set.

If your in-laws are still draining you, consider re-drawing the lines you’ve set. You need to preserve your physical and emotional energy for those who deserve it, including your spouse. “I’m tired that my in-laws are the only recurring problem in my marriage,” shares 38-year-old Sylvia, a professor, “and that it’s always the same issues, including horrible gift-giving every Christmas and birthday. My husband had a talk with his parents about it, receiving absolutely no reaction. The insulting gifts have continued, so we’re implementing a ‘no gift giving’ policy from this holiday season on. Hopefully, that means end of story.”

Keep your distance.

This includes geographically, if possible. An Italian National Statistics Institute study found that the chances of one’s marriage lasting go up with every one hundred yards that a couple can put between themselves and their in-laws. Plenty of couples have moved across country—or at least out of driving distance—to save their marriage from in-laws. Do you need to be one of them?

Only spend time with your in-laws if your spouse is present.

Your spouse shouldn’t expect you to hang out with his parents if he’s not around. He also needs to be present in managing any issues that could pop up.

Meet on neutral territory.

Who says that you have to go to your in-laws home if visits are a must? If you and your husband feel that you have to see them on occasion, then do so at a restaurant or another public space. This gives you more control over the situation, and can help to keep their behavior in check. Your in-laws aren’t able to call the shots as easily in public as they can when under their roof. You’re also less vulnerable in not being a guest in their home.

Don’t loan anything to your in-laws or accept support.

Financial or otherwise, any kind of support that is given, even in the form of a gift, should not be accepted or given. Strings are often tied to such, and it complicates the power dynamics at play. You don’t want to owe anybody anything, especially people who aren’t playing nice.

Don’t involve other family members.

Your in-laws may complain to other family members, who become concerned. Don’t allow others to butt in. This will make the situation worse.

Evaluate how your spouse is handling the situation.

Chances are, tensions wouldn’t be as great, or even non-existent, if your husband was handling things properly. This is critical as the situation will never be resolved if your spouse does not take the lead in handling his family, grabbing the bull by the balls, so to speak. Discuss what he needs to be doing or not doing differently in getting to a better place. Address any feelings he has towards his parents that could be acting as barriers, whether he’s afraid of ruffling feathers or betraying his family of origin.

In being mindful of and sensitive to feelings your partner may have about betraying a parent or seeing a parent as bad, provide reassurances that the situation can be improved without being disloyal to the parents. Explain that in supporting you, he is not being disloyal to his parents. In seeking respect for you and the two of you, he is not rejecting his parents.

Your partner may feel like he is being forced to choose sides, whether in taking on a point of view, showing support, or assigning blame. Provide reassurances that you will not stand in the way of allowing him to maintain the relationship he values with his parents. Acknowledge the feelings he has for them and offer support in his desire to maintain a relationship with them.

Remind him, however, on where his loyalties need to be. To quote Dr. Phil: “There can be no divided loyalties. When you get married and start your own family, that's where your primary loyalty needs to be.”

Remind yourselves of how you feel about each other.

Dealing with in-laws can foster a lot of negative energy and hard feelings. Take the time to remind each other of why you chose to become a family and what you mean to each other. The two of you—and not your in-laws—are now your own family. Don’t lose focus of that at any point.

More from Yvonne K. Fulbright Ph.D., MSEd
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