How to Avoid In-Law Conflicts
When you marry, you also get their family, for better or worse.
Posted November 8, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Even after their adult child gets married, a parent may still think they are the most important person in their child's life.
- There are four primary areas in which in-laws may create strife: holidays, kids, enmeshment, and genuine discord.
- Healthy boundaries are not about keeping other people out; instead, they're about letting other people safely in.
Marriage, at its best, is a partnership between two people, with mutually agreed-upon commitments and boundaries. But when you marry your partner, you also get their family, and they get yours. For better or worse. If you’re very, very lucky, everyone gets along fabulously, with shared values, healthy boundaries, and the ability to accept and love every person in the extended family exactly as they are at any given moment.
Unfortunately, most of us are just not that lucky. Below, I have listed some of the more common stressors that couples run into as they navigate the in-laws, along with suggestions on how to resolve these issues.
There are two common problem scenarios with in-laws and the holidays. The first is that both sets of in-laws want to see you and your spouse on the actual holiday, and sometimes that’s just not possible. In such cases, the “losing” set of in-laws may feel shorted. And their hurt feelings can be directed at you, your spouse, or even the “winning” set of in-laws. The second situation is that both sets of in-laws think that their holiday traditions are better and more important.
For either situation, you and your spouse need to set hard and fast boundaries regarding the holidays, and then you need to stick to those boundaries and not feel guilty about it. If it’s possible, ask both sets of in-laws to your home for the actual holiday. That way, everybody wins. Otherwise, you can alternate holidays, remembering to switch it up from year to year so nobody can complain that they never get the “best” holiday. You can also pick and choose which of your and your spouse’s family traditions are most important and meaningful to you and your spouse. Try to use a bit from each family as the basis for your own set of holiday traditions.
There are three problem areas when it comes to your in-laws and kids. First, they want to know when you’re having them. Second, they want to give you advice on how to raise them. Third, they ignore your rules when they take care of them. Again, the solution is to set and stick to clear boundaries that work for you and your spouse. It doesn’t matter if these boundaries work for your parents and your in-laws. This is your life, not theirs. These are your children, not theirs. If they want to be part of your life and your children’s life, they’ll adjust to your boundaries.
It’s possible that one (or more) of your in-laws still thinks they are the most important person in your spouse’s life. They may still be trying to parent your spouse—what to wear, how to behave, how to treat you, advice about work, etc. Or they may expect your partner to be available to “help them out,” even when your partner has more important and more enjoyable things to do—like spending time with you and your kids, for instance.
With enmeshment, healthy boundaries are once again the answer. (Are you sensing a theme here?) But this time, it’s your enmeshed partner who needs to set and maintain boundaries. Yes, you can let your partner know that when he or she seems more focused on mom’s needs than yours, you feel unappreciated and maybe even unloved, and you’d like for your partner to set some boundaries. But ultimately this task is not yours to undertake. Unless, of course, it’s you who’s enmeshed.
Genuine Discord (Political, Religious, Financial, etc.)
In your marriage, it’s highly likely that you and your spouse do not agree on every little thing. And that’s OK. In fact, the occasional disagreement can be helpful. Without some amount of conflict, how can you learn and grow as individuals and as a couple? An occasional disagreement helps you differentiate as individuals while still functioning and a singular unit. It also (at least sometimes) forces you, as a couple, to find a better solution than your current status quo. Mostly, however, you and your partner are either on the same page or you’ve agreed to healthfully disagree (to respect each other’s opinions) when it comes to important issues like politics, religion, money, education, childrearing, where to live, and the like.
Your in-laws may be a different story, and sometimes they can be quite vocal about it. In such cases, you again need to set boundaries that work for you and your partner. With genuine discord, you may need to be somewhat forceful in the implementation of your boundaries. Perhaps you’ll need to say things like, “Dad, we are not going to discuss politics with you because many of your beliefs upset us. If you insist on discussing politics, we’re going to ask you to take your plate of turkey and gravy outside where you can tell it to the lamppost. When you decide you’re ready to talk about other things, we’ll be happy to see you back inside.”
A Brief Note on Healthy Boundaries
Healthy boundaries are not about keeping other people out; instead, healthy boundaries are about letting other people safely in. At the same time, they keep us from invading others’ space in ways that violate their boundaries. Just as importantly, our boundaries should never be about controlling someone else’s behavior; instead, our boundaries are about our own behavior. We have a right to experience our own thoughts, our own feelings, and our own sense of reality. Others, in turn, have the same right.
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