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5 Essential Tips for Getting Along with Your In-Laws

In-laws: Love them or hate them, you got to learn to live with them

All your brother-in-law seems to ever talk about is hunting, and your other brother-in-law only about his job and the intricacies of computer programming. You got nothing in common with these guys and you’re worn out in about 10 minutes.

Your partner feels guilty if she doesn’t invite her mother over for Sunday dinner every weekend. A couple of months in, it’s getting old and you’re beginning to resent it.

Your parents-in-law are always snipping and snapping at each other, making those long holiday visits an exercise in stress and dread.

Sure, you realized that when you partnered up you not only got a partner but a brand-new extended family as well, but you never thought it would be like this. Love them or hate, you probably need to learn how to live with them.

Here are some tips to get you started or get you out of the weeds if you’re struggling:

Realize that your partner is going to be better at this than you are.

All those small things that some of your in-laws do that push your buttons and drive you crazy, probably could or used to drive your partner crazy as well. What she’s got that you don’t is experience in navigating them: She learned long ago how to tune-out the hunting stories or how to distract her parents when they get particularly deep in their emotional trenches, skills that you have not yet developed. And as a bonus she probably has lots of good experiences and memories to balances out those their annoyances.

But what helps her out most is that she probably loves them—they are, after all, her family.

Be a support

That being said, it’s easy for your partner to feel caught in the middle at times or filled with his own frustrations with his family. Time to stand by your man or woman. Be a support, but you don’t need to save—don’t heap on the advice, take sides, issue ultimatums. Talk about how hard it must be for him, ask what you can do to help, sound like Mr. Rogers. Think about what you would want from him if you were struggling with your family.

Reach out, be proactive

You’re the outlaw and they don’t know you as well as your partner does. In such situations, it’s easy for everyone to feel awkward and go on default mode, hence the brothers-in-law hunting and programming stories. Your being kind and gracious goes a long way in changing the emotional climate in the room, as well as helping form a good impression.

But it helps to ramp it up. This is about you not taking what you get, but being proactive. Rather than tolerating the 5th hunting story, speak up and talk about you. Sidestep the programming talk by offering to go along when your brother-in-law takes his kids to the park or offer to help when he wants to clean out his garage.

Your longer-term goal here is to develop your own relationship with these folks, not just be the forever tag-along. That means letting them get to know you as you, and not a label, creating experiences that turn into stories and memories, just as your partner has been doing for decades. This helps everyone sidestep the defaults and surface conversations. It’s about stepping up.

Speak up

And speaking up too. If your feelings get hurt by your father-in-law’s too-many-beers comment or if you consistently feel unwelcomed by your sister-in-law no matter how hard you try to be nice, don’t get pouty, or over-react and put pressure on your partner to choose, or sweep it under the rug and be the martyr/victim. Instead sort out what most bothers you, talk with your partner about it, see if you can together come up with a plan to effectively address it.

People are usually not intentionally malicious; stress and miscommunication are deadly combinations, and they won’t know what bothers you unless you let them know. Be diplomatic and sensitive but don’t be silent—about the sister-in-law, the father-in-law, or the snippy parents-in-law. This is the other side of developing a relationship—being honest, helping people know what you like and don’t like. If you don’t, you’ll eventually either blow up, get fed up, or stay away. Bad for you, uglier for your partner.

Negotiate expectations and rules of engagement

Here is where you need to talk with your partner about the Sunday dinners or the stress of the holiday trip to her parents. It doesn’t take much for casually-mumbled expectations to turn into rock-solid patterns, that when complicated by family traditions and wanting to avoid hurt feelings, leads to years of everyone going on autopilot and being somewhat chronically miserable.

So once again don’t pout or whine or issue ultimatums, but offer options and compromises to your partner—spreading the dinners out or shifting some to week nights, shaving off a few days from the holiday trip, or staying in a hotel to recoup rather than doing the sleeping bag in the living room at the house. You’re looking for win-win, not tit-for-tat, or my-way-or-the-highway. By being clear and bold at the front end, it instills the notion of change all around, making it easier to make adjustments down the road. That said, realize this is where you partner feels pulled and conflicted.

You don’t need to back down, but do offer support and much-appreciated thank-yous.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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